Introductory Lectures on Political Economy

Whately, Richard
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London: B. Fellowes
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Lecture VII


It appears that Society, when once placed in a position removed a certain degree above utter barbarism, has a tendency, so far as wars, unwise institutions, imperfect and oppressive laws, and other such obstacles, do not interfere, to advance, in Wealth and in the Arts which pertain to human life and enjoyment.


How far such an advancement is favourable or unfavourable to that higher and better kind of Civilization which consists in moral elevation and improvement, is a digressive indeed, but a very important, inquiry, and one intimately connected at least, with the subject before us.


At first, the division of labour would be but imperfect, and mutual intercourse between different parts of the country, difficult and limited. In each of the scattered villages, several different arts would be exercised, with a very humble degree of skill, by the same person. Much labour would be wasted, through the want of tools, the clumsiness of implements, and the unskilfulness of workmen; and though the total produce of labour would be far less in proportion than in such a country, for instance, as ours, there would be a much smaller proportion of persons who could enjoy an exemption from bodily labour; and the leisure again which some would enjoy, would conduce, but in a comparatively small degree, to their intellectual advancement; from their living within a confined circle, and wanting, in great measure, the excitement and the help of mutual communication.


Subsequently, the advances which would be made in respect of each of these points, would all re-act on each other. Increasing division of labour, would lead to an increase of exchanges, and this, to the employment of money; and these latter improvements would, in turn, promote the first. All of these causes would tend to produce and to improve, roads, canals, and also navigation, and other means of conveyance for goods and persons; and this facilitation of intercourse again, both within the country, and with foreign nations, would re-act upon its causes, and accelerate that increase of capital from which it had sprung.


And thus a larger proportion of the Community, and that of a much more numerous Community, would be at leisure from mere mechanical toil, and would be enabled to turn their attention to some more refined sources of enjoyment than mere sensual indulgence; while their mutual intercourse would at once facilitate the improvement of their faculties by mutual collision, and at the same time direct the emulation of many of them into a new channel. Some, indeed, of the wealthier members of the Community would vie with each other merely in sumptuous feasts, and splendour of dress, or in the most frivolous accomplishments: but others again would be incited to direct, either their chief attention, or, at least, some part of it, towards the pursuit of knowledge; either with a view to some practical end, or for its own sake.


And here, again, we may perceive the benevolent wisdom of Providence, in not making the public good dependent on pure public-spirit. He who labours to acquire, and then to communicate, important knowledge, solely, or principally, with a view to the benefit of his fellow-creatures, is a character more admirable than it is common. Knowledge would not have made the advances it has, if it had been promoted only by such persons. Far the greater part of it may be considered as the gift, not of human, but of divine, benevolence; which has implanted in man a thirst after knowledge for its own sake, accompanied with a sort of instinctive desire to impart it. For I think there is in man, independent of the desire of admiration, (called, in its faulty excess, Vanity,) which is a most powerful stimulus to the acquisition and propagation of knowledge—independent of this, I say, there is, connected with the desire of gaining knowledge, a desire (founded, I imagine, on Sympathy) of communicating it to others, as an ultimate end. This, and also the love of display, are, no doubt, inferior motives, and will be superseded by a higher principle, in proportion as the individual advances in moral excellence. These motives constitute, as it were, a kind of scaffolding, which should be taken down by little and little, as the perfect building advances, but which is of indispensable use till that is completed. To these inferior motives then, (which those who delight in degrading human nature, by applying to each propensity a name implying something faulty or contemptible, would call, Curiosity and Vanity,)—to these, with an intermixture greater or less of higher motives, we owe the chief part of the progress of society in knowledge.


Ulterior objects of utility do also contribute to supply motives. It is proverbial, that " Necessity is the Mother of Invention:" but the inventions thence originating will usually be of a simple and rude character. The barbarous and semi-barbarous nations, which are the most necessitous—the most frequently impelled to exert their faculties under this harsh instructress, have little to boast of in their contrivances, compared with those which arise in a more advanced stage of society. On those, however, who are not under the pressure of mere necessity, the desire of gain has often operated to sharpen their faculties and to extend their knowledge. But it is not solely, or even chiefly, by an ulterior view to profit, that men have been incited to the pursuit of knowledge. On the contrary, it is, as Cicero observes, when men are released from the avocations of necessary business, that they are especially led to fix their desires on the hearing, the learning, the investigating, of whatever is attractive through its intrinsic grandeur or its novelty. "Cum sumus necessariis negotiis curisque vacui, tum, avemus aliquid videre, audire, ac discere; cognitionemque rerum aut occultarum, aut admirabilium, ad beate vivendum necessariam ducimus."


