Introductory Lectures on Political Economy
By Richard Whately
The following pages are presented to the public, in compliance with a requisition of the Statute relative to the Professorship of Political-Economy, that one Lecture at least shall be published every year.Conceiving that one object of that provision must be, that the Public may have some knowledge of what sort of Lectures on the subject are annually delivered at Oxford, I have not thought myself at liberty to make any material alterations in the Lectures as they were delivered. Otherwise, I might, perhaps, have endeavoured, to change the method and the style, adopted with a view to oral delivery, for such as might be more suited to the closet. Perhaps, indeed, I might, but for that requisition, have hesitated as to the publication of such a Work at all. For the title of it is not unlikely to deter one class of readers, and to disappoint another. Those who have never applied themselves to the study, may perhaps be led to anticipate, from the title of Political-Economy, something dry, abstruse, and uninteresting; and those again who are, and have long been, conversant with it, may perhaps expect such discussions of various important questions, as I have thought it best not to enter on, in an introductory Course. [From the Preface]
First Pub. Date
London: B. Fellowes
The text of this edition is in the public domain.
In adverting, as I did in my last Lecture, to the mistake respecting the branch of knowledge we are considering, of supposing, that because it relates to wealth, it must have a tendency to encourage avarice, I fear I may have appeared to bestow undue attention on an error too palpable to be of importance. But I must claim your indulgence for occupying yet a little more of your time in suggesting refutations of objections, which at first sight might seem not worth refuting, but which you will find by experience are too prevalent to be in prudence passed by.
That Political-Economy should have been complained of as hostile to Religion, will probably be regarded a century hence (should the fact be then on record) with the same wonder, almost approaching to incredulity, with which we of the present day hear of men’s having sincerely opposed, on religious grounds, the Copernican system. But till the advocates of Christianity shall have become universally much better acquainted with the true character of their religion, than, universally, they have ever yet been, we must always expect that every branch of study,—every scientific theory,—that is brought into notice, will be assailed on religious grounds, by those who either have not studied the subject, or who are incompetent judges of it; or again, who in addressing themselves to such persons as are so circumstanced, wish to excite and to take advantage of the passions of the ignorant. “Flectere si nequeo Superos, Acheronta movebo.”
Some there are who sincerely believe that the Scriptures contain revelations of truths the most distinct from religion. Such persons procured accordingly a formal condemnation (very lately rescinded) of the theory of the earth’s motion, as at variance with Scripture. In Protestant countries, and now, it appears, even in Roman Catholic, this point has been conceded; but that the erroneous principle— that of appealing to Revelation on questions of physical science—has not yet been entirely cleared away, is evident from the objections, which most of you probably may have heard, to the researches of Geology. The objections against Astronomy have been abandoned, rather, perhaps, from its having been made to appear that the Scripture-accounts of the phenomena of the heavens may be reconciled with the conclusions of Science, than from its being understood that Scripture is not the test by which the conclusions of Science are to be tried. And accordingly when attention was first called to the researches of Geology, many who were startled at the novelty of some of the conclusions drawn, and yet were averse to enter on a new field of study, or found themselves incapable of maintaining many notions they had been accustomed to acquiesce in, betook themselves at once to Scripture, and reviled the students of Geology as hostile to Revelation; in the same manner as, in Pagan and Romish countries, any one who is conscious of crime or of debt, flies at once to the
altar, and shelters himself in the sanctuary.
