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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Having just considered the nature and effect of consumption in general, as well as the general effect of productive consumption in particular, it remains only to consider, in this and the following chapters, such consumption as is effected with no other end or object in view, than the mere satisfaction of a want, or the enjoyment of some pleasurable sensation.


Whoever has thoroughly comprehended the nature of consumption and production, as displayed in the preceding pages, will have arrived at the conviction, that no consumption of the class denominated unproductive, has any ulterior effect, beyond the satisfaction of a want by the destruction of existing value. It is a mere exchange of a portion of existing wealth on the one side, for human gratification on the other, and nothing more. Beyond this, what can be expected?—reproduction? how can the same identical utility be afforded a second time? Wine can not be both drunk and distilled into brandy too. Neither can the object consumed serve to establish a fresh demand, and thus indirectly to stimulate future productive exertion; for it has already been explained that the only effectual demand is created by the possession of wherewithal to purchase,—of something to give in exchange; and what can that be, except a product, which, before the act of exchange and consumption, must have been an item, either of revenue or of capital? The existence and intensity of the demand must invariably depend upon the amount of revenue and of capital: the bare existence of revenue and of capital is all that is necessary for the stimulus of production, which nothing else can stimulate. The choice of one object of consumption necessarily precludes that of another; what is consumed in the shape of silks cannot be consumed in the shape of linens or woollens; nor can what has once been devoted to pleasure or amusement, be made productive also of more positive or substantial utility.


Wherefore, the sole object of inquiry, with regard to unproductive consumption, is, the degree of gratification resulting from the act of consumption itself: and this inquiry will, in the remainder of this chapter, be pursued in respect of unproductive consumption in general, after which we shall give in the following chapters, a separate consideration to that of individuals, and that of the public, or community at large. The sole point is, to weigh the loss, occasioned to the consumer by his consumption, against the satisfaction it affords him. The degree of correctness, with which the balance of loss and gain is struck, will determine whether the consumption be judicious or otherwise; which is a point that next to the actual production of wealth, has the most powerful influence upon the well or ill-being of families and of nations.


In this point of view, the most judicious kinds of consumption seem to be:—


1. Such as conduce to the satisfaction of positive wants; by which term I mean those, upon the satisfaction of which depends the existence, the health, and the contentment of the generality of mankind; being the very reverse of such as are generated by refined sensuality, pride, and caprice. Thus, the national consumption will, on the whole, be judicious, if it absorb the articles rather of convenience than of display: the more linen and the less lace; the more plain and wholesome dishes, and the fewer dainties; the more warm clothing, and the less embroidery, the better. In a nation whose consumption is so directed, the public establishments will be remarkable rather for utility than splendour, its hospitals will be less magnificent than salutary and extensive; its roads well furnished with inns, rather than unnecessarily wide and spacious, and its towns well paved, though with few palaces to attract the gaze of strangers.


The luxury of ostentation affords a much less substantial and solid gratification, than the luxury of comfort, if I may be allowed the expression. Besides, the latter is less costly, that is to say, involves the necessity of a smaller consumption; whereas the former is insatiable; it spreads from one to another, from the mere proneness to imitation; and the extent to which it may reach, is as absolutely unlimited.*11 "Pride," says Franklin, "is a beggar quite as clamorous as want, but infinitely more insatiable."


Taking society in the aggregate, it will be found that, one with another, the gratification of real wants is more important to the community, than the gratification of artificial ones. The wants of the rich man occasion the production and consumption of an exquisite perfume, perhaps those of the poor man, the production and consumption of a good warm winter cloak; supposing the value to be equal, the diminution of the general wealth is the same in both cases; but the resulting gratification will, in the one case, be trifling, transient, and scarcely perceptible; in the other, solid, ample, and of long duration.*12


2. Such as are the most gradual, and absorb products of the best quality. A nation or an individual, will do wisely to direct consumption chiefly to those articles, that are the longest time in wearing out, and the most frequently in use. Good houses and furniture are, therefore, objects of judicious preference; for there are few products that take longer time to consume than a house, or that are of more frequent utility; in fact, the best part of one's life is passed in it. Frequent changes of fashion are unwise; for fashion takes upon itself to throw things away long before they have lost their utility, and sometimes before they have lost even the freshness of novelty, thus multiplying consumption exceedingly, and rejecting as good for nothing what is perhaps still useful, convenient, or even elegant. So that a rapid succession of fashions impoverishes a state, as well by the consumption it occasions, as by that which it arrests.


