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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If we examine closely the workings of human industry, it will be found, that, to whatever object it be applied, it consists of three distinct operations.


The first step towards the attainment of any specific product, is the study of the laws and course of nature regarding that product. A lock could never have been constructed without a previous knowledge of the properties of iron, the method of extracting from the mine and refining the ore, as well as of mollifying and fashioning the metal.


The next step is the application of this knowledge to an useful purpose: for instance, the conclusion, or conviction, that a particular form, communicated to the metal, will furnish the means of closing a door to all the wards, except to the possessor of the key.


The last step is the execution of the manual labour, suggested and pointed out by the two former operations; as, for instance, the forging, filing, and putting together of the different component parts of the lock.


These three operations are seldom performed by one and the same person. It commonly happens, that one man studies the laws and conduct of nature; that is to say, the philosopher, or man of science, of whose knowledge another avails himself to create useful products, being either agriculturist, manufacturer, or trader; while the third supplies the executive exertion, under the direction of the former two; which third person is the operative workman or labourer.


All products whatever will be found, on analysis, to derive existence from these three operations.


Take the example of a sack of wheat, or a pipe of wine. The first stage towards the attainment of either of these products was, the discovery by the natural philosopher or geologist,*66 of the conduct and course of nature in the production of the grain or the grape; the proper season and soil for sowing or planting; and the care requisite to bring the herb or plant to maturity. The tenant, if not the proprietor himself, must afterward have applied this knowledge to his own particular object, brought together the means requisite to the creation of an useful product, and removed the obstacles in the way of its creation. Finally, the labourer must have turned up the soil, sown the seed, or pruned and bound up the vine. These three distinct operations were indispensable to the complete production of the product, corn or wine.


Or take the example of a product of external commerce; such as indigo. The science of the geographer, the traveller, the astronomer, brings us acquainted with the spot where it is to be met with, and the means of crossing the seas to get at it. The merchant equips his vessels, and sends them in quest of the commodity; and the mariner and land-carrier perform the mechanical part of this production.


But, looking at the substance, indigo, as a mere primary material of a further or secondary product, of blue cloth for instance; we all know that the chemist is first applied to for information, as to the nature of the substance, the method of dissolving it, and mordants requisite for fixing the colour; the means of perfecting the process of dyeing are then collected by the master manufacturer, under whose orders the labourer executes the manual part of the process.


Industry is, in all cases, divisible into theory, application, and execution. Nor can it approximate to perfection in any nation, till that nation excel in all three branches. A people, that is deficient in one or other of them cannot acquire products, which are and must be the result of all three. And thus we may learn to appreciate the vast utility of many sciences, which, at first sight, appear to be the objects of mere curiosity and speculation.*67


The negroes of the coast of Africa are possessed of considerable ingenuity, and excel in all athletic exercises and handicraft occupations; but they seem greatly deficient in the two previous operations of industry. Wherefore, they are under the necessity of purchasing from Europe the stuffs, arms, and ornaments, they stand in need of. Their country yields so few products, notwithstanding its natural fertility, that the slave traders are obliged to lay in their stock of provisions beforehand, to feed the slaves during the voyage.*68


In qualities favourable to industry, the moderns have greatly surpassed the ancients, and the Europeans outstrip all the other nations of the globe. The meanest inhabitant of an European town enjoys innumerable comforts unattainable to the sovereign of a savage tribe. The single article, glass, that admits light into his apartment, and, at the same time, excludes the inclemency of the weather, is the beautiful result of observation and science, accumulated and perfected during a long course of ages. To obtain this luxury, it was necessary previously to know what kind of sand was convertible into a substance possessing extension, solidity, and transparency; as well as by the compound of what ingredients, and by what degree of heat, the substance was obtainable: to ascertain, besides, the best form of furnace. The very wood-work, that supports the roof of a glass-house, requires, in its construction, the most extensive knowledge of the strength of timber, and the means of employing it to advantage.


Nor was the mere knowledge of these matters sufficient; for that knowledge might possibly have lain dormant in the memory of one or two persons, or in the pages of literature. It was further requisite, that a manufacturer should have been found, possessed of the means of reducing the knowledge into practice; who should have at first made himself master of all that was known of that particular branch of industry, and afterwards have accumulated, or procured the requisite capital, collected artificers and labourers, and assigned to each his respective occupation.


