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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The price of an article is the quantity of money it may be worth; current price, the quantity it may be sure of obtaining at the particular place. Its locality is material, for the desire of a specific object varies in relation to the quantity procurable according to the locality.


The price obtained upon the sale of an article represents all other articles procurable with that price. To say, that the price of an ell of broad-cloth is 8 dollars, implies, that it is exchangeable either for so much coined silver, or for so much of any other product or products as may be procurable with that sum. Money-price is selected for the purposes of an illustration, in preference to price in commodities at large, merely for greater simplicity; but the real and ultimate object of exchange is, not money, but commodities.


Price, in this sense, may be divided into buying price and selling price; that is to say, the price given to obtain possession of an object, and the price obtainable for the relinquishment of its possession.


The price paid for every product, at the time of its original attainment or creation, is, the charge of the productive agency exerted, or the cost of its production.*9 Tracing upwards to this original price of a product, we unavoidably come to other products; for the charge of productive agency can only have been defrayed by other products. The daily wages of the weaver engaged in producing broad-cloth are products; they consist either of the articles of his daily subsistence, or of the money wherewith he may procure them, both which are equally products. Wherefore the production, as well as the subsequent interchange of products, may be said to resolve itself into a barter of one product for another, conducted upon a comparison of their respective current prices. But there is one important particular, that requires the most assiduous attention, the neglect or oversight of which has led to abundance of error and misrepresentation, and has made the works of many writers calculated only to mislead the students in this science.


An ell of broad-cloth, that has, in the production, required the purchase of productive agency at the price of 8 dollars, will have cost that sum in the manufacture; but if three-fourths only of that productive agency can be made to suffice for its production; if, supposing one kind of productive agency only to be requisite, 15 instead of 20 days' labour of a single workman be enabled to complete the product, the same ell of broad-cloth will cost 6 dollars to the producer, at the same rate of wages. In this case the current price of human productive agency will have remained the same, although the cost of production will have varied in the ratio of the difference between 6 dollars and 8 dollars. But, as this difference in the relation between the cost of production and the current price of the product holds out a prospect of larger profit than ordinary in this particular channel, it naturally attracts a larger proportion of productive agency, the exertion of which, by enlarging the supply, reduces again the current price to a level with the bare cost of production.*10


This kind of variation in the price of a product I shall call real variation of price, because it is a positive variation, involving no equivalent variation in the object of exchange, and both may, and actually does occur, without any contemporaneous variation of the price, either of productive agency, of the products wherewith it is recompensed, or of those, for which the specific object of this real variation is procurable.


It is otherwise with regard to the variation of price of products already in existence one to another, without reference to their respective cost of production. When the wine of the last vintage that a month before sold at 40 dollars the tun, will fetch no more than 30 dollars, money and all other objects of desire to the wine-vender have actually advanced in price to him; for the productive agency exerted in raising the wine, receives a recompense of but 30 dollars, instead of 40 dollars in money, and of commodities in a like proportion, which is an abatement of ¼; whereas, in the instance above cited, an equal amount of productive agency will receive an equal recompense in all other products; for a degree of agency, which has both cost and received 6 dollars, will be equally well paid with one that cost and received 8 dollars.


In the former case, then, of a real variation, the wealth of the community will have received an accession; in the latter, of relative variation, it will have remained stationary; and for this plain reason; because, in the one case all the purchasers of cloth, will be so much the richer, without the seller being any poorer; while in the other, the gain of the one class will be exactly equipoised by the corresponding loss of the other. In the former case, a larger amount of products will be procured with an equal charge of production, and without any alteration in the revenues of either buyers or sellers: there will be more actual wealth, more means of enjoyment, without any increased expenditure of productive means; the aggregate utility will be augmented; the quantum of products procurable for the same price will be enlarged; all which are but varied expressions of the same meaning.


But whence is derived this accession of enjoyment, this larger supply of wealth, that nobody pays for? From the increased command acquired by human intelligence over the productive powers and agents presented gratuitously by nature. A power has been rendered available for human purposes, that had before been not known, or not directed to any human object; as in the instance of wind, water, and steam-engines: or one before known and available is directed with superior skill and effect, as in the case of every improvement in mechanism, whereby human or animal power is assisted or expanded. The merit of the merchant, who contrives, by good management, to make the same capital suffice for an extended business, is precisely analogous to that of the engineer, who simplifies machinery, or renders it more productive.