It is true, doctrines
may be maintained, on subjects indeed distinct from religion, but which nevertheless would, if admitted, go to invalidate Scripture. If, for instance, it could be demonstrated, that mankind could not possibly have descended from a single pair, such a conclusion, no doubt, would go far to shake the foundation of our religion. But even in such cases, I would utterly protest against an appeal to Scripture,
as Scripture—I mean, as a series of
inspired writings—with a view to the refutation of such theories; even though we might begin by establishing generally the claim of these writings to our belief. Still, we ought to employ them for their own proper purpose; which is to reveal to us
religious and moral truths. Historical or physical truths may be established by their own proper evidence; and this, therefore, is the course we are bound to pursue. A Christian will indeed feel antecedently a strong persuasion that such conclusions as I have been speaking of, or any others which are really inconsistent with the Bible, never
will be established;—that any theory seemingly at variance with it, will be found either deficient in evidence, or else reconcileable with the Scriptures. But it is not a sign of Faith—on the contrary, it indicates rather a want of faith, or else a culpable indolence, to decline meeting any theorist on his own ground, and to cut short the controversy by an appeal to the authority of Scripture. For if we really are convinced of the truth of Scripture, and consequently of the falsity of any theory, (of the earth, for instance,) which is really at variance with it, we must needs believe that that theory is also at variance with observable phenomena; and we ought not therefore to shrink from trying that question by an appeal to these. The success of such an appeal will, then, add to the evidence for the truth of the Scriptures, instead of burdening them with the weight of defending every point which they incidentally imply. It is for us to “behave ourselves valiantly for our country and for the cities of our God,” instead of bringing the Ark of God into the field of battle to fight for us. He will, at all events, we may be sure, defend his own cause, and finally lay prostrate the Dagon of infidelity; but we, his professed defenders, more zealous in reality for our own honour than for his, shall deserve to be smitten before the Philistines.
I have said, that the object of the Scriptures is to reveal to us religious and moral truths; but even this, as far as regards the latter, must be admitted with considerable modification. God has
not revealed to us a system of morality such as would have been needed for Beings who had no other means of distinguishing right and wrong. On the contrary, the inculcation of virtue and reprobation of vice in Scripture are in such a tone as seems to presuppose a natural power, or a capacity for acquiring the power, to distinguish them. And if a man denying or renouncing all claims of natural conscience, should practise without scruple every thing he did not find expressly forbidden in Scripture, and think himself not bound to do any thing that is not there expressly enjoined, exclaiming at every turn,
“Is it so written in the Bond?”
he would be leading a life very unlike what a Christian’s should be.
There is no moral formula more frequently cited, and with more deserved admiration, than that maxim, of doing to others as we would have them do to us: and, as Paley observes, no one probably ever was in practice led astray by it. Yet if we imagine this maxim placed before a Being destitute of all moral faculty, and attempting to learn, from this, what morality is, he would evidently interpret it as implying, that we are to do whatever we should
wish for, if in another’s place; which would lead to innumerable absurdities, and in many cases to absolute impossibilities; since, in many cases, our conduct will affect two or more parties, whose wishes are at variance with each other. A judge, for instance, before whom there might be a cause to be tried, would feel that both parties wished, each, for a decision in his own favour; which would be manifestly impossible. But in practice, every one feels, that what he is bound to do, is, not necessarily what would be agreeable to his
inclinations, were he in the other’s place, but what he would think he might
reasonably expect. Now this very circumstance implies his having already a notion of what is just and reasonable. The use he is to make of the formula, is, not for the acquiring of these general principles, but for the
application of them, in those cases where self-interest would be the most likely to blind him.
Since then we are bound to use our own natural faculties in the search after all truth that is within the reach of those faculties, most especially ought we to try by their own proper evidence, questions which form no part of Revelation properly so called, but which are incidentally alluded to in the sacred writings. If we appeal to the Scriptures on any such points, it should be merely as to an ancient book; not, in reference to their sacred character; in short, not
And this, as I have said, holds good even in respect of such physical or other theories as would, if received, clearly militate against religion. They may be, and they therefore should be, refuted on other grounds. Much less should we resort to Scripture,
as Scripture, in the discussion of questions
not involving the truth of Christianity. So far however are many persons from acting on this principle, that the course they habitually adopt, whenever any opinion is broached in which they do not concur, is that of attempting to prove, or, still oftener, assuming, that it is adverse to religion; thus endeavouring to create an odious association with whatever they dislike.