Finally, the work must have been completed by the manual skill of the workmen employed; some in constructing the buildings and furnaces, some in keeping up the fire, mixing up the ingredients, blowing, cutting, rolling out, fitting and fixing the pane of glass. The utility and beauty of the resulting product, are inconceivable to those who have never beheld this admirable creation of human industry. By means of industry, the vilest materials have been invested with the highest degree of utility. The very rags and refuse of wearing apparel have been transformed into the white and thin sheets, that convey from one end of the globe to the other, the requisitions of commerce and the particulars of art; that serve as the depositories of the conceptions of genius, and the vehicles of human experience from one age to another; to them we look for the evidence of our properties; to them we entrust the most noble and amiable sentiments of the heart, and by them we awaken corresponding feelings in the breasts of our fellow-creatures. The extraordinary facilities for the communication of human intelligence which paper affords, entitles it to be considered as one of the products that have been most efficacious in ameliorating the condition of mankind. Fortunate, indeed, would it have been, had an engine so powerful never have been made the vehicle of falsehood, or the instrument of tyranny!


It is worth while to remark, that the knowledge of the man of science, indispensable as it is to the development of industry, circulates with ease and rapidity from one nation to all the rest. And men of science have themselves an interest in its diffusion; for upon that diffusion they rest their hopes of fortune, and, what is more prized by them, of reputation too. For this reason, a nation, in which science is but little cultivated, may nevertheless carry its industry to a very great length, by taking advantage of the information derivable from abroad. But there is no way of dispensing with the other two operations of industry, the art of applying the knowledge of man to the supply of his wants, and the skill of execution. These qualities are of advantage to none but their possessors; so that a country well stocked with intelligent merchants, manufacturers, and agriculturists has more powerful means of attaining prosperity, than one devoted chiefly to the pursuit of the arts and sciences. At the period of the revival of literature in Italy, Bologna was the seat of science; but wealth was centred in Florence, Genoa, and Venice.


In our days, the enormous wealth of Britain is less owing to her own advances in scientific acquirements, high as she ranks in that department, than to the wonderful practical skill of her adventurers in the useful application of knowledge, and the superiority of her workmen in rapid and masterly execution. The national pride, that the English are often charged with, does not prevent their accommodating themselves with wonderful facility to the tastes of their customers and the consumers of their produce. They supply with hats both the north and the south, because they have learnt to make them light for the one market, and warm and thick for the other. Whereas the nation that makes but of one pattern, must be content with the home market only.


The English labourer seconds the master manufacturer; he is commonly patient and laborious, and does not willingly send out an article from his hands, without giving it the utmost possible precision and perfection; not that he bestows more time upon it, but that he gives it more of his care, attention and diligence, than the workmen of most other nations.


There is no people, however, that need despair of acquiring the qualities requisite to the perfection of their industry. It is but 150 years since England herself had made so little progress, that she purchased nearly all her woollens from Belgium; and it is not more than 80 years since Germany supplied with cotton goods the very nation, that now manufactures them for the whole world.*69


I have said that the cultivator, the manufacturer, the trader, make it their business to turn to profit the knowledge already acquired, and apply it to the satisfaction of human wants. I ought further to add, that they have need of knowledge of another kind, which can only be gained in the practical pursuit of their respective occupations, and may be called their technical skill. The most scientific naturalist, with all his superior information, would probably succeed much worse than his tenant, in the attempt to improve his own land. A first-rate mechanist would most likely spin very indifferently without having served his apprenticeship, though admirably skilled in the construction of the cotton-machinery. In the arts there is a certain sort of perfection, that results only from repeated trials, sometimes successful and sometimes the contrary. So that science alone is not sufficient to ensure the progress, without the aid of experiment, which is always attended with more or less of risk, and does not always indemnify the adventurer, whose profit, even when successful, is moderated by competition; although society at large receives the accession of a new product, or, what amounts to the same thing, of an abatement in the price of an old one.


In agriculture, experiments usually cost the rent of the soil for a year or more, over and above the labour and the capital engaged in them.


In manufacture, experiment is hazarded on safer grounds of calculation, capital engaged for a much shorter period, and if success ensue, the adventurer rewarded by a longer period of exclusive advantage, because his process is less open to observation. In some places, too, the exclusive advantage is protected by patents of invention. For all which reasons, the progress of manufacturing is generally more rapid and more diversified than that of agricultural industry.


