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 aggregate value of a product, in the way just described, refunds to its different concurring producers the amount of their advances, with the addition in most cases, of a profit, that constitutes their revenue. But the profits of productive agency are not of equal amount in all its branches; some yielding but a very scanty revenue for the land, capital, or industry, embarked in them; while others give an exorbitant return.


True it is, that productive agents always endeavour to direct their agency to those employments, in which the profits are the greatest, and thus, by their competition, have as much tendency to lower price, as demand has to raise it; but the effects of competition can not always so nicely proportion the supply to the demand, as in every case to ensure an equal remuneration. Some kinds of labour are scantily supplied, in countries where people are not accustomed to them; and capital is often so sunk in a particular channel of production, that it can never be transferred to any other from that wherein it was originally embarked. Besides, the land may stubbornly resist that kind of cultivation, whose products are in the greatest demand.


One cannot trace the fluctuation of profit on each particular occasion. A wonderful change may be effected by a new invention, a hostile invasion, or a siege. Such partial circumstances may influence or derange the operation of general causes, but can not destroy their general tendency. No dissertation, however voluminous, could be made to embrace every individual circumstance, that by possibility may influence the relative value of objects; but one may specify general causes, and such as have an uniform activity; thereby enabling every one, when the particular occasion may present itself, to estimate the effect produced by the operation of partial and transient circumstances.


It may appear extraordinary at first sight, but will on inquiry be found generally true, that the largest profit is made, not on the dearest commodities or upon those which are least indispensable, but rather on those, which are the most common and least to be dispensed with. In fact the demand for these latter is necessarily permanent; for it is stimulated by actual want, and grows with every increase of the means of production; inasmuch as nothing tends to increase population more, than providing the means of its subsistence. The demand for superfluities, on the contrary, does not expand with the increased power of producing them. An extraordinary run, which, by the way, can never take place but in large towns, may raise the current considerably above the natural price; that is to say, above the actual cost of production; or a change of fashion may again depress it infinitely below that point. Superfluities are, after all, but objects of secondary want even to the rich themselves; and the demand for them is limited to the very small number of persons that can indulge in them. When a casual calamity obliges individuals to reduce their expenditure, when their revenues are curtailed by the ravages of war, by taxation, or by natural scarcity, the first items of retrenchment are always the articles of least necessary consumption. And this may serve, perhaps, to explain, why the productive agency directed to the raising of superfluities, is generally worse paid than that otherwise employed.


I say generally, for it is possible enough that, in a great metropolis, where the demand for luxuries is more urgent than elsewhere, and the dictates of fashion, however absurd, more implicitly obeyed than the eternal laws of nature; where a man will, perhaps, be content to lose his dinner, so he may appear in the evening circle in embroidered ruffles, it is possible, that in such a place the price of the gew-gaws may sometimes very liberally reward the labour and capital devoted to their production. But, except in such particular cases, balancing one year's profits with another, and allowing for contingent losses, it has been ascertained, that the adventurers in the production of superfluities make the most scanty profits, and that their workmen are the worst paid. The manufacturers of the finest laces in Normandy and Flanders are a very indigent set of people; and at Lyons, the workers of gold-embroidery are absolutely clothed in rags. Not but that very considerable profits have occasionally been derived from such articles. A hat-maker has been known to make a fortune by a fancy hat; but, taking all the profits made on superfluities, and deducting the value of goods remaining unsold, or, though sold, never paid for, we shall find that this class of products affords, on the whole, the scantiest profit. The most fashionable tradesmen are oftenest in the list of bankrupts.


Commodities of general use are attainable by a greater number of persons, and are in demand with almost every class of society. The chandelier is to be found only in the mansions of the rich; but the meanest cottage is furnished with the convenience of a candlestick: the demand for candlesticks is, therefore, regular, and always more brisk than that for chandeliers; and, even in the most opulent country, the total value of the candlesticks is far greater than that of the chandeliers.


The articles of human food are unquestionably those of most indispensable use; the demand for them recurs daily; and no occupations are so regular as those which minister to human sustenance. Wherefore, it is they that yield the most certain profit, notwithstanding the effects of brisk competition.*36 The butchers, bakers, and porkmen, of Paris, are pretty sure to retire with a fortune sooner or later; indeed, I have it from pretty good authority in such matters, that half the houses and real property sold in Paris and the environs, is bought up by tradesmen in those lines.


It is on this account, that individuals and nations, who understand their true interest, unless they have very cogent reasons for acting otherwise, apply themselves in preference to the production of what tradesmen call current articles. Mr. Eden, who, in 1706, negotiated on the part of Great Britain the treaty of commerce concluded by M. de Vergennes, went upon this principle, in stipulating the free import of the common English earthenware into France. "The few dozens of plates we may sell you," said the English agent, "will be a poor set-off against the magnificent services of Sevres porcelain we shall take of you." This appeal to the vanity of the French agent was decisive. But, as soon as the English earthenware was admitted, its lightness, cheapness, convenience and simplicity of form, recommended it to the most moderate establishments; its regular import, in a short time, amounted to many millions, and continued increasing every year until the war. The exportation of Sevres china, was a mere trifle in comparison.


The scale for current articles, besides being more considerable, is likewise more steady. A tradesman is never long in disposing of common linen shirting.


The examples I have selected from the class of manufacture might easily be paralleled in the agricultural and commercial branches. A much larger value is consumed in lettuces than in pine-apples, throughout Europe at large; and the superb shawls of Cachemere are, in France, a very poor object in trade, in comparison with the plain cotton goods of Rouen.


Wherefore, it is a bad speculation for a nation to aim at the export of objects of luxury, and the import of objects of general utility. France supplies Germany with fashions and finery, which very few persons can make use of; and Germany makes the return in tapes and other merceries, in files, scythes, shovels, tongs, and other hardware of common use. But for the wines and oils of France, the annual product of a soil highly favoured by nature, together with a few products of superior execution, France would derive less advantage from Germany than Germany from France. The same may be said of the French trade with the north of Europe.*37

Notes for this chapter

I speak here of the adventurers, masters, or tradesmen; the mere labourer or journeyman benefits only, as it were, by re-action. The farmer, who is an adventurer in agriculture, employed in raising products for human sustenance, lies under disadvantages, that very much curtail his profits. His concerns are too much at the mercy of his landlord, and of the financial exactions of public authority, to say nothing of the vicissitudes of seasons, to be very gainful on the average.
The reasoning of this whole chapter is superfluous and inconclusive. Where value is left to find its natural level, one class of productive agency will, in the long run, be equally recompensed with another, presenting an equipoise of facility or difficulty, of repute or disrepute, of enjoyment or suffering, in the general estimation of mankind; this he states fully in the next chapter. If our author means here to say merely, that a large class of productive agency will receive a larger portion of the general product as its recompense or revenue, or that agency in permanent employ will obtain a regular and permanent recompense, he has taken a very circuitous mode of expressing a position, which is, indeed, almost self-evident. The grand division of productive agency is into corporeal and intellectual; whereof the former is, on the average, the more amply rewarded by the rest of mankind, because the latter, in some measure, rewards itself. Thus, the profits of printing and bookselling are, on the whole, more liberal than those of authorship; because the latter is partly paid in self gratification, in vanity, or conscious merit. Translator.

Book II, Chapter VII

End of Notes

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