Accordingly, many of the discoveries which have proved the most useful, were probably the result of investigations not conducted with a view to utility. Those who first watched the eclipses of Jupiter's satellites, had probably no thought of the important aid to navigation to which their observations were to lead. But indirectly, and as subsidiary to the thirst for knowledge, the desire of gain has led to very important results in this branch of improvement. The most important, perhaps, of all inventions, is that of a paper, sufficiently cheap to allow of its general use; for the introduction of printing would speedily spring from this, to meet the demand for books; and indeed, some contrivance of the nature of printing is extremely obvious, and, though in an imperfect state, was known long before; but could never be extensively applied, till a sufficiently cheap material for books should be invented. Now these arts were probably devised with a view to the profit of the inventors; but it was the demand for literary productions that must have held out the hope of this profit.


Knowledge then, and intellectual cultivation and refinement, being thus advanced, would, from the nature of the case, continually tend, as well as national wealth, towards a still further increase, without any limits that we are able to assign.


And such a state of things one would certainly, at the first glance, expect to be, on the whole, favourable rather than not, to the moral improvement of mankind. The presumptions are manifestly on the affirmative side. For in the first place, there is one antecedent presumption, from what we know of the divine dispensations, both natural and supernatural. I am aware, what caution is called for in any attempt to reason à priori from our notions of the character and designs of the Supreme Being. But in this case there is a clear analogy before us. We know that God placed the Human Species in such a situation, and endued them with such faculties and propensities, as would infallibly tend to the advancement of Society in wealth, and in all the arts of life; instead of either creating Man a different kind of Being, or leaving him in that wild and uninstructed state, from which, as we have seen, he could never have emerged. Now if the natural consequence of this advancement be a continual progress from bad to worse—if the increase of wealth, and the development of the intellectual powers, tend, not to the improvement, but rather to the depravation, of the moral character—we may safely pronounce this to be at variance with all analogy;—a complete reversal of every other appointment that we see throughout creation. And it is completely at variance with the revealed will of God. For, the great impediments to the progress I am speaking of are, war and dissension of every kind, insecurity of property—indolence and neglect of providing for ourselves, and for those dependent on us. Now God has forbidden Man to kill, and to steal; He has inculcated on him gentleness, honesty, submission to lawful authority, and industry in providing for his own household: if therefore the advancement in national wealth, which is found to be, by the appointment of Providence, the result of obedience to these precepts—if, I say, this advancement naturally tends to counteract that improvement of the moral character, which the same God has pointed out to us as the great business of this life, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion, that He has given contradictory commands;—that He has directed us to pursue a course of action, which leads to an end the very opposite of what we are required to aim at.


In the next place, it may be observed, that, as the tendencies towards selfishness and rapacity—cruelty—deceit—sensuality—and all other vices; exist in all mankind in every state of society; so, the counteracting and restraining principles, of Prudence, Morality, and Religion, will have the less or the more sway, (speaking generally, and taking a society in the mass,) according as each society is less or more advanced from a state of rude and barbarian ignorance. Savages, it should be remembered, and all men in proportion as they approach the condition of savages, are men in respect of their passions, while, in intellect, they are children. Those who speak of a state of nature, i.e. of uncultivated nature, as one of pure and virtuous simplicity, and regard vice as something introduced, imported, and artificial, are ignorant of what they might learn from observation, and even from consciousness, as well as from Scripture—the corruption of human nature. The actual existence of this—the proneness, i.e. of Man to let the baser propensities bear rule over Reason and Conscience, and to misdirect his conduct accordingly—this corruption, or original-sin, or frailty, or sinfulness, or whatever name it may be called by, is, I say, in respect of its actual existence, not a matter of Revelation, (any more than that the sun gives light by day,) but of experience. What Revelation does teach us is, that it is not to be accounted for merely by bad education, unwise laws, excess of artificial refinement, or any such cause, but arises from something inherent in the human breast; inasmuch as we have before us the recorded case of those who fell from a state of innocence, when none of those other causes existed.