In commercial industry, the risk of experiment would be greater than in the other two branches, if the costs of the adventure had no auxiliary and concurrent object. But it is usually in the course of a regular trade, that a merchant hazards the introduction of a virgin commodity of foreign growth into an untried market. In this manner it was that the Dutch, about the middle of the seventeenth century, while prosecuting their commerce with China, with no very sanguine expectation, made experiment of a small assortment of dried leaves, from which the Chinese were in the habit of preparing their favourite beverage. Thus commenced the tea-trade, which now occasions the annual transport of more than 45 millions of pounds weight, that are sold in Europe for a sum of more than 80,000,000 of dollars.*70


In some cases of very rare occurrence, boldness is nearly certain of success. When the Europeans had recently discovered the passage round the Cape of Good Hope and the continent of America, their world was suddenly expanded to the East and West; and such was the infinity of new objects of desire in two hemispheres, whereof one was not at all, and the other but very imperfectly known before, that an adventurer had only to make the voyage, and was sure of selling his returns to great advantage.


In all but such extraordinary cases it is perhaps prudent to defray the charges of experiments in industry, not out of the capital engaged in the regular and approved channels of production, but out of the revenue that individuals have to dispose of at pleasure, without fear of impairing their fortune. The whims and caprices that divert to an useful end the leisure and revenue which most men devote to mere amusement, or perhaps to something worse, cannot be too highly encouraged. I can conceive no more noble employment of wealth and talent. A rich and philanthropic individual may, in this way, be the means of conferring upon the industrious classes, and upon the consumers at large, in other words, upon the mass of mankind, a benefit far beyond the mere value of what he actually disburses, perhaps beyond the whole amount of his fortune however princely it may be. Who will attempt to calculate the value conferred on mankind by the unknown inventor of the plough?*71


A government, that knows and practices its duties, and has large resources at its disposal, does not abandon to individuals the whole glory and merit of invention and discovery in the field of industry. The charges of experiment, when defrayed by the government, are not subtracted from the national capital, but from the national revenue; for taxation never does, or, at least, never ought to touch any thing beyond the revenue of individuals. The portion of them so spent is scarcely felt at all, because the burthen is divided among innumerable contributors; and, the advantages resulting from success being a common benefit to all, it is by no means inequitable that the sacrifices, by which they are obtained, should fall on the community at large.

Notes for this chapter

Agronome: I am not aware of any corresponding English term, denoting the student in that branch of geology conversant with the properties of the surface of the earth; in other words, the scientific agriculturist. Translator.
Besides the direct impulse, given by science to progressive industry, and which indeed is indispensable to its success, it affords an indirect assistance, by the gradual removal of prejudice; and by teaching mankind to rely more upon their own exertions, than on the aid of superhuman power. Ignorance is the inseparable concomitant of practical habits, of that slavery of custom which stands in the way of all improvement; it is ignorance that imputes to a supernatural cause the ravages of an epidemical disease, which might perhaps be easily prevented or eradicated, and makes mankind recur to superstitious observances, when precaution, or the application of the remedy, is all that is wanted. Sciences, like facts, are linked together by a chain of general connexion, and yield one another mutual support and corroboration.
See Œuvres de Poivre, p. 77, 78.
The cotton manufacture did not exist in England in the 17th century. In 1705, we see by the returns of the English customs, that the raw cotton manufactured in that country then amounted to no more than 1,170,880 pounds weight. In 1785, the quantity imported was 6,706,000 lbs.; but in 1790 it had got up to 25,941,000 lbs., and in 1817 to as much as 131,951,000 lbs., for the English market and for re-exportation. The quantity of cotton imported in 1831 into the United Kingdoms, was 288,708,453 lbs.
Voyage Commerciel et Politique aux Indes Orientales, par M. Felix Renouard de Sainte Croix.
Thanks to the art of Printing, the names of the benefactors of mankind will henceforward be lastingly recorded; and if I mistake not, with more veneration than those which derive lustre from the deplorable exploits of military prowess. Among these will be preserved the names of Olivier de Serres, the father of French agriculture; the first who established an experimental farm; of Duhamel, of Malsherbes, to whom France is indebted for many vegetables now naturalized in her soil and climate: of Lavoisier, whose new system of chemistry has effected a still more important revolution in the arts; and of the numerous scientific travellers of modern times; for travels, with an useful object, may be regarded as adventures in the field of industry.

Book I, Chapter VII

End of Notes

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