The National System of Political Economy

Friedrich List
List, Friedrich
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J. Shield Nicholson, ed. Sampson S. Lloyd, trans.
First Pub. Date
London: Longmans, Green, and Co.
Pub. Date
34 of 46


Book III, Chapter XXVIII


ITALY has been the forerunner of all modern nations, in the theory as well as in the practice of Political Economy. Count Pechio has given us a laboriously written sketch of that branch of Italian literature; only his book is open to the observation, that he has clung too slavishly to the popular theory, and has not duly set forth the fundamental causes of the decline of Italy's national industry—the absence of national unity, surrounded as she was by great nationalities united under hereditary monarchies; further, priestly rule and the downfall of municipal freedom in the Italian republics and cities. If he had more deeply investigated these causes, he could not have failed to apprehend the special tendency of the 'Prince' of Macchiavelli, and he would not have passed that author by with merely an incidental reference to him.*90


Through a remark of Pechio, that Macchiavelli in a letter to his friend Guicciardini (in 1525) had proposed a union of all the Powers of Italy against the foreigner, and that as that letter was communicated to Pope Clement VII. he had thus exercised considerable influence in the formation of the 'Holy League' (in 1526), we were led to imagine that the same tendency must underlie the 'Prince.' As soon as we referred to that work, we found our anticipation confirmed at first sight. The object of the 'Prince' (written in 1513) was clearly to impress the Medici with the idea, that they were called upon to unite the whole of Italy under one sovereignty; and to indicate to them the means whereby that end might be attained. The title and form of that book, as though its general intention was to treat of the nature of absolute government, were undoubtedly selected from motives of prudence. It only alludes incidentally to the various hereditary Princes and their governments. Everywhere the author has in view only one Italian usurper. Principalities must be overthrown, dynasties destroyed, the feudal aristocracy brought under subjection, liberty in the republics rooted out. The virtues of heaven and the artifices of hell, wisdom and audacity, valour and treachery, good fortune and chance, must all be called forth, made use of, and tried by the usurper, in order to found an Italian empire. And to this end a secret is confided to him, the power of which has been thoroughly made manifest three hundred years later—a national army must be created, to whom victory must be assured by new discipline and by newly invented arms and manœuvres.*91


If the general character of his arguments leaves room for doubt as to the special bias of this author, such doubt will be removed by his last chapter. There he plainly declares that foreign invasions and internal divisions are the fundamental causes of all the evils prevailing in Italy; that the House of the Medici, under whose dominion were (fortunately) Tuscany and the States of the Church, were called by Providence itself to accomplish that great work; that the present was the best time and opportunity for introducing a new régime, that now a new Moses must arise to deliver his people from the bondage of Egypt, that nothing conferred on a Prince more distinction and fame than great enterprises.*92


That anyone may read between the lines the tendency of that book in the other chapters also, may be best seen by the manner in which the author in his ninth chapter speaks of the States of the Church. It is merely an irony when he says, 'The priests possessed lands but did not govern them, they held lordships but did not defend them; these happiest of all territories were directly protected by God's Providence, it would be presumption to utter a criticism upon them.' He clearly by this language meant it to be understood without saying so in plain words: This country presents no special impediment to a bold conqueror, especially to a Medici whose relative occupies the Papal chair.


But how can we explain the advice which Macchiavelli gives to his proposed usurper respecting the republics, considering his own republican sentiments? And must it be solely attributed to a design on his part to ingratiate himself with the Prince to whom his book is dedicated, and thus to gain private advantages, when he, the zealous republican, the great thinker and literary genius, the patriotic martyr, advised the future usurper utterly to destroy the freedom of the Italian republics? It cannot be denied that Macchiavelli, at the time when he wrote the 'Prince,' was languishing in poverty, that he regarded the future with anxiety, that he earnestly longed and hoped for employment and support from the Medici. A letter which he wrote on October 10, 1513, from his poor dwelling in the country to his friend Bettori, at Florence, places that beyond doubt.*93


