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.




Some items of human consumption are the spontaneous gifts of nature, and require no exertion of man for their production; as air, water, and light, under certain circumstances. These are destitute of exchangeable value; because the want of them is never felt, others being equally provided with them as ourselves. Being neither procurable by production, nor destructible by consumption, they come not within the province of political economy.


But there are abundance of others equally indispensable to our existence and to our happiness, which man would never enjoy at all, did not his industry awaken, assist, or complete the operations of nature. Such are most of the articles which serve for his food, raiment and lodging.


When that industry is limited to the bare collection of natural products, it is called agricultural industry, or simply agriculture.


When it is employed in severing, compounding, or fashioning the products of nature, so as to fit them to the satisfaction of our various wants, it is called manufacturing industry.*44


When it is employed in placing within our reach objects of want which would otherwise be beyond reach, it is called commercial industry, or simply commerce.


It is solely by means of industry that mankind can be furnished, in any degree of abundance, with actual necessaries, and with that variety of other objects, the use of which, though not altogether indispensable, yet marks the distinction between a civilized community and a tribe of savages. Nature, left entirely to itself, would provide a very scanty subsistence to a small number of human beings. Fertile but desert tracts have been found inadequate to the bare nourishment of a few wretches, cast upon them by the chances of shipwreck: while the presence of industry often exhibits the spectacle of a dense population plentifully supplied upon the most ungrateful soil.


The term products is applied to things that industry furnishes to mankind.


A particular product is rarely the fruit of one branch of industry exclusively. A table is a joint product of agricultural industry which has felled the tree whereof it is made, and of manufacturing industry, which has given it form. Europe is indebted for its coffee to the agricultural industry, which has planted and cultivated the bean in Arabia or elsewhere, and to the commercial industry, which hands it over to the consumer.


These three branches of industry, which may at pleasure be again infinitely subdivided, are uniform in their mode of contributing to the act of production. They all either confer an utility on a substance that possessed none before, or increase one which it already possessed. The husbandman who sows a grain of wheat that yields twenty-fold, does not gain this product from nothing: he avails himself of a powerful agent; that is to say, of Nature, and merely directs an operation, whereby different substances previously scattered throughout the elements of earth, air, and water, are converted into the form of grains of wheat.


Gall-nuts, sulphate of iron, and gum-arabic, are substances existing separately in nature. The joint industry of the merchant and manufacturer brings them together, and from their compound derives the black liquid, applied to the transmission of useful science. This joint operation of the merchant and manufacturer is analogous to that of the husbandman, who chooses his object and effects its attainment by precisely the same kind of means as the other two.


No human being has the faculty of originally creating matter, which is more than nature itself can do. But any one may avail himself of the agents offered him by nature, to invest matter with utility. In fact, industry is nothing more or less than the human employment of natural agents; the most perfect product of labour, the one that derives nearly its whole value from its workmanship, is probably the result of the action of steel, a natural product upon some substance or other, likewise a natural product.*45


Through ignorance of this principle, the economists of the 18th century, though many enlightened writers were to be reckoned amongst them, were betrayed into the most serious errors. They allowed no industry to be productive, but that which procured the raw materials; as the industry of the husbandman, the fisherman and the miner; not adverting to the distinction, that wealth consists, not in matter, but in the value of matter; because matter without value is no item of wealth; otherwise water, flint-stones, and dust of the roads, would be wealth. Wherefore, if the value of matter constitutes wealth, wealth is to be created by the annexation of value. Practically, the man who has in his warehouse a quintal of wool worked up into fine cloths, is richer than one who has the same quantity of wool in packs.


To this position the economists replied, that the additional value communicated to a product by manufacture, was no more than equivalent to the value consumed by the manufacturer during the process; for, said they, the competition of manufactures prevents their ever raising the price beyond the bare amount of their own expenditure and consumption; wherefore their labour adds nothing to the total wealth of the community, because their wants on the one side destroy as much as their industry produces on the other.*46


But it should have been previously demonstrated by those who made use of this argument, that the value, consumed by mechanics and artizans, must of necessity barely equal the value produced by them, which is not the fact; for it is unquestionable, that more savings are made, and more capital accumulated from the profits of trade and manufacture, than from those of agriculture.*47


Besides, even admitting that the profits of manufacturing industry are consumed in the satisfaction of the necessary wants of the manufacturers and their families, that circumstance does not prevent them being positive acquisitions of wealth. For unless they were so, they could not satisfy their wants: the profits of the land-owner and agriculturist are allowed to be items of positive wealth; yet they are equally consumed in the maintenance of those classes.