Human nature then being such, it is idle to expect that it will remain pure by being merely left uncultivated;—that noxious weeds will not spring up in it, unless the seeds of them are brought, and artificially sown. The contrivance mentioned by Herodotus of that Queen of Babylon, who removed every night the bridge over the Euphrates, that the inhabitants of the opposite sides might not pass over to rob each other, was not more preposterous than the idea of maintaining virtue among men by precluding them from mutual intercourse, and keeping them secluded from each other, in a state of barbarian rudeness and ignorance.


If it be true that Man's duty coincides with his real interest both in this world and the next, the better he is qualified by intellectual culture, and diffusion of knowledge, to understand his duty, and his interest, the greater prospect there would seem to be (other points being equal) of his moral improvement. For, that Integrity, Temperance, and other Virtues, which often require us to forego present gratification, do, in the long run, conduce to our temporal prosperity and enjoyment, is a truth which is perceived more and more as our views become enlarged; and cannot be comprehended at all by those who are so dull and unthinking as hardly to look beyond the passing moment.


If again our religion be true, and be important for the amelioration of mankind, it must be important that the knowledge of it should be diffused, and enlightened views of it entertained. Now as a very poor Community is likely to be a comparatively ignorant one, (since men universally occupied in a difficult struggle to subsist, must have little leisure and little inclination for intellectual culture,) so, the religion of a very ignorant people must always be a gross and debasing superstition, either inoperative on their conduct, or mischievous in its operation. Christianity is designed, and is calculated, for all mankind, except savages and such as are but little removed above the savage state. Men are not indeed (unhappily) always the better Christians in proportion as they advance in refinement and intellectual cultivation: these are even compatible with utter irreligion. But all experience shews, that a savage (though he may be trained to adore a crucifix or an image of the Virgin) cannot be a Christian. In all the successful efforts of Missionaries among savages, civilization and conversion have gone hand in hand.


In the next place it may be observed, that, agricultural improvement, accumulation of capital, commercial resources, and the other results of national wealth, afford the best preservative against the calamity of occasional famines;—such extremities, I mean, of famine, as (with all the distresses occasioned among us by unfavourable seasons) we have no notion of but by description:—such famines as, if you look back to the history of ruder times, you will see noticed as of no unfrequent occurrence. Now nothing, perhaps, tends more to deteriorate the human character than the pressure (especially a sudden pressure) of severe distress;—"malesuada fames," as the Poet calls it. Even great part of the corruption of morals induced by War, is through the medium of the sudden indigence to which men are reduced by its ravages. "In peace and prosperity," says Thucydides, "men are better disposed; from their not being driven into distressing difficulties, but War is a severe instructor (Greek biaioz didaskaloz, nearly answering to Virgil's "malesuada fames,") and, depriving them of the abundant supply of their daily wants, tends to make the moral character of the generality conformable to the existing state of things*26."


In the last place, you may observe what a security is afforded to a Community advanced in wealth, in the use of artillery, and the science of the engineer, against that most demoralizing, as well as otherwise frightful, calamity, the overrunning of a civilized nation by hordes of Barbarians; which happened to the Roman Empire, and led to that dismal and degraded period known by the name of the Dark Ages. From the recurrence of precisely such an event, the civilized world is secured, through the arts connected with the use of gunpowder. These arts, as experience has shewn, have not rendered wars more frequent or more destructive; and though wars still occur, to the disgrace of rational Beings and of Christians, their ravages, frightful as they are, produce no effect comparable to the subjugation of a civilized nation by a tribe of Huns. It may be observed, however, in addition, that commerce between different nations, (which is both an effect and a cause of national wealth,) by making them mutually dependent, tends to lessen their disposition to go to war. Many wars have indeed been occasioned by commercial jealousy; but it will be found, that in almost every instance this has arisen, on one side, if not on both, from unsound views of Political-Economy, which have occasioned the general interests of the community, to a very great amount, to be sacrificed for a much smaller advantage to a few individuals. The ruinous expensiveness also of war (which will never be adequately estimated till the spread of civilization shall have gained general admission for just views of Political-Economy) would alone, if fairly computed, be almost sufficient to banish war from the earth.


