A Treatise on Political Economy

Jean-Baptiste Say
Say, Jean-Baptiste
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C. R. Prinsep, trans. and Clement C. Biddle., ed.
First Pub. Date
Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co.,
Pub. Date
6th edition. Based on the 4th-5th editions.
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A physician goes to visit a sick person, observes the symptoms of disease, prescribes a remedy, and takes his leave without depositing any product, that the invalid or his family can transfer to a third person, or even keep for the consumption of a future day.


Has the industry of the physician been unproductive? Who can for a moment suppose so? The patient's life has been saved perhaps. Was this product incapable of becoming an object of barter? By no means: the physician's advice has been exchanged for his fee; but the want of this advice ceased the moment it was given. The act of giving was its production, of hearing its consumption, and the consumption and production were simultaneous.


This is what I call an immaterial product.


The industry of a musician or an actor yields a product of the same kind: it gives one an amusement, a pleasure one can not possibly retain or preserve for future consumption, or as the object of barter for other enjoyments. This pleasure has its price, it is true, but it has no further existence, except perhaps in the memory, and no exchangeable value, after the instant of its production.


Smith will not allow the name of products to the results of these branches of industry. Labour so bestowed he calls unproductive; an error he was led into by his definition of wealth, which he defines to consist of things bearing a value capable of being preserved, instead of extending the name to all things bearing exchangeable value: consequently, excluding products consumed as soon as created. The industry of the physician, however, as well as that of the public functionary, the advocate or the judge, which are all of them of the same class, satisfies wants of so essential a nature, that without those professions no society could exist. Are not, then, the fruits of their labour real? They are so far so, as to be purchased at the price of other and material products, which Smith allows to be wealth; and by the repetition of this kind of barter, the producers of immaterial products acquire fortunes.*14


To descend to items of pure amusement, it cannot be denied, that the representation of a good comedy gives as solid a pleasure as a box of comfits, or a discharge of fire-works, which are products, even within Smith's definition. Nor can I discover any sound reason, why the talent of the painter should be deemed productive, and not the talent of the musician.*15


Smith himself has exposed the error of the economist in confining the term, wealth, to the mere value of the raw material contained in each product; he advanced a great step in political economy, by demonstrating wealth to consist of the raw material, plus the value added to it by industry; but, having gone so far as to promote to the rank of wealth an abstract commodity, value, why reckon it as nothing, however real and exchangeable, when not incorporated in matter? This is the more surprising, because he went so far as to treat of labour, abstracted from the matter wherein it is employed; to examine the causes which operate upon and influence its value; and even to propose that value as the safest and least variable measure of all other values.*16


The nature of immaterial products makes it impossible ever to accumulate them, so as to render them a part of the national capital. A people containing a host of musicians, priests, and public functionaries might be abundantly amused, well versed in religious doctrines, and admirably governed; but that is all. Its capital would receive no direct accession from the total labour of all these individuals, though industrious enough in their respective vocations, because their products would be consumed as fast as produced.


Consequently, nothing is gained on the score of public prosperity, by ingeniously creating an unnatural demand for the labour of any of these professions; the labour diverted into that channel of production can not be increased, without increasing the consumption also. If this consumption yield a gratification, then indeed we may console ourselves for the sacrifice; but when that consumption is itself an evil, it must be confessed the system which causes it is deplorable enough.


This occurs in practice, whenever legislation is too complicated. The study of the law, becoming more intricate and tedious, occupies more persons, whose labour must likewise be better paid. What does society gain by this? Are the respective rights of its members better protected? Undoubtedly not: the intricacy of law, on the contrary, holds out a great encouragement to fraud, by multiplying the chances of evasion, and very rarely adds to the solidity of title or of right. The only advantage is, the greater frequency and duration of suits. The same reasoning applies to superfluous offices in the public administration. To create an office for the administration of what ought to be left to itself, is to do an injury to the subject in the first instance, and make him pay for it afterwards as if it were a benefit.*17


Wherefore it is impossible to admit the inference of*18 M. Garnier, that because the labour of physicians, lawyers, and the like, is productive, therefore a nation gains as much by the multiplication of the class of labour as of any other. This would be the same as bestowing upon a material product more manual labour than is necessary for its completion. The labour productive of immaterial products, like every other labour, is productive so far only as it augments the utility, and thereby the value of a product: beyond this point it is a purely unproductive exertion. To render the laws intricate purposely to give lawyers full business in expounding them, would be equally absurd, as to spread a disease that doctors may find practice.


Immaterial products are the fruit of human industry, in which term we have comprised every kind of productive labour. It is not so easy to understand how they can at the same time be the fruit of capital. Yet these products are for the most part the result of some talent or other, which always implies previous study; and no study can take place without advances of capital.