Nevertheless, there are strong reasons for believing that he by this book did not merely design to flatter the Medici, and to gain private advantage, but to promote the realisation of a plan of usurpation; a plan which was not opposed to his republican-patriotic ideas, though according to the moral ideas of our day it must be condemned as reprehensible and wicked. His writings and his deeds in the service of the State prove that Macchiavelli was thoroughly acquainted with the history of all periods, and with the political condition of all States. But an eye which could see so far backwards, and so clearly what was around it, must also have been able to see far into the future. A spirit which even at the beginning of the sixteenth century recognised the advantage of the national arming of Italy, must also have seen that the time for small republics was past, that the period for great monarchies had arrived, that nationality could, under the circumstances then existing, be won only by means of usurpation, and maintained only by despotism, that the oligarchies as they then existed in the Italian republics constituted the greatest obstacle to national unity, that consequently they must be destroyed, and that national freedom would one day grow out of national unity. Macchiavelli evidently desired to cast away the worn-out liberty of a few cities as a prey to despotism, hoping by its aid to acquire national union, and thus to insure to future generations freedom on a greater and a nobler scale.


The earliest work written specially on Political Economy in Italy, is that of Antonio Serra of Naples (in 1613), on the means of providing 'the Kingdoms' with an abundance of gold and silver.


J. B. Say and M'Culloch appear to have seen and read only the title of this book: they each pass it over with the remark that it merely treats of money; and its title certainly shows that the author laboured under the error of considering the precious metals as the sole constituents of wealth. If they had read farther into it, and duly considered its contents, they might perhaps have derived from it some wholesome lessons. Antonio Serra, although he fell into the error of considering an abundance of gold and silver as the tokens of wealth, nevertheless expresses himself tolerably clearly on the causes of it.


He certainly puts mining in the first place as the direct source of the precious metals; but he treats very justly of the indirect means of acquiring them. Agriculture, manufactures, commerce, and navigation, are, according to him, the chief sources of national wealth. The fertility of the soil is a sure source of prosperity; manufactures are a still more fruitful source, for several reasons, but chiefly because they constitute the foundation of an extensive commerce. The productiveness of these sources depends on the characteristic qualifications of the people (viz. whether they are industrious, active, enterprising, thrifty, and so forth), also on the nature and circumstances of the locality (whether, for instance, a city is well situated for maritime trade). But above all these causes, Serra ranks the form of government, public order, municipal liberty, political guarantees, the stability of the laws. 'No country can prosper,' says he, 'where each successive ruler enacts new laws, hence the States of the Holy Father cannot be so prosperous as those countries whose government and legislation are more stable. In contrast with the former, one may observe in Venice the effect which a system of order and legislation, which has continued for centuries, has on the public welfare.' This is the quintessence of a system of Political Economy which in the main, notwithstanding that its object appears to be only the acquisition of the precious metals, is remarkable for its sound and natural doctrine. The work of J. B. Say, although it comprises ideas and matter on Political Economy of which Antonio Serra had in his day no foreknowledge, is far inferior to Serra's on the main points, and especially as respects a due estimate of the effect of political circumstances on the wealth of nations. Had Say studied Serra instead of laying his work aside, he could hardly have maintained (in the first page of his system of Political Economy) that 'the constitution of countries cannot be taken into account in respect to Political Economy; that the people have become rich, and become poor, under every form of government; that the only important point is, that its administration should be good.'