What I have said of the Bible’s not having been designed to give such full instruction in morals as should supersede all other, will not be thought irrelevant to the present subject, by those who are aware that Political-Economy has been actually censured by some, as being connected with
human conduct, and yet not professing to be
drawn from Scripture. In physical science, (it has been said,) we are to trust our own natural powers; but in the regulation of our conduct, the Bible is the only sure guide; and a system which professes an independence of this guide, in
human affairs, is to be regarded as something unholy.
To such objectors (and, however strange it may seem, you may meet with such) you may easily explain, if they can be brought candidly to examine the character and design of Revelation, that its object is to furnish principles—motives—encouragement—means of assistance—in the performance of duty; but no such detailed directions, even in cases where moral right and wrong are concerned, as shall supersede the exercise of reflection, observation, and discretion. You may point out to them, for instance, that the Scriptures enjoin Charity to the poor; but give no directions as to the best mode of administering our charity. Now it is evident that all different modes of attempting to relieve distress are not equally effectual; and that those which are altogether injudicious may even lead to more suffering than they remedy. Again, Justice is inculcated in Scripture, as well as by natural conscience; but in public affairs it often happens, that it is public
expediency that determines what particular course
is just. It is just, for instance, that all the individuals of a community should bear their share of the burden of contributing to any object essential to the public good;—to any measure, in short, of public expediency. But if the object were one beneficial to a small portion only of the community, it would be unjust that these should be benefited at the expense of all the rest. Here therefore the question of just and unjust, turns upon that of public expediency. And on this point errors may easily arise, by mistaking the interest of a few for that of the State. “Qui autem (says Cicero) parti civium consulunt, partem negligunt, rem perniciosissimam in civitatem inducunt, seditionem atque discordiam.” No legislator indeed whose intention was upright, would knowingly and designedly sacrifice the public good to that of a particular party or class of men; but he may do so unknowingly, even with the best intentions, from not perceiving in what way this or that enactment affects the community; and thus, without any unjust design, may sanction an unjust measure. And it may be added, that though free from the guilt of wilful injustice, he will be much to blame for doing ignorantly what is in itself unjust, if that ignorance be the result of carelessness or of obstinate prejudice:
To speak then comprehensively, it is a Christian duty to do good to our fellow-creatures, both in their spiritual and in their temporal concerns: and if so, it must be also a duty to study, to the best of our ability, to understand in what their good consists, and how it is to be promoted. To represent therefore any branch of such study as inconsistent with Christianity, is to make Christianity inconsistent with itself. He who should acknowledge himself bound to feed the hungry, and clothe the naked, and visit the sick and prisoners, would not be acting consistently with his profession, if he should, through inattention, or prejudice, or any other cause, sanction any measure that tended to increase those sufferings; or oppose, or neglect to support, any that tended to diminish them. The goods of this world are by no means a trifling concern to Christians considered
as Christians. Whether indeed we ourselves shall have enjoyed a large or a small share of them, will be of no importance to us a hundred years hence; but it will be of the greatest importance, whether we shall have employed the faculties and opportunities granted to us, in the increase and diffusion of those benefits among others.
You will hear it said indeed, with undeniable truth, that wealth is not necessarily a benefit to the possessor. No more is liberty, or health, or strength, or learning. But again you will also meet with some who contend, that a poor country is more favourably situated for virtue than a rich one; and with others, who, without going this length, maintain, that as with individuals, so with nations, a
certain degree of wealth is desirable, but an excess, dangerous to the moral character. Either or both of these points, you may concede for the present; i.e. waive the discussion of them as far as regards the question concerning the
importance of the study we are speaking of. For if it be granted that we are to dread as an evil the too great increase of national wealth, or, that wealth is altogether an evil; still, it is not the less necessary to study the nature of wealth, its production, the causes that promote or impede its increase, and the laws which regulate its distribution. We should go to the fountain-head of the waters, whether we wish to spread them abundantly over our land, or to drain them entirely away, or to moderate and direct the irrigation. If wealth, or great wealth, be regarded as a disease, we should remember that bodily diseases are made the subject of laborious and minute inquiry by physicians, as necessary with a view to their prevention and cure. Formerly, nearly all practitioners recommended inoculation with small-pox; though the practice had been much opposed at its first introduction; now, they are almost unanimous in preferring vaccination; but in any stage of either of the controversies which arose respecting these modes of practice, a man would have been thought insane, who should have questioned the importance of studying the nature, symptoms, and effects of small-pox.