The discovery of a new mineral, animal, or vegetable, possessed of the properties of utility in a novel form, or in a greater degree of abundance or perfection, is an acquisition of the same kind. The productive means of mankind were amplified, and a larger product rendered procurable by an equal degree of human exertion, when indigo was substituted for woad, sugar for honey, and cochineal for the Tyrian dye. In all these instances of improvement, and those of a similar nature that may be hereafter effected, it is observable, that, since the means of production placed at the disposal of mankind become in reality more powerful, the product raised always increases in quantity, in proportion as it diminishes in value. We shall presently see the consequences of this circumstance.*11


A fall of price may be general and affect all commodities at once; or it may be partial and affect certain commodities only; as I shall endeavour to explain by example.


Suppose that, when stockings were made by knitting only, thread-stockings, of a given quality, amounted to the price of 1 dollar the pair. Hence, we should infer, that the rent of the land whereon the flax was grown, the profits upon the labour and capital of the cultivators, those of the flax-dresser and spinner, with those likewise of the stocking-knitter, amounted altogether to the sum of a dollar for each pair of stockings. Suppose that, in consequence of the invention of a stocking-machine, 1 dollar will buy two pair of stockings instead of one. As the competition has a tendency to bring the price to a level with the cost of production, we may infer from this reduced price, that the outlay in land, capital, and labour, necessary to produce two pair of stockings, is still no more than 1 dollar; thus, with equal means of production, the product raised is doubled in quantity. And what is a convincing proof that this fall is positive, is the fact, that every person, of what profession soever, may thence-forward obtain a pair of stockings with half the quantity of his own particular product. A capitalist, the holder of 5 per cent. stock, was before obliged to devote the annual interest of 20 dollars to the purchase of a pair of stockings; he now gives the interest of 10 dollars only. A tradesman selling his sugar at 33 1/3 cents per lb. must before have sold 3 lb. of sugar to buy a pair of stockings, now he need but sell 1½ lb.: he therefore sacrifices in the pair of stockings only half the means of production he formerly devoted to the acquisition of the same object.


We have hitherto supposed this product alone to have fallen in price. Let us suppose two products to fall, stockings and sugar: that by an improvement of commerce, 1 lb. of sugar cost 22 cents instead of 33 cents. In this case all purchasers of sugar, including the stocking-maker, whose product has likewise fallen, will sacrifice, in the purchase of 1 lb. of sugar, but half the productive means, which they before allotted for that purpose.


The truth of this position may be easily ascertained. When sugar was at 33 1/3 cents per lb. and stockings at a dollar the pair, the stocking-maker was obliged to sell one pair of stockings, before he could buy 3 lbs. of sugar: and, as the charges of producing this pair of stockings were one dollar, he in reality bought 3 lbs. of sugar at the price of a dollar value in his own productive means; in like manner as the grocer bought a pair of stockings for 3 lbs. of sugar, that is to say, in his case also, for one dollar value of his peculiar productive means. But when both these commodities have fallen to half their price, one pair only, or productive means equivalent to 50 cents, would buy 3 lbs. of sugar; and 3 lbs. of sugar, procurable at a charge of production amounting to 50 cents, will suffice to purchase a pair of stockings. Wherefore, if two kinds of products, which we have set one against the other, and supposed to pass in exchange the one for the other, can both have fallen in price at the same time, are we not authorised to infer, that this fall is a positive fall, and has no reference or relation to the prices of commodities one to another? that commodities in general may fall at one and the same time, some more, some less, and yet that the diminution of price may be no loss to any body?


It is for this reason, that, in modern times, although wages stand in nearly the same relation to corn as they did four or five hundred years ago, yet the lower classes now enjoy many luxuries, that were then denied them; many articles of dress and household furniture, for instance, have suffered a real diminution of value; and that the same individuals are more scantily supplied with others, as with butcher's meat and game,*12 because they have sustained a real increase of value.