There is an advantage in consuming articles of superior quality, although somewhat dearer, and for this reason: in every kind of manufacture, there are some charges that are always the same, whether the product be of good or bad quality. Coarse linen will have cost, in weaving, packing, storing, retailing, and carriage, before it comes to the ultimate consumer, quite as much trouble and labour, as linen of the finest quality, therefore in purchasing an inferior quality, the only saving is the cost of the raw material: the labour and trouble must always be paid in full, and at the same rate; yet the product of that labour and trouble are much quicker consumed, when the linen is of inferior, than when it is of superior quality.


This reasoning is applicable indifferently to every class of product; for in every one there are some kinds of productive agency, that are paid equally without reference to quality; and that agency is more profitably bestowed in the raising of products of good than of bad quality; therefore, it is generally more advantageous for a nation to consume the former. But this can not be done, unless the nation can discern between good and bad, and have acquired taste for the former; wherein again appears the necessity of knowledge*13 to the furtherance of national prosperity; and unless, besides, the bulk of the population be so far removed above penury, as not to be obliged to buy whatever is the cheapest in the first instance, although it be in the long-run the dearest to the consumer.


It is evident, that the interference of public authority in regulating the details of the manufacture, supposing it to succeed in making the manufacturer produce goods of the best quality, which is very problematical, must be quite ineffectual in promoting their consumption; for it can give the consumer, neither the taste of what is of the better quality, nor the ability to purchase. The difficulty lies, not in finding a producer, but in finding a consumer. It will be no hard matter to supply good and elegant commodities, if there be consumers both willing and able to purchase them. But such a demand can exist only in nations enjoying comparative affluence; it is affluence, that both furnishes the means of buying articles of good quality, and gives a taste for them. Now the interference of authority is not the road to affluence, which results from activity of production, seconded by the spirit of frugality;—from habits of industry pervading every channel of occupation, and of frugality tending to accumulation of capital. In a country, where these qualities are prevalent, and in no other, can individuals be at all nice or fastidious in what they consume. On the contrary, profusion and embarrassment are inseparable companions; there is no choice when necessity drives.


The pleasures of the table, of play, of pyrotechnic exhibitions, and the like, are to be reckoned amongst those of shortest duration. I have seen villages, that, although in want of good water, yet do not hesitate to spend in a wake or festival, that lasts but one day, as much money as would suffice to construct a conduit for the supply of that necessary of life, and a fountain or public cistern on the village green; the inhabitants preferring to get once drunk in honour of the squire or saint, and to go day after day with the greatest inconvenience, and bring muddy water from half a league distance. The filth and discomfort prevalent in rustic habitations are attributable, partly to poverty, and partly to injudicious consumption.


In most countries, if a part of what is squandered in frivolous and hazardous amusements, whether in town or country, were spent in the embellishment and convenience of the habitations, in suitable clothing, in neat and useful furniture, or in the instruction of the population, the whole community would soon assume an appearance of improvement, civilization, and affluence, infinitely more attractive to strangers, as well as more gratifying to the people themselves.


3. The collective consumption of numbers. There are some kinds of agency, that need not be multiplied in proportion to the increased consumption. One cook can dress dinner for ten as easily as for one; the same grate will roast a dozen joints as well as one; and this is the reason, why there is so much economy in the mess-table of a college, a monastery, a regiment, or a large manufactory, in the supply of great numbers from a common kettle or kitchen, and in the dispensaries of cheap soups.