As for the doctrine itself, that national wealth is morally mischievous as introducing
luxury, (in the worst sense of the word,) effeminacy, profligacy of manners, and depravation of principle, it has been inculcated in a loose declamatory way, by a great number of moralists, who have depicted in glowing colours the amiable simplicity of character, the manly firmness, and the purity of conduct, to be met with in nations that continue in primitive poverty; and the degeneracy that has ensued in those which have emerged from this state into one of comparative wealth. Almost all these writers furnish a strong confirmation of what has been just advanced; viz. that whether wealth be a good or an evil, or each, according to the amount of it—on any supposition, it is still no less a matter of importance to examine and carefully arrange the facts relating to the subject, and to reason accurately upon it, if we would avoid self-contradiction. For you will often find men declaiming on the evils consequent on wealth, and yet, in the next breath, condemning or applauding this or that measure, according to its supposed tendency to impoverish or to enrich the country. You will find them not only readily accepting wealth themselves from any honourable source, and anxious to secure from poverty their children and all most dear to them; (for this might be referred to the prevalence of passion over principle;) but even offering up solemn prayers to heaven for the prosperity of their native country; and contemplating with joy a flourishing condition of her agriculture, manufactures, or commerce; in short, of the sources of her Wealth. Nor is even this the utmost point to which you will find some carry their inconsistency; for you will meet with objections to Political-Economy, (meaning thereby either some particular doctrines maintained by this or that writer, or else, all systematic attention to the subject,) on the ground that it has for its object the increase of wealth which is hurtful; and again, that a country which is governed according to its principles, is likely to be impoverished by them. Now the most erroneous doctrines in Political-Economy that ever were promulgated, (and very erroneous ones certainly
have prevailed,) can hardly be chargeable with
both these consequences. The same system cannot at once tend to make us rich, and also to make us poor.
Such inconsistencies as these do not shew so much an incapacity for correct reasoning, as (what I believe is much more common) an unthinking carelessness, and a habit of stringing together well-sounding sentences, and readily listening to them, without taking the trouble to reflect on their meaning. Eloquent declamation is, to the generality, easier, either to compose, or to follow, than close argument. Seneca’s discourses in praise of poverty would, I have no doubt, be rivalled by many writers of this island, if one half of the revenue he drew from the then inhabitants of it, by lending them money at high interest, were proposed as a prize.
I have said that
most of the moralists who have represented wealth as unfavourable to virtue, have been guilty of the inconsistency of also advocating every measure or institution that tends to the increase of wealth. There is one remarkable exception, in an author now little known except by name, but whose writings attracted great attention in their day; Dr. Mandeville; whose Fable of the Bees, or “Private Vices public Benefits,” was received by the world as a most alarming novelty. The novelty however was more in the form and tone of the work, than in the matter of it. He was indeed a man of an acute and original, though not very systematic or comprehensive, turn of mind; but his originality was shewn chiefly in bringing into juxtaposition, notions which, separately, had long been current, (and indeed are not yet quite obsolete,) but whose
inconsistency had escaped detection.
He is usually believed to have deliberately designed to recommend vice. In his second volume, (which is rather a scarce book, but very well worth reading,) he most solemnly disclaims any such intention, and protests, (I must say with an air of great sincerity,) that his object was to refute those against whom he was writing, by a reductio ad absurdum. Of his intentions, however, we have no means of forming a decisive judgment; nor if we had, would that question be to the purpose. It is sufficient to remark, that he is arguing all along on an
hypothesis, and on one not framed gratuitously by himself, but furnished him by others; and on that hypothesis he is certainly triumphant. That
if such and such things are respectively vices and virtues, as had been represented, and
if national wealth and greatness are desirable, and
if such and such means are conducive to this object,—then, private vices must be public benefits,—is proved to be not only an undeniable, but almost an identical, proposition. His argument does not go to shew
categorically that vice ought to be encouraged, but
if the notions which were afloat were admitted, respecting the character of virtue and vice, and respecting the causes and consequences of wealth, then, national virtue and national wealth must be irreconcilable; or, as he expresses it,
“Fools only strive
To make a great, an honest hive:”
and consequently, that of two incompatible objects, we must be content to take one,
or the other. Which of the two is to be preferred, he no where decides in his first volume; in his second, he solemnly declares his opinion, that wealth ought to be renounced, as incompatible with virtue.