Before the advice of the physician can be given or taken, the physician or his relations must first have defrayed the charges of an education of many years' duration: he must have subsisted while a student; professors must have been paid; books purchased; journeys perhaps have been performed; all which implies the disbursement of a capital previously accumulated.*19 So likewise the lawyer's opinion, the musician's song, &c. are products, that can never be raised without the concurrence of industry and capital. Even the ability of the public functionary is an accumulated capital. It requires the same kind of outlay, for the education of a civil or military engineer, as for that of a physician. Indeed we may take it for granted, that the funds expended in the training of a young man for the public service, are found by experience to be a fair investment of capital, and that labour of this description is well paid; for we find more applicants than offices in almost every branch of administration, even in countries where offices are unnecessarily multiplied.


The industry productive of immaterial products will be found to go through exactly the same process, as, in the analysis made in the beginning of this work, we have shown to be followed by industry in general. This may be illustrated by an example. Before an ordinary song can be executed, the arts of the composer and the practical musician must have been regular and distinct callings; and the best mode of acquiring skill in them must have been discovered; this is the department of the man of science, or theorist. The application of this mode and of this art, has been left to the composer and singer, who have calculated, the one in composing his tune, the others in the execution of it, that it would afford a pleasure, to which the audience would attach some value or other. Finally, the execution is the concluding operation of industry.


There are, however, some immaterial products, with respect to which the two first operations are so extremely trifling, that one may almost account them as nothing. Of this description is the service of a menial domestic. The art of service is little or nothing, and the application of that art is made by the employer; so that nothing is left to the servant, but the executive business of service, which is the last and lowest of industrious operations.


It necessarily follows, that, in this class of industry, and some few others practised by the lowest ranks of society, that of the porter for instance, or of the prostitute, &c. &c.: the charge of training being little or nothing, the products may be looked upon not only as the fruits of very coarse and primitive industry, but likewise as products, to the creation of which capital has contributed nothing; for I can not think the expense of these agents' subsistence from infancy, till the age of emancipation from parental care, can be considered as a capital, the interest of which is paid by the subsequent profits. I shall give my reasons for this opinion when I come to speak of wages.*20


The pleasures one enjoys at the price of any kind of personal exertion, are immaterial products, consumed at the instant of production by the very person that has created them. Of this description are the pleasures derived from arts studied solely for self-amusement. In learning music, a man devotes to that study some small capital, some time and personal labour; all which together are the price paid for the pleasure of singing a new air or taking part in a concert.


Gaming, dancing, and field-sports, are labours of the same kind. The amusement derived from them is instantly consumed by the persons who have performed them. When a man executes a painting, or makes any article of smith's or joiner's work for his amusement, he at the same time creates a durable product or value, and an immaterial product, viz. his personal amusement.*21


In speaking of capital, we have seen, that part of it is devoted to the production of material products, and part remains wholly unproductive. There is also a further part productive of utility or pleasure, which, can, therefore, be reckoned as a portion neither of the capital engaged in the production of material objects, nor of that absolutely inactive. Under this head may be comprised dwelling-houses, furniture and decorations, that are an addition to the mere pleasures of life. The utility they afford is an immaterial product.


When a young couple sets up house-keeping for the first time, the plate they provide themselves with cannot be considered as absolutely inactive capital, for it is in constant domestic use; nor can it be reckoned as capital engaged in the raising of material products; for it leads to the production of no one object capable of being reserved for future consumption; neither is it an object of annual consumption, for it may last, perhaps, for their joint lives, and be handed down to their children; but it is capital productive of utility and pleasure. Indeed, it is so much value accumulated or in other words withdrawn from reproductive consumption; consequently, yielding neither profit nor interest, but productive of some degree of benefit or utility, which is gradually consumed and incapable of being realised, yet it is possessed of real and positive value, since it is occasionally the object of purchase: as in the instance of the rent of a house or the hire of furniture, and the like.


Although it be a sad mistake of personal interest to vest the smallest particle of capital in a manner wholly unproductive, it is by no means so to lay out, in a way productive of utility or amusement, so much as may be not disproportionate to the circumstances of the individual. There is a regular gradation of the ratio of capital so vested by individuals respectively, from the rude furniture of the poor man's hovel, up to the costly ornaments and dazzling jewels of the wealthy. When a nation is rich, the poorest family in it possesses a capital of this kind, not indeed of any great amount, but still enough to satisfy moderate and limited desires. The prevalence of general wealth in a community is more strongly indicated by meeting universally with some useful and agreeable household conveniences in the dwellings of the inferior ranks, than by the splendid palaces and costly magnificence of a few favourites of fortune, or by the casual display of diamonds and finery we sometimes see brought together in a large city, where the whole wealth of the place is often exhibited at one view, at a fête or a theatre of public resort; but which, after all, are a mere trifle, compared with the aggregate value of the household articles of a great people.