Every saving in the cost of production implies the procurement, either of an equal product by the exertion of a smaller amount of productive agency, or of a larger product by the exertion of equal agency, which are both the same thing; and it is sure to be followed by an enlargement of the product. It may be thought, perhaps, that this increase of production may possibly take place without any corresponding increase of demand; and, therefore, that the price current of the product may fall below the cost of its production, even on its reduced scale. But this is a groundless apprehension; for the fall of price tends so strongly to expand the sphere of consumption, that, in all the instances I have been able to meet with, the increase of demand has invariably outrun the increasing powers of an improved production, operating upon the same productive means; so that every enlargement of the power of productive agency has created a demand for more of that agency, in the preparation of the product cheapened by the improvement.


Of this a striking example has been afforded by the invention of the art of printing. By this expeditious method of multiplying the copies of a literary work, each copy costs but a twentieth part of what was before paid for manuscript; an equal intensity of total demand, would, therefore, take off only twenty times the number of copies; but probably it is within the mark to say, that a hundred times as many are now consumed. So that, where there was formerly one copy only of the value of 12 dollars of present money, there are now a hundred copies, the aggregate value of which is 60 dollars, though that of each single copy be reduced to 1-20. Thus the reduction of price, consequent upon a real variation, does not occasion even a nominal diminution of wealth.*13


On the other hand, and by the rule of contraries, as a real advance of price must always proceed from a deficiency in the product raised by equal productive means, it is attended by a diminution in the general stock of wealth; for the rise of price upon each portion does not counterpoise the reduction that takes place in the total quantity of the commodity; to say nothing of the greater relative dearness of the object of consumption to the consumer, and of his consequent impoverishment in comparison.


Suppose a murrain, or a bad system of management, to cause a scarcity of any kind of live stock, of sheep for instance, the price will rise, but not in proportion to the reduction of the supply; because in proportion as they grow dearer, the demand will decrease. If there were but one-fifth of the present number of sheep, it is very probable their price would advance to no more than double; so, that in place of five sheep, which might together be worth 20 dollars at 4 dollars each, there would remain but one valued at 8 dollars. The diminution of wealth in the article of sheep, notwithstanding the increased price, must therefore be computed at 60 per cent., which is considerably more than a moiety.*14


Thus, it may be affirmed, that every real reduction of price, instead of reducing the nominal value of produce raised, in point of fact, augments it; and that a real increase of price reduces, instead of adding to the general wealth; to say nothing of the quantum of human enjoyment, which in the former case is multiplied, and in the latter abridged. Besides it would be a capital error to imagine, that a real fall of price, or in other words, a reduction in the price paid to productive exertion, occasions as much loss to the producer as gain to the consumer. A real depreciation of commodities is a benefit to the consumer, without curtailing the profits of the producer. The stocking-maker, who for one dollar manufactures two pair of stockings instead of one, gains as much upon that sum as if it were the price of a single pair. The landed proprietor receives the same rent, although, by a better rotation of crops, the tenant should multiply and cheapen the produce of his land. Whenever, without additional fatigue to the labourer, means are devised to double the quantity of work he can perform, the ratio of his daily gains is not reduced, although his product is sold at a lower price.*15


This will serve to confirm and explain a maxim, which has been hitherto imperfectly understood, and even disputed by many writers, and sects of political reasoners; namely, that a country is rich and plentiful, in proportion as the price of commodities is low.*16


For argument's sake, I will put the matter in the most favourable light for those who dispute this maxim, and suppose them to urge an extreme case, namely, that, by successive economical reductions, the charges of production are at length reduced to nothing; in which case, it is evident there can no longer be rent for land, interest upon capital, or wages on labour, and consequently, no longer any revenue to the productive classes. What then? Why then, I say, these classes would no longer exist. Every object of human want would stand in the same predicament as the air or the water, which are consumed without the necessity of being either produced or purchased. In like manner as every one is rich enough to provide himself with air, so would he be to provide himself with every other imaginable product. This would be the very acme of wealth. Political economy would no longer be a science; we should have no occasion to learn the mode of acquiring wealth; for we should find it ready made to our hands.


Although there be no instance of a product falling to nothing in price, and becoming worth no more than mere water, yet some kinds have undergone prodigious abatements; as fuel in those places where coal-pits have been discovered; and such abatements are so many approximations to that imaginary state of complete abundance, I have just been speaking of.


If different commodities have fallen in different ratios, some more, others less, it is plain they must have varied in relative value to each other. That which has fallen, stockings, for instance, has changed its value relatively to that which has not fallen, as butcher's meat; and such as have fallen in equal proportion, like stockings and sugar in our hypothesis, have varied in real though not in relative value.