Adam Smith, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, gives an account of this system, containing some very just remarks, though I do not think he fully understood Mandeville; partly, perhaps, from having, as it appears, never met with his second volume. I will read an extract from the section, the whole of which is well worth attentive study. It exposes very well many of the fallacies which are to be found in the book, though they are not the author’s own, but borrowed from his opponents.
“Dr. Mandeville considers whatever is done from a sense of propriety, from a regard to what is commendable and praiseworthy, as being done from a love of praise—and commendation, or, as he calls it, from vanity. Man, he observes, is naturally much more interested in his own happiness than in that of others, and it is impossible that in his heart he can ever really prefer their prosperity to his own. Whenever he appears to do so, we may be assured that he imposes upon us, and that he is then acting from the same selfish motives as at all other times. Among his other selfish passions, vanity is one of the strongest, and he is always easily flattered and greatly delighted with the applauses of those about him. When he appears to sacrifice his own interest to that of his companions, he knows that this conduct will be highly agreeable to their self-love, and that they will not fail to express their satisfaction by bestowing upon him the most extravagant praises. The pleasure which he expects from this, over-balances, in his opinion, the interest which he abandons in order to procure it. His conduct, therefore, upon this occasion, is in reality just as selfish, and arises from just as mean a motive as upon any other. He is flattered, however, and he flatters himself with the belief that it is entirely disinterested; since, unless this was supposed, it would not seem to merit any commendation either in his own eyes or in those of others. All public spirit, therefore, all preference of public to private interest, is, according to him, a mere cheat and imposition upon mankind; and that human virtue which is so much boasted of, and which is the occasion of so much emulation among men, is the mere offspring of flattery begot upon pride.”
“Whether the most generous and public-spirited actions may not, in some sense, be regarded as proceeding from self-love, I shall not at present examine. The decision of this question is not, I apprehend, of any importance towards establishing the reality of virtue, since self-love may frequently be a virtuous motive of action. I shall only endeavour to shew, that the desire of doing what is honourable and noble, of rendering ourselves the proper objects of esteem and approbation, cannot with any propriety be called vanity.”
“It is the great fallacy of Dr. Mandeville’s book to represent every passion as wholly vicious, which is so in any degree and in any direction. It is thus that he treats every thing as vanity, which has any reference either to what are, or to what ought to be, the sentiments of others; and it is by means of this sophistry, that he establishes his favourite conclusion, that private vices are public benefits. If the love of magnificence, a taste for the elegant arts and improvements of human life, for whatever is agreeable in dress, furniture, or equipage, for architecture, statuary, painting, and music, is to be regarded as luxury, sensuality, and ostentation, even in those whose situation allows, without any inconveniency, the indulgence of those passions, it is certain that luxury, sensuality, and ostentation are public benefits: since without the qualities upon which he thinks proper to bestow such opprobrious names, the arts of refinement could never find encouragement, and must languish for want of employment. Some popular ascetic doctrines which had been current before his time, and which placed virtue in the entire extirpation and annihilation of all our passions, were the real foundation of this licentious system. It was easy for Dr. Mandeville to prove, first, that this entire conquest never actually took place among men; and secondly, that if it was to take place universally, it would be pernicious to society, by putting an end to all industry and commerce, and in a manner to the whole business of human life. By the first of these propositions, he seemed to prove that there was no real virtue, and that what pretended to be such, was a mere cheat and imposition upon mankind; and by the second, that private vices were public benefits, since without them no society could prosper or flourish.