Commercial, in like manner as manufacturing industry, concurs in production, by augmenting the value of a product by its transport from one place to another. A quintal of Brazil cotton has acquired greater utility, and therefore larger value, by the time it reaches a warehouse in Europe, than it possessed in one at Pernambuco. The transport is a modification that the trader gives to the commodity, whereby he adapts to our use what was not before available; which modification is equally useful, complex and uncertain in the result, as any it derives from the other two branches of industry. He avails himself of the natural properties of the timber and the metals used in the construction of his ships, of the hemp whereof his rigging is composed, of the wind that fills his sails, of all the natural agents brought to concur in his purpose, with precisely the same view and the same result, and in the same manner too, as the agriculturist avails himself of the earth, the rain, and the atmosphere.*48


Thus, when Raynal says of commerce, as contrasted with agriculture and the arts, that "it produces nothing of itself," he shows himself to have had no just conception of the phenomenon of production. In this instance Raynal has fallen into the same error with regard to commerce, as the economists made respecting both commerce and manufacture. They pronounced agriculture to be the sole channel of production; Raynal refers production to the two channels of agriculture and manufacture: his position is nearer the truth than the other, but still is erroneous.


Condillac also is confused in his endeavour to explain the mode in which commerce produces. He pretends that, because all commodities cost to the seller less than the buyer, they derive an increase of value from the mere act of transfer from one hand to another. But this is not so; for, since a sale is nothing else but an act of barter, in which one kind of goods, silver for example, is received in lieu of another kind of goods, the loss which either of the parties dealing should sustain on one article would be equivalent to the profit he would make on the other, and there would be to the community no production of value whatsoever.*49 When Spanish wine is bought at Paris, equal value is really given for equal value: the silver paid, and the wine received, are worth one the other; but the wine had not the same value before its export from Alicant: its value has really increased in the hands of the trader, by the circumstance of transport, and not by the circumstance, or at the moment, of exchange. The seller does not play the rogue, nor the buyer the fool; and Condillac has no grounds for his position, that "if men always exchanged equal value for equal value, there would be no profit to be made by the traders."*50


In some particular cases the two other branches of industry produce in a manner analogous to commerce, viz. by giving a value to things to which they actually communicate no new quality, but that of approximation to the consumer. Of this description is the industry of miners. The coal or metal may exist in the earth, in a perfect state, but unpossessed of value. The miner extracts them thence, and this operation gives them a value, by fitting them for the use of mankind. So also of the herring fishery. Whether in or out of the sea, the fish is the same; but under the latter circumstances, it has acquired an utility, a value, it did not before possess.*51


Examples might be infinitely multiplied, and would all bear as close an affinity, as those natural objects, which the naturalist classifies only to facilitate their description.


This fundamental error of the economists, in which I have shown that their adversaries in some measure participated, led them to the strangest conclusions. According to their theory, the traders and manufacturers, being unable to add an iota to the general stock of wealth, live entirely at the expense of the sole producers, that is to say, the proprietors and cultivators of the land. Whatever new value they may communicate to things, they at the same time consume an equivalent product, furnished by the real producers: manufacturing and commercial nations, therefore, subsist wholly upon the wages they receive from their agricultural customers; in proof of which position, they alleged that Colbert ruined France by his protection of manufacturers, &c.*52


The truth is, that, in whatever class of industry a person is engaged, he subsists upon the profit he derives from the additional value, or portion of value, no matter in what ratio, which his agency attaches to the product he is at work upon. The total value of products serves in this way to pay the profits of those occupied in production. The wants of mankind are supplied and satisfied out of the gross values produced and created, and not out of the net values only.


A nation, or a class of a nation, engaged in manufacturing or commercial industry, is not a whit more or less in the pay of another, than one employed in agriculture. The value created by one branch is of the same nature as that created by others. Two equal values are worth one the other, although perhaps the fruit of different branches of industry: and when Poland barters its staple product, wheat, for the staple commodity of Holland, East and West India produce, Holland is no more in the pay or service of Poland, than Poland is of Holland.