There is this difference between a real and a relative variation of price: that the former is a change of value, arising from an alteration of the charges of production; the latter, a change, arising from an alteration of the ratio of value of one particular commodity to other commodities. Real variations are beneficial to buyers, without injury to sellers; and vice versâ; but in relative ones, what is gained by the seller is lost by the purchaser, and vice versâ. A dealer, having in his warehouse 100,000 lbs. of wool at 20 cents per lb., is worth 20,000 dollars; if, by reason of an extraordinary demand, wool should rise to 40 cents per lb., that portion of his capital will be doubled, but all goods brought to be exchanged for wool will lose as much in relative value as the wool will gain. A person in want of 100 lbs. of wool, who could before have obtained it by disposing, say of 20 bushels of wheat valued at 20 dollars, must now dispose of twice that quantity. He will lose the 20 dollars gained by the wool-dealer; and the nation be neither enriched nor impoverished.*17


When sales of this kind take place between one nation and another, the nation, that sells the commodity, which has advanced in relative price, gains to the amount of the advance, and the purchasing nation loses precisely to the same extent. Such a rise of price adds nothing to the general stock of wealth, existing in the world, which can only be enlarged by the production of some new utility, that may become the object of price or estimation; whereas, in other cases, one always loses what another gains: and so it is with all kinds of jobbing transactions, founded upon the fluctuations of prices one upon another.


In all probability, the time is not very distant, when the European states, awake at length to their real interests, will renounce the costly rights of colonial dominion, and aim at the independent colonization of those tropical regions nearest to Europe; as of some parts of Africa. The vast cultivation of what are called colonial products, that would ensue, could not fail to supply Europe in the greatest abundance, and probably at most moderate prices. Such merchants as shall then have stock on hand, purchased at the old prices, certainly will make a loss upon that stock; but their loss will be a clear gain to the consumer, who will for a time enjoy this kind of produce, at a price inferior to the charge of production; the merchants will gradually replace their dear-bought produce, by other of equal quality, raised with superior intelligence; and the consumer will then reap the advantage of superior cheapness and multiplied enjoyment, with no loss to any body; for the merchant will both buy and sell cheaper; and human industry will have made a rapid stride, and opened a new road to affluence and abundance.*18

Notes for this chapter

Vide Wealth of Nations, book i. c. 5.
The cost of production is what Smith calls the natural price of products, as contrasted with their current or market price, as he terms it. But it results from what has been said above, that every act of barter or exchange, among the rest even that implied in the act of production, is conducted with reference to current price.
Within the last hundred years, the improvements of industry, effected by the advance of human knowledge, more especially in the department of natural science, have vastly abridged the business of production, but the slow progress in moral and political science, and particularly in the branch of social organisation, has hitherto prevented mankind from reaping the full benefit of those improvements. Yet it would be wrong to suppose they have reaped none at all. The pressure of taxation has indeed been doubled, tripled, or even quadrupled; yet population has increased in most countries of Europe; which is a sign, that a portion at least of the increase of products has fallen to the lot of the subject; and the population, besides being augmented, is likewise better lodged, clothed, and conditioned and I believe better fed too, than it was a century ago.
I find in the Recherches of Dupre de Saint Maur, that in 1342, an ox was sold from 10 to 11 livres tournois. This sum then contained 7 oz. of fine silver, which was worth about 28 oz. of the present day; and 28 oz. of our present money are coined into 171 fr. 30 c., (32 dollars,) which is lower than the price of an ordinary ox. A lean ox bought in Poitou for 300 fr., and afterwards fatted in Lower Normandy, will sell at Paris for from 450 to 500 fr. (84 to 93 dollars.) Butcher's meat has, therefore, more than doubled in price since the 14th century; and probably most other articles of food likewise; and, if the labouring classes had not at the same time been greatly benefited by the progress of industry, and put in possession of additional sources of revenue, they would be worse fed than in the time of Philip of Valois.

This may be easily explained. The growing revenues of the industrious classes have enabled them to multiply, and consequently to swell the demand for all objects of food. But their supply can not keep pace with the increasing demand, because, although the same surface of soil may be rendered more productive, it can not be so to an indefinite degree; and the supply of food by the channel of external commerce, is more expensive than by that of internal agriculture on account of the bulky nature of most of the articles of aliment.