The component items of a capital producing bare utility or amusement, are liable to wear and tear, though in a very slight degree; and if that wear and tear be not made good out of the savings of annual revenue, there is a gradual dissipation and reduction of capital.


This remark may appear trifling; yet how many people think they are living upon their revenue, when they are at the same time partially consuming their capital! Suppose, for instance, a man is the proprietor of the house he lives in; if the house be calculated to last 100 years, and have cost 20,000 dollars in the building, it costs the proprietor or his heirs 200 dollars per annum, exclusive of the interest upon the original cost, otherwise the whole capital will be extinguished, or nearly so, by the end of 100 years. The same reasoning is applicable to every other item of capital devoted to the production of utility or pleasure; to a sideboard, a jewel, every imaginable object, in short, that comes under the same denomination.


And, vice versâ, when annual revenue, arising from whatever source, is encroached upon for the purpose of enlarging the capital devoted to the production of useful or agreeable objects, there is an actual increase of capital and of fortune, though none of revenue.


Capital of this class, like all other capital, without exception, is formed by the partial accumulations of annual products. There is no other way of acquiring capital, but by personal accumulation, or by succession to accumulation of others. Wherefore, the reader is referred on this head to Chap. XI, where I have treated of the accumulation of capital.


A public edifice, a bridge, a highway, are savings or accumulations of revenue, devoted to the formation of a capital, whose returns are an immaterial product consumed by the public at large. If the construction of a bridge or highway, added to the purchase of the ground it stands upon, have cost 200,000 dollars, the use the public makes of it may be estimated to cost 10,000 dollars per annum.*22


There are some immaterial products, towards which the land is a principal contributor. Such is the pleasure derived from a park or pleasure-garden. The pleasure is afforded by the continual and daily agency of the natural object, and is consumed as fast as produced. A ground yielding pleasure must, therefore, not be confounded with ground lying waste or in fallow. Wherein again appears the analogy of land to capital, of which, as we have seen, some part is productive of immaterial products, and some part is altogether inactive.


Gardens and pleasure-grounds have generally cost some expense in embellishment; in which case, capital and land unite their agency to yield an immaterial product.


Some pleasure-grounds yield likewise timber and pasturage: these are productive of both classes of products. The old-fashioned gardens in France yielded no material product; those of modern times are somewhat improved in this particular, and would be more so, if culinary herbs and fruit-trees were oftener introduced. Doubtless, it would be harsh to find fault with a proprietor in easy circumstances, for appropriating part of his freehold to the mere purpose of amusement. The delightful moments he there passes with his family around him, the wholesome exercise he takes, the spirits he inhales, are among the most valuable and substantial blessings of life. By all means then let him lay out on the ground as he likes, and give full scope to his taste, or even caprice; but if caprice can be directed to an useful end, if he can derive profit without abridging enjoyment, his garden will have additional merit, and present a two-fold source of delight to the eye of the statesman and the philosopher.


I have seen some few gardens possessed of this double faculty of production; whence, although the lime, horse-chestnut and sycamore trees, and others of the ornamental kind, were by no means excluded, any more than the lawns and parterres; yet at the same time the fruit-trees, decked in the bloom of vernal promise, or weighed down by the maturity of autumnal wealth, added a variety and richness of colouring to the other local beauties. The advantages of distance and position were attended to without violating the convenience of division and inclosure. The beds and borders, planted with vegetables, were not provokingly straight, regular, or uniform, but harmonised with the undulations of the surface, and of vegetation of larger growth; and the walks were so disposed as to serve both for pleasure and cultivation. Every thing was arranged with a view to ornament, even to the vine-trelliced well for filling the watering pots. The whole, in short, was so ordered, as if designed to impress the conviction, that utility and beauty are by no means incompatible, and that pleasure may grow up by the side of wealth.


A whole country may, in like manner, grow rich even upon its ornamental possessions. Were trees planted wherever they could thrive without injury to other products,*23 besides the accession of beauty and salubrity, and the additional moisture attracted by the multiplication of timber-trees, the value of the timber alone would, in a country of much extent, amount to something considerable.


There is this advantage, in the cultivation of timber-trees, that they require no human industry beyond the first planting, after which nature is the sole agent of their production. But it is not enough merely to plant, we must check the desire of cutting down, until the weak and slender stalk, gradually imbibing the juices of the earth and atmosphere, shall, without the hand of cultivation, have acquired bulk and solidity, and spread its lofty foliage to the heavens.*24 The best that man can do for it is, to forget it for some years; and even where it yields no annual product, it will recompense his forbearance when arrived at maturity, by an ample supply of firing, and of timber for the carpenter, the joiner, and the wheel-wright.


