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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When a traveller arrives in France, and there spends 2000 dollars, it must not be supposed that the whole sum is clear profit to France. The traveller expends it in exchange for the values he consumes: the effect is just the same, as if he had remained abroad and sent to France for what he wanted, instead of coming and consuming it here; and is precisely similar to that of international commerce, in which the profit made is not the whole or principal value received, but a larger or smaller per centage upon that principal according to the circumstances.


The matter has not hitherto been viewed in this light. In the firm conviction of this maxim, that metal money was the only item of real wealth, people imagined, that, if a foreigner came amongst them with 2000 dollars in his pocket, it was so much clear profit to the nation; as if the tailor that clothes him, the jeweller that furnishes him with trinkets, the victualler that feeds him, gave him no values in exchange for his specie, but made a profit equal to the total of their respective charges. All that the nation gains is the profit upon its dealings with him, and upon what he purchases: and this is by no means contemptible, for every extension of commerce is a proportionate advantage;*25 but it is well to know its real amount, that we may not be betrayed into the folly of purchasing it too dearly. An eminent writer upon commercial topics, tells us, that theatrical exhibitions cannot be too grand, too splendid, or too numerous; for that they are a kind of traffic wherein France receives all and pays nothing; a proposition which is the very reverse of truth; for France pays, that is to say, loses, the whole expense of the exhibition, which is productive of nothing but barren amusement, and leaves no value whatever to replace what has been consumed on it. Fêtes of this description may be very pleasant things as affording amusement, but must make a ridiculous figure as a speculation of profit and loss. What would people think of a tradesman, that was to give a ball in his shop, hire performers, and hand refreshments about, with a view to benefit in his business? Besides, it may be reasonably doubted, whether a fête or exhibition of the most splendid kind, does in reality occasion any considerable influx of foreigners. Such an influx would be much more powerfully attracted by commerce, or by rich fragments of antiquity, or by master-pieces of art nowhere else to be seen, or by superiority of climate, or by the properties of medicinal waters, or, most of all, by the desire of visiting the scenes of memorable events, and of learning a language of extensive acceptation. I am strongly inclined to believe, that the enjoyment of a few empty pleasures of vanity has never attracted much company from any great distance. People may go a few leagues to a ball or entertainment, but will seldom make a journey for the purpose. It is extremely improbable, that the vast number of Germans, English, and Italians, who visit the capital of France in time of peace, are actuated solely by the desire of seeing the French opera at Paris. That city has fortunately many worthier objects of general curiosity. In Spain, the bull-fights are considered very curious and attractive; yet I cannot think many Frenchmen have gone all the way to Madrid to witness that diversion. Foreigners, that have already come into the country on other accounts, are, indeed, frequent spectators of such exhibitions; but it was not solely with this object that they first set out upon their journey.*26


The vaunted fêtes of Louis XIV. had a still more mischievous tendency. The sums spent upon them were not supplied by foreigners, but by French provincial visiters, who often spent in a week, as much as would have maintained their families at home for a year. So that France was two ways a loser; first, of the sums expended by the monarch, which had been levied on the subjects at large; secondly, of all that was spent by individuals. The sum total of the consumption was thrown away, that a few tradesmen of the metropolis might make their profits upon it; which they would equally have done, had their industry and capital taken a more beneficial direction.


A stranger, that comes into a country to settle there, and brings his fortune along with him, is a substantial acquisition to the nation. There is in this case an accession of two sources of wealth, industry and capital: an accession of full as much value, as the acquirement of a proportionate extension of territory; to say nothing of what is gained in a moral estimate, if the emigrant bring with him private virtue and attachment to the place of his adoption. "When Frederick William came into the regency," says the royal historian of the house of Brandenburgh, "there was in the country no manufacture of hats, of stockings, of serge, or woollen stuff of any kind. All these commodities were derived from French industry. The French emigrants introduced amongst us the making of broadcloths, baizes and lighter woollens, of caps, of stockings wove in the frame, of hats, of beaver and felt, as well as dyeing in all its branches. Some refugees of that nation established themselves in trade, and retailed the products of their industrious countrymen. Berlin soon could boast of its goldsmiths, jewellers, watch-makers, and carvers; those of the emigrants, that settled in the low country, introduced the cultivation of tobacco, and of garden fruits and vegetables, and by their exertions converted the sandy tract in the environs into capital kitchen-garden grounds."