“Such is the system of Dr. Mandeville, which once made so much noise in the world, and which, though, perhaps, it never gave occasion to more vice than what would have been without it, at least taught that vice, which arose from other causes, to appear with more effrontery, and to avow the corruption of its motives with a profligate audaciousness which had never been heard of before
The conclusion, however, that private vices are public benefits, is maintained, as I have said, by Mandeville, only hypothetically; viz. on the assumption, that national wealth is unfavourable to virtue, and poverty the best security against corruption of morals. This assumption is the great principle of his work; which I wish to be remembered, in order that I may be clearly understood, whenever I may employ, as I probably shall have occasion to do, for brevity’s sake, the word “Mandevillians,” to denote those who embrace this principle. I do
not mean to confine it to such as assent to
every-thing contained in the book; nor indeed to such as have read it, or even heard of it; much less, to those (if there be any such) who seriously profess to advocate vice; since
this we have no right to consider as even the author’s own design; but I apply the term (for the sake of avoiding circumlocution) to those, who have adopted, from whatever quarter, the fundamental doctrine to which the whole argument tends,—the incompatibility or discordancy of national Wealth, and Virtue.
In discussing any question that may arise respecting this doctrine, it is important in the first place, steadily to keep in mind, what has been already remarked, that it does not at all affect the question as to the utility of the studies we are now considering; since, whether wealth be a good, or an evil, or partly both, the knowledge of all that relates to it is not the less important. This, self-evident as it is, is usually lost sight of by the Mandevillians of the present day; who are accustomed to disparage Political-Economy, on the ground that an increase of wealth is rather to be deprecated than sought for. This, if admitted, is so far from proving that the subject is unworthy of systematic attention, that it proves the very contrary. It would indeed follow, that those particular writers are erroneous, who
recommend any measure to be adopted on the ground of its conducing to wealth; but what is to be shunned, is not less important than what is to be sought.
*9 If they were to maintain that wealth is a thing altogether
indifferent, which can produce neither good nor evil results of any magnitude, then, and then only, they might infer, that it is too insignificant to deserve notice.
In fact, the whole question respecting the desirablenes and ultimate advantages or disadvantages of wealth, is, as I formerly remarked, only obliquely and incidentally connected with Political-Economy; whose strict object is to inquire only into the nature, production, and distribution of wealth; not, its connexion with virtue or with happiness. In a treatise, for instance, on ship-building, or on navigation, it would be a digression, (though not a trifling and impertinent one,) if the author should inquire concerning the advantages and disadvantages of a communication between countries separated by the sea; and how far we should adopt as a maxim the expression of the poet,
Prudens, Oceano dissociabili
This, I say, would be a digression; though not an absurd or improper digression, if the author were but careful to point out, that his own proper subject was, the construction or the management, not the utility, of a ship.
Taking care then not to lose sight of the incidental and digressive character of the inquiry, you may next turn the objector’s attention to the distinction between an
individual and a
community, when viewed as possessing a remarkable share of wealth. The two cases differ immensely, as far as the moral effects of wealth are concerned. For, first, the most besetting probably of all temptations, to which a rich
man, as such, is exposed, is that of pride—an arrogant disdain of those poorer than himself. Now, as all our ideas of great and small, in respect of wealth, and of every thing else, are comparative, and as each man is disposed to compare himself with those around him, it is plain, the danger of priding one’s self on wealth affects exclusively, or nearly so, an
individual who is rich, compared with his own countrymen; and especially one who is richer than most others in his own walk of life, and who reside in his own neighbourhood. Some degree of national pride there may be, connected with national wealth; but this is not in general near so much the foundation of national pride, as a supposed superiority in valour, or in mental cultivation: and at any rate it seldom comes into play. An Englishman who is poor, compared with other Englishmen, is not likely to be much puffed up with pride at the thought of belonging to a wealthy community. Nay, even though he should himself possess property which, among the people of Timbuctoo, or the aboriginal Britons, would be reckoned great wealth, he will be more likely to complain of his poverty, than to be filled with self-congratulation at his wealth, if most of those of his own class are as rich or richer than himself. And even one who travels or resides abroad, does not usually regard with disdain (on the score of wealth at least) those foreigners who are individually as well off in that respect as himself, though their
nation may be poorer than his. And, on the other hand., those individuals who, in a poor country, are comparatively rich, are quite as much exposed as any to the temptation of pride.