On the whole, then, there seems every reason to believe, that, as a general rule, that advancement in National Prosperity which mankind are, by the Governor of the universe, adapted, and impelled, to promote, must be favourable to moral improvement. Still more does it appear evident, that such a conclusion must be acceptable to a pious and philanthropic mind: If it is not probable, still less is it desirable, that the Deity should have fitted and destined Society to make a continual progress, impeded only by slothful and negligent habits, by war, rapine, and oppression, (in short, by violations of divine commands,) which progress inevitably tends towards a greater and greater moral corruption.


And yet there are some who appear not only to think, but to wish to think, that a condition but little removed from the savage state—one of ignorance, grossness, and poverty—unenlightened, semi-barbarous, and stationary, is the most favourable to virtue. You will meet with persons who will be even offended if you attempt to awaken them from their dreams about primitive rural simplicity, and to convince them that the spread of civilization, which, they must see, has a tendency to spread, does not tend to increase depravity. Supposing their notion true, it must at least, one would think, be a melancholy truth.


It may be said, as a reason, not for wishing, but for believing this, that the moral dangers which beset a wealthy community are designed as a trial. Undoubtedly they are; since no state in which Man is placed is exempt from trials. And let it be admitted also if you will, that the temptations to evil, to which civilized Man is exposed, are, absolutely, stronger than those which exist in a ruder state of society; still, if they are also relatively stronger—stronger in proportion to the counteracting forces, and stronger than the augmented motives to good conduct—and are such, consequently, that, as Society advances in civilization, there is less and less virtue, and a continually decreasing prospect of its being attained—this amounts to something more than a state of trial: it is a distinct provision made by the Deity for the moral degradation of his rational creatures.


This can hardly be a desirable conclusion: but if it be nevertheless a true one, (and our wishes should not be allowed to bias our judgment,) those who hold it, ought at least to follow it up in practice, by diminishing, as far as is possible, the severity of the trial. There is no virtue in exposing ourselves to temptations which may be avoided;—in cultivating, or neglecting to extirpate, the poisonous nightshade with its tempting and deadly berries. Let Mandevillians read the Fable of the Bees, and advocate the measures which the Author, in conclusion, (I myself am inclined to think, sincerely, but at any rate, consistently,) recommends. Let us put away from us "the accursed thing." If national wealth be, in a moral point of view, an evil, let us, in the name of all that is good, set about to diminish it. Let us, as he advises, burn our fleets, block up our ports, destroy our manufactories, break up our roads, and betake ourselves to a life of frugal and rustic simplicity; like Mandeville's bees, who

"flew into a hollow tree,
Blest with content and honesty."


I will conclude this Lecture with some brief remarks, intended merely to suggest matter for your own consideration, on the principal causes which have led to an erroneous estimate of the superior virtue of a poor and half-civilized condition of society.


One powerful, but little-suspected cause, I take to be, an early familiarity with poetical descriptions, of pure, unsophisticated, rustic life, in remote, sequestered, and unenlightened, districts;—of the manly virtue and practical wisdom of our simple forefathers, before the refinements of luxury had been introduced;—of the adventurous wildness, so stimulating to the imagination, of savage or pastoral life, in the midst of primæval forests, lofty mountains, and all the grand scenery of uncultivated nature. Such subjects and scenes are much better adapted for Poets than thronged cities, work-shops, coal-pits, and iron-foundries. And Poets, whose object is to please, of course keep out of sight all the odious or disgusting circumstances pertaining to the life of the savage or the untutored clown, and dwell exclusively on all the amiable and admirable parts of that simplicity of character which they feign or fancy. Early associations are thus formed; whose influence is often the stronger and the more lasting, from the very circumstance that they are formed unconsciously, and do not come in the form of propositions demanding a deliberate assent. Poetry does not profess to aim at conviction; but it often leaves impressions which affect the Reasoning and the Judgment. And a false impression is perhaps oftener conveyed in other ways, than by sophistical argument; because that rouses the mind to exert its powers, and to assume, as it were, a reasoning mood.*27


