A Joy For Ever/Note 5

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Note 5th, p. 56.—"Invention of new wants."

138. It would have been impossible for political economists long to have endured the error spoken of in the text,[1] had they not been confused by an idea, in part well founded, that the energies and refinements, as well as the riches of civilised life, arose from imaginary wants. It is quite true, that the savage who knows no needs but those of food, shelter, and sleep, and after he has snared his venison and patched the rents of his hut, passes the rest of his time in animal repose, is in a lower state than the man who labours incessantly that he may procure for himself the luxuries of civilisation; and true also, that the difference between one and another nation in progressive power depends in great part on vain desires; but these idle motives are merely to be considered as giving exercise to the national body and mind; they are not sources of wealth, except so far as they give the habits of industry and acquisitiveness. If a boy is clumsy and lazy, we shall do good if we can persuade him to carve cherry-stones and fly kites; and this use of his fingers and limbs may eventually be the cause of his becoming a wealthy and happy man; but we must not therefore argue that cherry-stones are valuable property, or that kite-flying is a profitable mode of passing time. In like manner, a nation always wastes its time and labour directly, when it invents a new want of a frivolous kind, and yet the invention of such a want may be the sign of a healthy activity, and the labour undergone to satisfy the new want may lead, indirectly, to useful discoveries or to noble arts; so that a nation is not to be discouraged in its fancies when it is either too weak or foolish to be moved to exertion by anything but fancies, or has attended to its serious business first. If a nation will not forge iron, but likes distilling lavender, by all means give it lavender to distil; only do not let its economists suppose that lavender is as profitable to it as oats, or that it helps poor people to live, any more than the schoolboy's kite provides him his dinner. Luxuries, whether national or personal, must be paid for by labour withdrawn from useful things; and no nation has a right to indulge in them until all its poor are comfortably housed and fed.

139. The enervating influence of luxury, and its tendencies to increase vice, are points which I keep entirely out of consideration in the present essay; but, so far as they bear on any question discussed, they merely furnish additional evidence on the side which I have taken. Thus, in the present case, I assume that the luxuries of civilized life are in possession harmless, and in acquirement serviceable as a motive for exertion; and even on those favourable terms, we arrive at the conclusion that the nation ought not to indulge in them except under severe limitations. Much less ought it to indulge in them if the temptation consequent on their possession, or fatality incident to their manufacture, more than counter-balances the good done by the effort to obtain them.


  1. I have given the political economist too much credit in saying this. Actually, while these sheets are passing through the press, the blunt, broad, unmitigated fallacy is enunciated, formally and precisely, by the common councilmen of New York, in their report on the present commercial crisis. Here is their collective opinion, published in the Times of November 23rd, 1857:—"Another erroneous idea is that luxurious living, extravagant dressing, splendid turn-outs and fine houses, are the cause of distress to a nation. No more erroneous impression could exist. Every extravagance that the man of 100,000 or 1,000,000 dollars indulges in adds to the means, the support, the wealth of ten or a hundred who had little or nothing else but their labour, their intellect, or their taste. If a man of 1,000,000 dollars spends principal and interest in ten years, and finds himself beggared at the end of that time, he has actually made a hundred who have catered to his extravagance, employers or employed, so much richer by the division of his wealth. He may be ruined, but the nation is better off and richer, for one hundred minds and hands, with 10,000 dollars apiece, are far more productive than one with the whole." Yes, gentlemen of the common council; but what has been doing in the time of the transfer? The spending of the fortune has taken a certain number of years (suppose ten), and during that time 1,000,000 dollars' worth of work has been done by the people, who have been paid that sum for it. Where is the product of that work? By your own statements, wholly consumed; for the man for whom it has been done is now a beggar. You have given therefore, as a nation, 1,000,000 dollars' worth of work, and ten years of time, and you have produced, as ultimate result, one beggar. Excellent economy, gentlemen! and sure to conduce, in due sequence, to the production of more than one beggar. Perhaps the matter may be made clearer to you, however, by a more familiar instance. If a schoolboy goes out in the morning with five shillings in his pocket, and comes home penniless, having spent his all in tarts, principal and interest are gone, and fruiterer and baker are enriched. So far so good. But suppose the schoolboy, instead, has bought a book and a knife; principal and interest are gone, and book-seller and cutler are enriched. But the schoolboy is enriched also, and may help his school-fellows next day with knife and book, instead of lying in bed and incurring a debt to the doctor.