As for what may be said respecting avarice, selfishness, worldly-mindedness, &c. it may suffice to reply, that not only (as I have already remarked) these vices are found as commonly in poor
countries as in rich, but even in the same country, the poor are not at all less liable to them than the rich. Those in affluent circumstances
may be absorbed in the pursuit of gain; but they
may also, and sometimes do, devote themselves altogether to Literature, or Science, or other pursuits, altogether remote from this: those, on the other hand, who
must maintain themselves by labour or attention to business, are at least not the
less liable to the temptation of too anxiously taking thought for the morrow.
Luxury again is one of the evils represented as consequent on wealth. The word is used in so many senses, and so often without attaching any precise meaning to it, that great confusion is apt to be introduced into any discussion in which it occurs. Without however entering prematurely on any such discussion, it may be sufficient, as far as the present question is concerned, to point out, that the terms Luxury, and Luxurious, are considerably modified as to their force, according as they are applied to individuals or to nations. An individual
man is called luxurious, in comparison with other men, of the same community and in the same walk of life with himself: a nation is called luxurious, in reference to other
nations. The same style of living which would be reckoned moderate and frugal, or even penurious, among the higher orders, would be censured as extravagant luxury in a day-labourer: and the labourer again, if he lives in a cottage with glass-windows and a chimney, and wears shoes and stockings, and a linen or cotton shirt, is not said to live in luxury; though he possesses what would be thought luxuries to a negro-prince. A rich and luxurious nation therefore does not necessarily contain more individuals who live in luxury (according to the received use of the word) than a poor one; but it possesses more of such things as
would be luxuries in the poor country, while in the rich one, they are not. The inclination for self-indulgence and ostentation, is not necessarily less strong in poor than in rich nations; the chief difference is, that their luxury is of a coarser description, and generally has more connexion with gross sensuality. Barbarians are almost invariably intemperate.
As for the effeminizing effects that have been attributed to national luxury, which has been charged with causing a decay of national energy, mental and bodily, no such results appear traceable to any such cause. Xenophon indeed attributes the degeneracy of the Persians to the inroads of luxury, which was carried, he says, to such a pitch of effeminacy, that they even adopted the use of gloves to protect their hands. We probably have gone as much beyond them, in respect of the
common style of living among us, as they, beyond their rude forefathers; yet it will hardly be maintained that this nation displays, in the employments either of war or peace, less bodily or mental energy than our Anglo-Saxon ancestors. In bodily strength, it has been ascertained by accurate and repeated experiments, that civilized men are decidedly superior to savages, and that the
more barbarous, and those who lead a harder life, are generally inferior in this point to those who have made more approaches to civilization. There is indeed, in such a country as this, a larger proportion of feeble and sickly individuals; but this is because the hardship and exposure of a savage life speedily destroys those who are not of a robust constitution. Some there are, no doubt, whose health is impaired by an over-indulgent and tender mode of life; but as a general rule, it may safely be maintained, that the greater part of that over-proportion of infirm persons among us as compared, for instance, with the North American Indians, owe, not their infirmity, but their life, to the difference between our habits and theirs. How much the average duration of human life has progressively increased in later times, is probably well-known to most of you.
Lastly, one of the most important points of distinction between individuals and nations in respect to wealth, is that which relates to industry and idleness. Rich
men are indeed often most laboriously and honourably active; but they
may, and sometimes do, spend their lives in such idleness as cannot be found among the poor, excepting in the class of beggars.
nation, on the contrary, is always an industrious nation; and almost always more industrious than poor ones.
Without entering therefore prematurely into the consideration of the
manner and degree in which wealth and industry mutually promote each other, you may be satisfied with simply pointing out their
connexion; so as to remove all apprehensions that may be entertained, on that score, of the demoralizing effects of national wealth.