Our data in relation to the products of former times are too few to enable us to deduce from them any precise result; but those at all acquainted with the subject will see, that, whether over or under-stated, will make no difference in the reasoning. The statistic researches of the present generation will provide future ages with more accurate means of calculation, but will add nothing to the solidity of the principles upon which it must be made.
Of this nature are the evil effects of taxation, (especially if it be exorbitant) upon the general wealth of the community, independently of its effects upon the individual assessed. The cost of production, and consequently the real price of commodities, are aggravated thereby, and their aggregate value diminished.
I have met with persons, who imagined themselves adding to national wealth, by favouring the production of expensive, in preference to that of cheaper articles. In their opinion, it is better to make a yard of rich brocade than one of common sarsenet. They do not consider, that, if the former costs four times as much as the latter, it is because it requires the exertion of four times as much productive agency, which could be made to produce four yards of the latter, as easily as one of the former. The total value is the same; but society derives less benefit; for a yard of brocade makes fewer dresses than four yards of sarsenet. It is the grand curse of luxury, that it ever presents meanness in company with magnificence.
Dupont de Nemours (Physiocratie. p. 117.) says, that "it must not be supposed, that the cheapness of commodities is advantageous to the lower classes; for the reduction of prices lessens the wages of the labourer, curtails his comforts, and affords him less work and lucrative occupation." But theory and practice both controvert this position. A fall of wages, occasioned solely by a fall in the price of commodities, does not diminish the comforts of the labourer, and, inasmuch as the low price of wages enables the adventurer to produce at a less expense, it tends powerfully to promote the vent and demand for the produce of labour.

Melon, Forbonnais, and all the partisans of the exclusive system, or balance of trade, concur with the economists in this erroneous opinion; and it has been re-affirmed by Sismondi, in his Nouveaux Prin. d'Econ. Pol. liv. iv. c. 6.; where the lower price of products is treated as an advantage gained by the consumer upon the producer, in despite of the obvious impossibility of any loss to the labouring or other productive classes, by a reduction tantamount only to the saving in the cost of production.

The Earl of Lauderdale published in 1807, a work, entitled, "Researches on the Nature and Origin of Public Wealth, and on the Causes which concur in its Increase;" the whole reasoning of which is built on this erroneous proposition, that the scarcity of a commodity, though it diminish the wealth of society in the aggregate, augments that of individuals, by increasing the value of that commodity in the hands of its possessors. Whence the author deduces the unsound conclusion, that national, differs in principle from individual wealth. He has not perceived, that, whenever a purchaser is obliged to make the acquisition by the sacrifice of a greater value, he loses just as much as the seller gains; and that every operation, designed to procure this kind of benefit, must occasion to one party a loss, equivalent to the gain of another.

He likewise refers this imaginary difference between the principle of public and of private wealth to this circumstance; that the accumulation of capital, which is an advantage to individual, is detrimental to national wealth, by obstructing the consumption, which is the stimulus of industry. He has fallen into the very common error of supposing, that capital is, by accumulation, withdrawn from consumption; whereas, on the contrary, it is consumed, but in a re-productive way, and so as to afford the means of a perpetual recurrence of purchase, which can occur but once in the case of unproductive consumption. Vide Book III. infrà. Thus it is, that a single error in principle, vitiates a whole work. The one in question is built upon this unsound foundation; and, therefore, serves only to multiply, instead of reducing the intricacies of the subject.*

    * The error of Lauderdale is analogous to that of Sismondi and of Malthus, and arises from the notion, that an extension of productive power makes an extension of unproductive consumption necessary; whereas, it is thereby rendered possible, or at the utmost probable only. The state, as well as its subjects, may consume in a way conducive to the further extension of productive power, and the state, like an individual, is powerful and wealthy in proportion to the extent of the productive sources in its possession, and to the fertility of those sources. Translator.
The vast means at the disposal of Napoleon might have been successfully directed to this grand object, and then he would have left the reputation of having contributed to civilize, enrich, and people the world; and not of having been its scourge and devastator. When the Barbary shore shall be lined with peaceful, industrious, and polished inhabitants, the Mediterranean will be an immense lake, furrowed by the commerce of the wealthy nations, peopling its shores on every side.

Book II, Chapter IV

End of Notes

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