In all ages, the love of trees and their cultivation has been strongly recommended by the best writers. The historian of Cyrus records, among his chief titles to renown, the merit of having planted all Asia Minor. In the United States, upon the birth of a daughter, the cultivator plants a little wood, to grow up with her, and to be her portion on the day of marriage.*25 Sully, whose views of policy were extremely enlightened, enriched most of the provinces of France with the plantation he directed. I have seen several, to which public gratitude still affixes his name; and they remind me of the saying of Addison, who was wont to exclaim, whenever he saw a plantation, "A useful man has passed this way."


As yet we have been taken up with the consideration of the agents essential to production; without whose agency mankind would have no other subsistence or enjoyment, than the scanty and limited supply that nature affords spontaneously. We first investigated the mode in which these agents, each in its respective department, and all in concert, co-operate in the work of production, and have afterwards examined in detail the individual action of each, for the further elucidation of the subject. We must now proceed to examine the intrinsic and accidental causes, which act upon production, and clog or facilitate the exertion of productive agents.

Notes for this chapter

Wherefore de Verri is wrong in asserting, that the occupations of the sovereign, the magistrate, the soldier, and the priest, do not fall within the cognizance of political economy. (Meditazioni sulla Economia Politica, § 24.)
This error has already been pointed out by M. Germain Garnier, in the notes to his French translation of Smith.
Some writers, who have probably taken but a cursory view of the positions here laid down, still persist in setting down the producers of immaterial products amongst the unproductive labourers. But it is vain to struggle against the nature of things. Those at all conversant with the science of political economy, are compelled to yield involuntary homage to its principles. Thus Sismondi, after having spoken of the values expended in the wages of unproductive labourers, goes on to say, "Ce sont des Consummations rapides qui suivent immediatement la production," Nouv. Princ. tom. ii. p. 203; admitting a production by those he had pronounced to be unproductive!
What, then, are we to think of those who assert in substance, if not in words, that such a formality or such a tax is productive of one benefit at least, namely, the maintenance of such or such an establishment of clerks and officers?
Traduction de Smith, note 20.
I will not here anticipate the investigation of the profits of industry and capital, but confine myself to observe, en passant, that capital is thrown away upon the physician, and his fees improperly limited, unless, besides the recompense of his actual labour and talent, (which latter is a natural agent gratuitously given to him,) they defray the interest of the capital expended in his education, and not the common rate of interest, but calculated at the rate of an annuity.
The wages of the mere labourer are limited to the bare necessaries of life, without which his agency cannot be continued and renewed; there is no surplus for the interest on capital. But the subsistence of his children, until old enough to earn their livelihood, is comprised in the necessaries of the labourer.
An indolent and inert people is always little addicted to amusements resulting from the exercise of personal faculties. Labour is attended with so much pain to them, as very few pleasures are intense enough to repay. The Turks think us mad to find pleasure in the violent motions of the dance; without reflecting, that it causes to us infinitely less fatigue than to themselves. They prefer pleasures prepared by the fatigue of others. There is, perhaps, as much industry expended on pleasures in Turkey as with us; but it is exerted in general by slaves, who do not participate in the product.
If it entail a further charge of 300 dollars for annual repairs and maintenance, the public consumption of pleasure or utility may be set down at 10,200 dollars per annum. This is the only way of taking the account, with a view to compare the advantage derived by the payers of public taxes, with the sacrifices imposed on them for the acquisition of such conveniences. In the case put above, the public will be a gainer, if the outlay of 10,200 dollars have effected an annual saving in the charge of national production, or, what is the same thing, an annual increase of the national product, of still larger amount. In the contrary supposition, the national administration will have led the nation into a losing concern.
In many countries, an exaggerated notion seems to prevail, of the damage done by timber-trees, to other products of the soil; yet it should seem, that they rather enhance than diminish the revenue of the landholder; for we find those countries most productive, that are the best clothed with timber: witness Normandy, England, Belgium and Lombardy.
The leaves of trees absorb the carbonic-acid gas floating in the atmosphere we breathe, and which is so injurious to respiration. When this gas is super-abundant, it brings on asphyxia, and occasions death. On the contrary, vegetation increases the proportion of oxygen, which is the gas most favourable to respiration and to health. Ceteris paribus, those towns are the healthiest, which have the most open spaces covered with trees. It would be well to plant all our spacious quays.
The American cultivator might be said, with much greater semblance of truth, on the birth of a daughter, to cut down "a little wood," instead of planting one. American Editor.

Book I, Chapter XIV

End of Notes

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