Since then the dangers, you may add, attendant on the acquisition or possession of wealth, have reference chiefly, if not entirely, to the case of individuals, and to them, not less in a poor than in a rich community, while national wealth has little or nothing of such dangers to counterbalance its advantages; and since almost every one thinks himself even bound, in the case of a private friend, notwithstanding the dangers thus incurred, to enrich him, by honourable means, if he has the opportunity; much more, in the case of that collection of friends which we call our Country, will a patriotic spirit lead us to promote national wealth, when it does not interfere with more important objects.
But is there (it may be asked) any one that ever seriously doubted this? Judging from men’s conduct, I should say, No. Many measures indeed have been advocated, which really tend to impoverish the country—many opposed, which tend to enrich it; but never,
on those grounds. It has been always from their tendency being, at least professedly, understood to be the reverse. Much lavish expenditure again has often been recommended for inadequate objects; but always on the ground that the object
was adequate. I never heard of any one, even of those who in theory deprecate the increase of national wealth as an evil, being consistent enough in practice to advocate any measure on the ground that it tends to destroy wealth, and for that express purpose; or to oppose a measure on the ground that it will too much enrich the country. The fact is, the declaimers against wealth are, by their own shewing, mere declaimers, and nothing more; who, rather than say nothing, will say what militates against their own conclusions. They recommend or oppose measures, as conducive, or as adverse, to national wealth: and then if their arguments are tried by the test of well-established principles, and they are exhorted systematically to study these principles, and, before they attempt to discuss questions connected with wealth, to bestow a regular attention on the subject, they turn round and inveigh against such a study because it
has wealth for its subject, and wealth is a pernicious thing: which would not lessen the importance of such studies, if it were true; and which they themselves have practically admitted, is not true. They resemble the Harpies of Virgil, seeking to excite disgust at the banquet, of which they are nevertheless eager to partake. And as soon as one set of objections are refuted, the same assailants are ready to renew their clamorous attack from an opposite and unexpected quarter:
“Rursum ex diverso cæli, cæcisque latebris,
Turba sonans pedibus prædam circumvolat uncis;
Polluit ore dapes.”
I can suggest no argument by which you can either convince those who care nothing for self-contradiction, or silence those who are bent on the display of mere eloquence:
“Neque vim plumis ullam, nec vulnera tergo
But for the sake of others, I have endeavoured to point out how you may clear away some of the fallacies thus scattered at random; and which, though mutually destructive of each other, may cause impediments in the student’s path to knowledge: even as the wreaths of snow tossed about fortuitously by the blind fury of the winds, may form serious obstructions in the roads.
On these grounds it may not be beneath your attention to explain fully some of the most obvious truths, which have thus become accidentally obscured;—to bestow some pains in distinctly setting forth even a proposition in itself so simple, as, that national wealth, which even if it were a serious evil, would demand serious attention, is universally, and even by those who declaim against it, considered as a good.
After all, indeed, in regard to wealth, as well as all those objects which the great moralist of antiquity places in the class of things good in themselves, (
,) more depends, as he himself remarks, on the use we make of these bounties of Providence, than on the advantages themselves. But they
are in themselves goods; and it is our part, instead of affecting ungratefully to slight or to complain of God’s gifts, to endeavour to make them
goods to us, (
,) by studying to use them aright, and to promote, through them, the best interests of ourselves and our fellow-creatures.
I shall hereafter, when I come to treat of Political-Economy as connected with Natural-Theology, enter rather more fully into the consideration of the effects on society which have been produced, and of those which we may conclude were designed to be produced, by the progress of wealth; and also of the causes by which that progress, as well as the several effects of it, have been modified, promoted, or impeded.
In my next Lecture, however, I shall be compelled to occupy your time with the notice of some of the mistakes that prevail respecting the
study itself of Political-Economy, (distinct from those relating to wealth which is the
subject of it,) and to the objections that have in consequence been raised, not against the
pursuit of national wealth, but against the
scientific contemplation of the subject.
Arist. Rhet. ii. 3.