This emigration of industry, capital, and local attachment, is no less a dead and total loss to the country thus abandoned, than it is a clear gain to the country affording an asylum. It was justly observed by Christina, queen of Sweden, upon the revocation of the edict of Nantes, that Louis XIV. had used his right hand to cut off his left.


Nor can the calamity be prevented by any measures of legal coercion. A fellow-citizen cannot be forcibly retained, unless he be absolutely incarcerated; still less can he be prevented from exporting his movable property, if he be so inclined. For, putting out of the question the channel of contraband, which can never be closed altogether, he may convert his effects into goods, whose export is tolerated or even encouraged, and consign, or cause them to be consigned, to some correspondent abroad. This export is a real outgoing of value; but how is it possible for government to ascertain, that it is intended to be followed by no return?*27


The best mode of retaining and attracting mankind is, to treat them with justice and benevolence; to protect every one in the enjoyment of the rights he regards with the highest reverence; to allow the free disposition of person and property, the liberty of continuing or changing his residence, of speaking, reading, and writing in perfect security.


Having thus investigated the means of production, and pointed out the circumstances, that render their agency more or less prolific, it would be endless, as well as foreign to my subject, to attempt a general review of all the various products that compose the wealth of mankind: such a task would furnish materials for many distinct treatises. But there is one amongst these products, the uses and nature of which are very imperfectly known, although the knowledge of them would throw much light upon the matter now under discussion: for which reason I have determined, before the conclusion of this part of my work, to give a separate consideration to the product money, which acts so prominent a part in the business of production, in the character of the principal agent of exchange and transfer.

Notes for this chapter

A strange country has some advantages over the traveller, and its dealings with him may be considered as lucrative; for his ignorance of the language and of prices, and often a spice of vanity, make him pay for most of the objects of his consumption above the current rate. Besides, the public sights and exhibitions, which he there pays for seeing, are expenses already incurred by the nation, which he nowise aggravates by his presence. But these advantages, though real and positive, are very limited in amount, and must not be over-rated.
This has become a matter of some interest to England, whose unproductive capitalists and proprietors have absolutely overwhelmed the society of France and a great part of Italy, where they consume an immense revenue, derived from Britain by the export of her manufactures without any return. Thus their native country is, pro tanto, a producer without being a consumer—the scene of exertion but not of enjoyment. This circumstance, although nowise prejudicial to her productive powers, is extremely so to the comfort and enjoyment and content of her population; for there are few enjoyments so personal and selfish, as not to be diffused in some degree or other at the moment and place of consumption. Besides, the presence of the proprietor is always a benefit, especially in Great Britain, where so many public duties are gratuitously performed. Ireland suffers in a worse degree; her gentry are attracted by England as well as the continent; and the consequences have long been matter of regret and complaint. Though it might be impolitic to check the efflux by authoritative measures, it should at least not be directly encouraged and stimulated, as it really is, by the financial system, which the English ministry so obstinately persevere in. Almost the whole of the taxation is thrown immediately upon consumption; whilst the permanent sources of production and the clear rent they yield to the idle proprietor are left untouched. The proprietor has, therefore, an obvious interest in effecting his consumption where it is least burthened with taxation; that is to say, anywhere but in England. His property is protected gratuitously, and the charge of its protection defrayed by the productive classes, who thus are compelled to pay for the security of other people's property as well as their own, and are themselves unable to imitate their unproductive countrymen, by running away from domestic taxation. A more unjust and discouraging system could not have been devised. Its evils are daily increasing, and threaten the most serious diminution of the national resources. But the ministers neither see the mischief themselves, nor will listen to the warnings of others. Many of them, indeed, have an interest in perpetuating an exemption, by which they benefit personally. Translator.
In 1790, when the new authorities of France indemnified the holders of suppressed offices in paper-money, these discarded functionaries for the most part converted their assignats into specie, or other commodities of equal value, which they took or sent out of the country. The consequent national loss to France was nearly as great, as if they had received their indemnities in cash; for its paper representative had not then suffered any material depreciation. Even when the individual remains himself in the country, he can not be prevented from transferring his fortune thence, if he be determined on so doing.

Book I, Chapter XXI

End of Notes

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