The very senses, again, in such as possess a taste for rural scenery, aid in such associations. A thatched cottage on a flowery heath, on the border of a fine wood, or the bark-covered sheds of Indians, amidst the noble forests and rivers of America, are more picturesque objects, than a comfortable brick-house near a turnpike-road, and surrounded with corn-fields. And the imagination is led to suggest the connexion of what is morally, with what is physically beautiful. In the account of a youth who was born blind, and couched by Mr. Chesselden, it is mentioned, that he was greatly astonished at not finding, as he had expected, that the persons and other objects, which had been the most agreeable to him in other respects, were also the most pleasing to the sight. The converse of this mistake may, in a certain degree, be found in many. Not a few who have passed good part of their lives in the country, and travelled through regions celebrated for wild and romantic scenery, know in fact very little of the character of men in any class of life but their own, except from the descriptions of poets; but take for granted that the picturesque hovels of mountaineers must be the abode of nothing but peaceful innocence and felicity and must have much the advantage in this respect of a smoky and bustling town. "We give you joy of your innocence, but covet not your silliness.*28


Moreover, travellers have sometimes, without any design to deceive, given very overcharged pictures of the moral state of savage or half-civilized nations; whom they have perhaps chanced to see under favourable circumstances; and then, reporting faithfully what came under their observation, have supplied the rest from their own conjectures.


Another cause which powerfully cooperates with the foregoing, is, that those who are themselves members of a wealthy and civilized community, know all the vices and other evils which prevail in such a community; while, of those existing in a different state of things, they are ignorant. And when vexed and mortified at the evils we see among ourselves, the feeling which Horace describes in reference to a different point, the disposition to imagine others better off than ourselves, (laudet diversa sequentes,) induces us to think that another state of society may be exempt from such evils; inasmuch as we are sure it cannot have the very same. Avarice, for instance, we commonly denote by the phrase, "love of money;" and hence we are led to imagine, that a people among whom there is no money, must be free from avarice: and so in other points. In other instances again it will be found, that the vices to which civilized men are liable, are really different in kind from those of the uncultivated; and, though the latter are not the less in reality vices, or, necessarily, of the less magnitude, they are more likely to be overlooked by those whose attention has been habitually directed to a different class of faults.


It is wonderful what an apparently strong case may, on this principle, be made out against any given form of Society, by dwelling, in a style of eloquent declamation, on all the follies and crimes existing in it, described according to the particular shape they assume in that particular society; thus leading the unreflective reader to forget, that faults substantially the same, or equivalent ones, may exist no less in other forms of Society also. A beautiful specimen of this kind of artifice may be found in Burke's "Defence of Natural Society," written in the assumed person of Lord Bolingbroke, to expose the same kind of sophistry, employed by that author against revealed religion.


There is also probably much error occasioned by a fallacy so obvious as soon as noticed, that hardly any one ever suspects himself of a liability to be misled by it; that, I mean, of neglecting to take into account in our calculations, the relative numbers of the persons we are speaking of. Since increase of national wealth is, I believe I may say, always, accompanied by an increase of population, it is evident that unless allowance be made for this, when we are computing the amount of crime in two countries, the result will always be unduly favourable to the poorer community.


We must be improved incredibly, if the absolute amount of crime in this island is not greater than when its population was, perhaps, one-fifth of what it now is. In any one of the United States of America, the number of persons tried and convicted of offences, probably equals or exceeds the whole population of the tribes of wild Indians, who formerly wandered over the same district. In the same way, men are liable to form an over-estimate of the purity of morals in the Country, as compared with a Town; or in a barren and thinly peopled, as compared with a fertile and populous, district. On a given area, it must always be expected, that the absolute amount of vice will be greater in a Town than in the Country; so also will be that of virtue: but the proportions of the two must be computed on quite different principles. A physician of great skill and in high repute, probably loses many more patients than an ordinary practitioner; but this proves nothing, till we have ascertained the comparative numbers of their patients. Yet this, which is as clear when stated as any arithmetical proposition can be, is often, through inadvertency, overlooked in other cases as well as this; and important practical mistakes are frequently the result.