We are far from desiring to maintain the absolute preferableness of any one form of government compared with others. One need only cast a glance at the Southern States of America, to be convinced that democratic forms of government among people who are not ripe for them can become the cause of decided retrogression in public prosperity. One need only look at Russia, to perceive that people who are yet in a low degree of civilisation are capable of making most remarkable progress in their national well-being under an absolute monarchy. But that in no way proves that people have become rich, i.e. have attained the highest degree of economical well-being, under all forms of government. History rather teaches us that such a degree of public well-being, namely, a flourishing state of manufactures and commerce, has been attained in those countries only whose political constitution (whether it bear the name of democratic or aristocratic republic, or limited monarchy) has secured to their inhabitants a high degree of personal liberty and of security of property, whose administration has guaranteed to them a high degree of activity and power successfully to strive for the attainment of their common objects, and of steady continuity in those endeavours. For in a state of highly advanced civilisation, it is not so important that the administration should be good for a certain period, but that it should be continuously and conformably good; that the next administration should not destroy the good work of the former one; that a thirty years' administration of Colbert should not be followed by a Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, that for successive centuries one should follow one and the same system, and strive after one and the same object. Only under those political constitutions in which the national interests are represented (and not under an absolute Government, under which the State administration is necessarily always modified according to the individual will of the ruler) can such a steadiness and consistency of administration be secured, as Antonio Serra rightly observes. On the other hand, there are undoubtedly certain grades of civilisation in which the administration by absolute power may prove far more favourable to the economical and mental progress of the nation (and generally is so) than that of a limited monarchy. We refer to periods of slavery and serfdom, of barbarism and superstition, of national disunity, and of caste privileges. For, under such circumstances, the constitution tends to secure not only the interests of the nation, but also the continuance of the prevailing evils, whereas it is the interest and the nature of absolute government to destroy the latter, and it is also possible that an absolute ruler may arise of distinguished power and sagacity, who may cause the nation to make advances for centuries, and secure to its nationality existence and progress for all future time.


It is consequently only a conditional commonplace truth on the faith of which J. B. Say would exclude politics from his doctrine. In every case it is the chief desideratum that the administration should be good; but the efficiency of the administration depends on the form of government, and that form of government is clearly the best which most promotes the moral and material welfare and the future progress of any given nation. Nations have made some progress under all forms of government. But a high degree of economical development has only been attained in those nations whose form of government has been such as to secure to them a high degree of freedom and power, of steadiness of laws and of policy, and efficient institutions.


Antonio Serra sees the nature of things as it actually exists, and not through the spectacles of previous systems, or of some one principle which he is determined to advocate and carry out. He draws a comparison between the condition of the various States of Italy, and perceives that the greatest degree of wealth is to be found where there is extensive commerce; that extensive commerce exists where there is a well-developed manufacturing power, but that the latter is to be found where there is municipal freedom.


The opinions of Beccaria are pervaded by the false doctrines of the physiocratic school. That author indeed either discovered, or derived from Aristotle, the principle of the division of labour, either before, or contemporaneously with, Adam Smith; he, however, carries it farther than Adam Smith, inasmuch as he not only applies it to the division of the work in a single manufactory, but shows that the public welfare is promoted by the division of occupation among the members of the community. At the same time he does not hesitate, with the physiocrats, to assert that manufactures are non-productive.


The views of the great philosophical jurist, Filangieri, are about the narrowest of all. Imbued with false cosmopolitanism, he considers that England, by her protective policy, has merely given a premium to contraband trade, and weakened her own commerce.


Verri, as a practical statesman, could not err so widely as that. He admits the necessity of protection to native industry against foreign competition; but did not or could not see that such a policy is conditional on the greatness and unity of the nationality.

Notes for this chapter

During a journey in Germany which the author undertook while this work was in the press, he learned for the first time that Doctors Von Ranke and Gervinus have criticised Macchiavelli's Prince from the same point of view as himself.
Everything that Macchiavelli has written, whether before or after the publication of the Prince, indicates that he was revolving in his mind plans of this kind. How otherwise can it be explained, why he, a civilian, a man of letters, an ambassador and State official, who had never borne arms, should have occupied himself so much in studying the art of war, and that he should have been able to write a work upon it which excited the wonder of the most distinguished soldiers of his time?
Frederick the Great in his Anti-Macchiavel treats of the Prince as simply a scientific treatise on the rights and duties of princes generally. Here it is remarkable that he, while contradicting Macchiavelli chapter by chapter, never mentions the last or twenty-sixth chapter, which bears the heading, 'A Summons to free Italy from the Foreigners,' and instead of it inserts a chapter which is not contained in Macchiavelli's work with the heading, 'On the different kinds of Negotiations, and on the just Reasons for a Declaration of War.'
First published in the work, Pensieri intorno allo scopo di Nicolo Macchiavelli nel libro 'Il Principe.' Milano, 1810.

Chapter XXIX

End of Notes

34 of 46

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