Nay, Poland herself, which exports at the rate of ten millions of wheat annually, and therefore, according to the economists, takes the sure road to national wealth, is, notwithstanding, poor and depopulated: and why?—Because she confines her industry to agriculture, though she might be at the same time a commercial and manufacturing state. Instead of keeping Holland in her pay, she may with more propriety be said to receive wages from the latter, for the raising of ten millions of wheat, per annum. Nor is she a jot less dependent than the nations that buy wheat of her: for she has just as much desire to sell to them, as they have to buy of her.*53


Moreover, it is not true that Colbert ruined France. On the contrary, the fact is that France, under Colbert's administration, emerged from the distress that two regencies and a weak reign had involved her in. She was, indeed, afterwards ruined again; but for this second calamity, she may thank the pageantry and the wars of Louis XIV. Nay, the very prodigality of that prince is an undeniable evidence of the vast resources that Colbert had placed at his disposal. It must, however, be admitted that those resources would have been still more ample, if he had but given the same protection to agriculture, as to the other branches of industry.


Thus it is evident, that the means of enlarging and multiplying wealth within the reach of every community are much less confined than the economists imagined. A nation, by their account, was unable to produce annually any values beyond the net annual produce of its lands; to which fund alone recourse could be had for the support not only of the proprietary and the idler, but likewise of the merchant, the manufacturer, and the mechanic, as well as for the total consumption of the government. Whereas we have just seen that the annual produce of a nation is composed, not of the mere net produce of its agriculture, but of the gross produce of its agriculture, commerce, and manufacture united. For, in fact, is not the sum total, that is to say, the aggregate of the gross product raised by the nation, disposable for its consumption? Is value produced less an item of wealth, because it must needs be consumed? And does not value itself originate in this very applicability to consumption.


The English writer, Stewart, who may be looked upon as the leading advocate of the exclusive system, the system founded on the maxim, that the wealth of one set of men is derived from the impoverishment of another, is himself no less mistaken in asserting, that, "when once a stop is put to external commerce, the stock of internal wealth cannot be augmented."*54 Wealth, it seems, can come only from abroad; but abroad, where does it come from? from abroad also. So that in tracing it from abroad to abroad, we must necessarily, in the end, exhaust every source, till at last we are compelled to look for it beyond the limits of our own planet, which is absurd.


Forbonnais,*55 too, builds his prohibitory system on this glaring fallacy; and to speak freely, on this fallacy are founded the exclusive systems of all the short-sighted merchants, and all the governments of Europe and of the world. They all take it for granted, that what one individual gains must needs be lost to another; that what is gained by one country is inevitably lost to another: as if the possessions of abundance of individuals and of communities could not be multiplied, without the robbery of somebody or other. If one man or set of men, could only be enriched at others' expense, how could the whole number of individuals, of whom a state is composed, be richer at one period than at another, as they now confessedly are in France, England, Holland, and Germany, compared with what they were formerly? How is it, that nations are in our days more opulent, and their wants better supplied in every respect, than they were in the seventeenth century? Whence can they have derived that portion of their present wealth, which then had no existence? Is it from the mines of the new continent? They had already advanced in wealth before the discovery of America. Besides, what is that which these mines have furnished? Metallic wealth or value. But all the other values which those nations now possess, beyond what they did in the middle ages, whence are they derived? Is it not clear, that these can be no other than created values?


We must conclude, then, that wealth, which consists in the value that human industry, in aid and furtherance of natural agents, communicates to things, is susceptible of creation and destruction, of increase and diminution, within the limits of each nation and independently of external agency, according to the method it adopts to bring about those effects. An important truth, which ought to teach mankind, that the objects of rational desire are within their reach, provided they have the will and intelligence to employ the true means of obtaining them. Those means it is the purpose of this work to investigate and unfold.