4. And lastly, on grounds entirely different, those kinds of consumption are judicious, which are consistent with moral rectitude; and, on the contrary, those, which infringe its laws, generally end in public, as well as private calamity. But it would be too wide a digression from my subject to attempt the illustration of this position.


It is observable, that great inequality of private fortune is hostile to those kinds of consumption, that must be regarded as most judicious. In proportion as that inequality is more marked, the artificial wants of the population are more numerous, the real ones more scantily supplied, and the rapid consumption more common and destructive. The patrician spendthrifts and imperial gluttons of ancient Rome thought they never could squander enough. Besides, immoral kinds of consumption are infinitely more general, where the extremes of wealth and poverty are found blended together. In such a state of society, there are few, who can indulge in the refinement of luxury, but a vast number, who look on their enjoyments with envy, and are ever impatient to imitate them. To get into the privileged class is the grand object, be the means ever so questionable; and those who are little scrupulous in the acquirement, are seldom more so in the employment of wealth.*14


The government has, in all countries, a vast influence, in determining the character of the national consumption; not only because it absolutely directs the consumption of the state itself, but because a great proportion of the consumption of individuals is gained by its will and example. If the government indulge a taste for splendour and ostentation, splendour and ostentation will be the order of the day, with the whole host of imitators; and even those of better judgment and discretion must, in some measure, yield to the torrent. For, how seldom are they independent of that consideration and good opinion, which, under such circumstances, are to be earned, not by personal qualities, but by a course of extravagance they can not approve?


First and foremost in the list of injudicious kinds of consumption stand those which yield disgust and displeasure, in lieu of the gratification anticipated. Under this class may be ranged, excess and intemperance in private individuals; and, in the state, wars undertaken with the motive of pure vengeance, like that of Louis XIV. in revenge for the attacks of a Dutch newspaper, or with that of empty glory, which leads commonly to disgrace and odium. Yet such wars are even less to be deplored for the waste of national wealth and resources, than for the irremediable loss of personal virtue and talent sacrificed in the struggle; a loss which involves families in distress enough, when exacted by the public good, and by the pressure of inexorable necessity; but must be doubly shocking and afflicting, when it originates in the caprice, the wickedness, the folly, or the ungovernable passions of national rulers.

Notes for this chapter

It is strange, that so acute a writer should not have perceived, that the mischief of pure individual vanity can never be very formidable, because the pleasure it affords loses in intensity, in proportion to its diffusion. Indeed as far as individual consumption is concerned, attacks upon luxury are mere idle declamations; for the productive energies of mankind will always be directed towards an object, with a force and in a degree porportionate to the intensity of the want for it. It is the extravagance of public luxury alone that can ever be formidable; this, as well as public consumption of every kind, it is always the interest of the community at large to contract, and that of public functionaries to expand, to the utmost. Translator.
The lending at interest what might have been spent in frivolity is of this latter class; for interest can not be paid, unless the loan be productively employed; in which case it will go in part to the maintenance of the labouring classes.
By knowledge, I would always be understood to mean, acquaintance with the true state of things, or generally with truth in every branch.
In a wholesome state of society, when public institutions are not needlessly multiplied, and all tend to the common purpose of public good, this very impatience and anxiety is conducive to the welfare, and not to the injury, of society. Indeed, great inequality of fortune seems to be a necessary accompaniment to social wealth and great national productive power. It is the prospect of great prizes only, that can stimulate to the extreme of intellectual and corporeal industry; and there is no instance on record of a nation far advanced in industry, in which great inequality of fortune has not existed. One bishopric of Durham will tempt more clerical adventurers, than five hundred moderate benefices and the example of a single Arkwright or Peel will stimulate manufacturing science and activity more than a whole Manchester of moderate cotton spinning concerns. Translator.

Book III, Chapter V

End of Notes

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