It should be observed also, that in large towns, and in populous districts intersected by roads which furnish a rapid conveyance of intelligence from place to place, and where newspapers are in common use, much more in proportion is known of every enormity that is perpetrated, than in remote country-districts, thinly peopled, where there is less facility of mutual communication, and where the natural appetite for news is compelled to limit itself to the gossip of the nearest hamlet. Much apparent increase of crime (I will not undertake to say how much) consists, I am convinced, in the increase of newspapers. For crimes, especially (be it observed) such as are the most remote from the experience of each individual, and therefore strike him as something strange, always furnish interesting articles of intelligence. I have no doubt that a single murder in Great Britain has often furnished matter for discourse to more than twenty times as many persons as any twenty such murders would in Turkey. We should remember, that there are not more particles of dust in the sunbeam than in any other part of the room; though we see them more where the light is stronger.


On the whole then, I think we may conclude, that the notions of those who consider a poor and imperfectly civilized community as possessing, cæteris paribus, superior or even equal advantages in point of moral improvement, are as much opposed to reason and to experience, as they are to every rational wish: and that as the Most High has evidently formed Society with a tendency to advancement in National Wealth, so, He has designed and fitted us, to advance, by means of that, in Virtue, and true Wisdom, and Happiness.


But every situation in which Man can be placed has, along with its own peculiar advantages, its own peculiar difficulties and trials also; which we are called on to exert our faculties in providing against. The most fertile soil does not necessarily bear the most abundant harvest; its weeds, if neglected, will grow the rankest. And the servant who has received but one talent, if he put it out to use, will fare better than he who has been entrusted with five, if he squander or bury them. But still, this last does not suffer because he received five talents; but because he has not used them to advantage.


I am far from thinking, that any nation has realized as fully as it might have done, and may yet do, the picture I have drawn of the apparent design of a bountiful Providence;—that men have availed themselves of the advantages which increased and increasing national wealth holds out, in respect of moral advancement, to the extent to which they would, if these advantages had been duly contemplated, as such.


Almost every one, when a state of "civilization" is spoken of, understands by that phrase, our own state, and that of the other most refined European nations. No doubt we are more civilized than our ancestors, and than the mass of mankind at the present day. But I hope and trust that our posterity five centuries hence will look back on us as semi-barbarians.


Some remarks on the difficulties and dangers most peculiar to a wealthy community, and on the faults which its members are most apt to commit, in not rightly availing themselves of its peculiar advantages—in not rightly estimating those duties, and guarding against those dangers, which are especially connected with such a state of things—in short, in not acting conformably to the situation in which they are placed—will form the subject of the next Lecture.*29

Notes for this chapter

Greek quotation
In a very recent publication I have seen mention made of a person who discovered the falsity of a certain doctrine (which, by the way, is nevertheless a true one) instinctively. This kind of instinct, i.e. the habit of forming opinions at the suggestion rather of feeling than of reason, is very common.
Greek quotation
The views here taken are greatly at variance with a theory which, I regret to think, has obtained considerable currency; chiefly, I conceive, on the supposed authority of Mr. Malthus; in whose work however I have never myself been able to find this doctrine.

"Population having," it is said, "a tendency to increase in geometrical, and subsistence, only in arithmetical progression, it follows that, in each successive generation, the pressure of population on the means of support, and the consequent misery which is the result, must, unless new and extraordinary remedies be adopted, become greater and greater."

On this theory, our own country, and almost every other in the civilized world, ought to possess scantier means of subsistence in proportion to the population, now, than some centuries ago.

But we know that the reverse is the fact; and that our population, though so greatly increased since the time, for instance, of Henry VIII., is yet better off, on the average, in point of food, clothing, and habitations, than then.

It is urged, however, that since want and misery do exist among the lower classes, this is a proof that their numbers have gone on increasing at too great a rate. So it is: but the existence of an excess does not prove that that excess is increasing; or that it is not diminishing. What would be thought of one who should reason thus;—the flood is increasing, and must be expected to extend further and further; for though it is lower to-day than yesterday, still there are fields under water, which ought to be dry:—There is, in February, a progress towards total darkness; for though each day is longer than the last, still the nights are too long in proportion to the days!

But we are to expect, it seems, that the same causes which have always been in operation, are henceforth to lead to results opposite to all that have taken place hitherto. "Xanthe retro propera, versæque recurrite lymphæ!"

To any one who will steadily stand by his theory in the face of notorious facts, all arguments would be vain. But as an illustration of the importance of a careful employment of language, I have, in the Ninth Lecture, traced the error in question to its origin, in the ambiguity (that common source of confusion of thought) in the word "tendency."

End of Notes

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