« PreviousContinue »
THE causes of the varying wealth and poverty of nations have naturally at all times attracted the eager attention of mankind. For a long time, however, it was thought that there was nothing in the subject very difficult to understand: that the only way for a people to get rich was to procure money or bullion, and that the only way to get poor was to part with them. The art of enriching nations obviously consisted, therefore, in devising the means, first, of getting possession of as much of the precious metals as possible, and then, of holding them fast so as to keep the heap ever growing.
It is in the different measures, or rather systems of measures, successively adopted to effect these purposes, that we must trace the rude but very decided political economy of the ages which elapsed between the conquest of England and the middle of the last century.
For some time, however, before this later period, there may be discerned, meandering through the huge
and obscure mass of our mercantile literature, a dim line of twilight truth upon these subjects;-a sus-picion rather hinted at than revealed, that after all, the accumulating gold and silver might not, when nations were in question, be the only mode of increasing their real wealth. But still it was not till Galiani in Italy, Harris in England, Quesnay in France, and above all Smith in Scotland, had published their respective works, that it became admitted to be an established principle, systematically examined and demonstratively proved, that national wealth may consist not only of gold and silver, but of all such things at least as men are content to give gold and silver in exchange for.
The circumstances which encourage and make easy, or which discourage and obstruct the production of wealth, taking this new and enlarged view of it, became at once the objects of anxious enquiry and speculation. In this new path Smith took the lead; and nothing which has been done since his time in this direction, will bear a comparison with the results of his labors. But to those engaged in the pursuit of this branch of political economy, another soon presented itself. not possible to investigate carefully the circumstances which affect the production of national wealth, without being struck by the importance and influence of those which are connected with its
distribution: and attempts to discover the laws which determine the respective shares of the landed proprietors, the owners of personal property, and the laborers, in the annual produce, gave occasion to a great deal of research, or rather perhaps a great deal of speculation. Such speculations were pursued the more earnestly, when it was perceived, as it necessarily soon was, that the power of nations to support and render productive peculiar forms of taxation, could be little understood, till the laws were developed which determine the respective shares of the various classes of a community in the wealth annually created.
But the labors of those who have treated of the principles which govern the distribution of wealth, have as yet been rewarded by no such success as that which has crowned the efforts of those who have investigated the circumstances which influence the amount produced. On this last branch of the subject, much knowledge has been accumulated, and principles have been established, important both for theoretical and practical purposes, however difficult the application of them to particular circumstances may sometimes be. These constitute a body of political truths, in the solidity and permanence of which a majority of the enlightened and reflecting part of mankind may be said to have acquiesced: while attempts to explain the appointed
course of the distribution of wealth, and to unfold the laws which limit and determine rents, wages and profits, have hitherto led to little besides contradictory opinions; and startling, and in some instances, unhappily, disgusting and most mischievous paradoxes.
The germ of the doctrines of the earliest leading writers on these points, the French economists, may be traced pretty clearly to some hasty, and certainly very erroneous opinions, of our own great Locke. That sect of philosophers at last fancied they could rigidly demonstrate, that a portion of the rent, (the produit net,) constituted a peculiar fund, from which alone all the revenues of the state must directly or indirectly be derived; and this strange and futile dogma came from their hands based on reasonings and assumptions, from which it appeared to result that the amount of wages, and the rate of profits, are determined by causes which keep them beyond the reach of change, and preserve them untouched amidst the workings of any possible scheme of taxation. Mixed with some absurdities, and much rash and sophisticated reasoning, the writings of the economists contain many truths; and some of a high order and lasting importance: but even these could not save their reputation; and by being interwoven in a mass of error, were for a time less current, and therefore less