Notes for this chapter

Since matter can only be modified, compounded, or separated, by means either mechanical or chemical, all branches of manufacturing industry may be subdivided into the mechanical and the chemical arts, according to the predominance of the one or the other in their several processes.
Alagrotti in his Opuscula, by way of exemplifying the prodigious addition of the value given to an object by industry, adduces the spiral springs that check the balance-wheels of watches. A pound weight of pig-iron costs the operative manufacturer about five cents. This is worked up into steel, of which is made the little spring that moves the balance-wheel of a watch. Each of these springs weighs but the tenth part of a grain; and when completed, may be sold as high as three dollars, so that out of a pound of iron, allowing something for the loss of metal, 80,000 of these springs may be made, and a substance of five cents value be wrought into a value of 240,000 dollars.
Mercier de la Riviere, in his work entitled "Ordre Naturel des Sociétés Politiques," tom. ii. p. 255, while labouring to prove, that manufacturing labour is barren and unproductive, makes use of an argument, which I think it may be of some service to refute, because it has been often repeated in different shapes, and some of them specious enough. He says, "that if the unreal products of industry are considered as realities, it is a necessary inference, that an useless multiplication of workmanship is a multiplication of wealth." But because human labour is productive of value, when it has an useful result, it by no means follows, that it is productive of value, when its result is either useless or injurious. All labour is not productive; but such only as adds a real value to any substance or thing. And the futility of this argument of the economists is put beyond all question by the circumstance, that it may be equally employed against their own system and that of their opponents. They may be told, "You admit the industry of the cultivator to be productive; therefore he has only to plough and sow his fields ten times a year to increase his productiveness ten-fold," which is absurd.
[Our author, in here asserting, "that more savings are made, and more capital accumulated from the profits of trade and manufacture, than from those of agriculture," has fallen into an error, which it is proper to notice. In the absence of prohibitions and restraints, the profits of agriculture, manufactures and commerce, will all be on an equality, or always nearly approaching towards it; for any material difference will cause a diversion of capital and industry to the more productive channel, and by that means restore the equilibrium. In overthrowing the hypothesis of the economists, the author has inadvertently, for a moment, lost sight of his own general principles, which so clearly establish the equality of profits in all the different branches of industry.] American Editor.
Genovesi, who lectured on political economy at Naples, defines commerce to be "the exchange of superfluities for necessaries." He gives as his reason, that in every transaction of exchange, the article received appears to each of the contracting parties more necessary than that given. This is a far-fetched notion, which I think myself called on to notice, because it has obtained considerable currency. It would be difficult to prove, that a poor labourer, who goes to the alehouse on a Sunday, exchanges there his superfluity for a necessary. In all fair traffic, there occurs a mutual exchange of two things, which are worth one the other, at the time and place of exchange. Commercial production, that is to say, the value added by commerce to the things exchanged, is not operated by the act of exchange, but by the commercial operations that precede it.

The Count de Verri is the only writer within my knowledge, who has explained the true principle and ground-work of commerce. In the year 1771, he thus expresses himself: "Commerce is in fact nothing more than the transport of goods from one place to another." (Meditazioni sulla economia politica, § 4.) The celebrated Adam Smith himself appears to have had no very clear idea of commercial production. He merely discards the opinion, that there is any production of value in the act of exchange.

This circumstance has escaped the attention of Sismondi, or he would not have said, "The trader places himself between the producer and the consumer, to benefit them both at once, making his charge for that benefit upon both." (Nouveaux Principes d'Economie Pol. Liv. ii. ch. 8). He would make it appear as if the trader subsisted wholly upon the value produced by the agriculturist and the manufacturer; whereas he is maintained by the real value he himself communicates to commodities by giving them an additional modification, an useful property. It is this very notion that stirs up the popular indignation against the dealers in grain.

L. Say, of Nantes, has fallen into the same mistake (Principales Causes de la Richesse, &c. p. 110). By way of demonstrating the value conferred by commerce to be unreal, he alleges it to be absorbed by the charges of transport. By this incidental process of reasoning, the economist concluded manufacture to be unproductive; not perceiving, that in these very charges consists the revenue of the commercial and manufacturing producers; and that it is in this way that the values raised by production at large are distributed amongst the several producers.

See his work entitled, "Le Commerce et le Gouvernment considérés relativement l'un a l'auire." 1re. partie, ch. 6.
We may consider as agents of the same class of industry, the cultivator of the land, the breeder of cattle, the woodcutter, the fisherman that takes fish he has been at no pains in breeding, and the miner who, from the bowels of the earth, extracts metal, stone, or combustibles, that nature has placed there in a perfect state; and, to avoid multiplicity of denominations, the whole of these occupations may be called by the name of agricultural industry, because the superficial cultivation of the earth, is the chief and most important of all. Terms are of little consequence, when the ideas are clear and definite. The wine-grower, who himself expresses the juice of his grapes, performs a mechanical operation, that partakes more of manufacture than agriculture. But it matters little whether he be classed as a manufacturer or agriculturist; provided that it be clearly comprehended in what manner his industry adds to the value of the product. If we wish to give separate consideration to every possible manner of giving value to things, industry may be infinitely subdivided. If it be the object to generalize to the utmost, it may be treated as one and the same; for every branch of it will resolve itself into this: the employment of natural substances and agents in the adaptation of products to human consumption.
See the numberless writings of that sect.
We shall find in the sequel, that, if any one nation can be said to be in the service of another, it is that which is the most dependent; and that the most dependent nations are, not those which have a scarcity of land, but those which have a scarcity of capital.
Essay on Political Economy, b. ii. c. 26.
Elemens de Commerce.

Book I, Chapter III

End of Notes

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