Cato's Letters/Letter 87

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Cato's Letter No. 87 (1722)
by John Trenchard
Gold and Silver in a Country to be considered only as Commodities
1393523Cato's Letter No. 87 — Gold and Silver in a Country to be considered only as Commodities1722John Trenchard

SIR, Boccalini tells us, that Archimedes was beat by the bravoes in Parnassus, for finding out a mathematical demonstration, by which it was plainly proved, that all the design of great, as well as private men, was dexterously to get money out of other people’s pockets, and put it in their own. And it is certain, that this is the grand design and business of all mankind, the chief if not the only spring of all their actions, and animates and inspires their best as well as worst performances. And how commendable soever this may be in private men, who already enjoy all the conveniences of life, it is certainly the interest and duty of states, by all prudent and just methods to increase their wealth and power, and in consequence their security and protection. As government is only the union of many individuals for their common defence; so they cannot attain that desirable end, unless by accident of situation, superior policy, or by sufficient number, they can render themselves strong enough to repel the injuries, and oppose the insults, of ambitious and unruly neighbours; otherwise they must submit to be undone, or throw themselves under the protection of some greater potentate, and accept such conditions as he pleases to give, and for no longer duration than he pleases.

As this is the greatest mischief which human nature can suffer, so every honest and wise man will endeavour to free himself, his family, and his country, from such an abject, lamentable, and forlorn condition, and contribute all in his power to make the state which he lives under great, rich, and formidable. I have already at large shewn, that no state in a small tract of ground can be so, but by liberty, which always produces riches, and every quality, which can grace and adorn the mind, and render mankind preferable to the brute creation.

Now nothing can be called riches, but as it is applicable, or rather as it is applied, to the use of men. The vast tracts of North-America feed only a few scattered and half-starved inhabitants, whilst the barren rocks of Switzerland maintain in plenty great numbers of wealthy and happy people. All Greece, Macedon, and Epirus, together, have not so much power now as single cities in them had formerly. Countries without inhabitants will not defend themselves, nor are worth defending; nor will they maintain inhabitants without their own industry and application. Every nation is rich and powerful, in exact proportion to the numbers, the employment, or the idleness of the people; and the power of the state is the accumulative wealth of the whole; that is, what every man can spare for the common defence, over and above what is necessary for his own subsistence: so that to make a state great, the people must be made rich and happy: Their private happiness will make them willing to defend their country, and their wealth will enable them to do it.

The riches of private men are such things as are necessary or conducive to their personal support, convenience, or pleasure; but many other things are necessary for the defence and augmentation of states. There must be fortresses, artillery, armed ships, and magazines of war, and proper encouragements given to skillful persons to make use of them: There must be often great armies at land, and fleets at sea, maintained and paid at the publick expence, for the publick security; all which must be maintained out of the superfluities of those who stay at home; and if they have not all those materials necessary to their preservation, or conducive to their private happiness, in their own country (as few countries have), they must purchase them abroad with the produce of their own country, or by silver and gold, which purchases all commodities. Indeed, by the universal consent of mankind, silver and gold is become the medium of all commerce; and every state, as well as private man, is rich and powerful in proportion as he possesses or can command more or less of this universal commodity, which procures all the rest: All other things are riches only hic & nunc; but these will command every thing, and almost every person in the world.

Gold and silver are the natives but of few countries, and the propriety but of few persons in those countries, and can be obtained by others only by their consent, or by force and rapine; and consequently, no state can grow more considerable than their native soil will make them, but by robbing their neighbours of what they themselves want or desire, or by persuading them to part with it willingly; that is, either by arms or trade; and which of these two will conduce most to the happiness, security, and augmentation of empires, shall be the subject of this letter.

If we consider this question under the head of justice and humanity, what can be more detestable than to murder and destroy mankind, in order to rob and pillage them? War is comprehensive of most, if not all the mischiefs which do or ever can afflict men: It depopulates nations, lays waste the finest countries, destroys arts, sciences, and learning, butchers innocents, ruins the best men, and advances the worst; effaces every trace of virtue, piety, and compassion, and introduces confusion, anarchy, and all kinds of corruption in publick affairs; and indeed is pregnant with so many evils, that it ought ever to be avoided, when it can be avoided; and it may be avoided when a state can be safe without it, and much more so when all the advantages proposed by it can be procured by prudent and just methods.

All the advantage procured by conquest is to secure what we possess ourselves, or to gain the possessions of others, that is, the produce of their country, and the acquisitions of their labour and industry; and if these can be obtained by fair means, and by their own consent, sure it must be more eligible than to extort them by force.

This is certainly more easily and effectually done by a well regulated commerce, than by arms: The balance of trade will return more clear money from neighbouring countries, than can be forced from them by fleets or armies, and more advantageously than under the odious name of tribute. It enervates rival states by their own consent, and obligates them, whilst it impoverishes and ruins them: It keeps our own people at home employed in arts, manufactures, and husbandry, instead of murdering them in wild, expensive, and hazardous expeditions, to the weakening their own country, and the pillaging and destroying their neighbours, and only for the fruitless and imaginary glory of conquest: It saves the trouble, expence, and hazard, of supporting numerous standing armies abroad to keep the conquered people in subjection; armies, who, for the most part too, if not always, enslave their own country, and ever swallow up all the advantages of the conquests. I have often wondered at the folly and weakness of those princes, who will sacrifice hundreds of thousands of their own faithful subjects, to gain a precarious and slavish submission from bordering provinces, who will seek all opportunities to revolt; which cannot be prevented but by keeping them poor, wretched, and miserable, and consequently unable to pay the charges of their own vassalage; when, if the same number of men and the sums of money were usefully employed at home, which are necessary to make and support the conquest, they would add vastly more to their power and empire.

It is not the extent of territory, and vast tracts of barren and uncultivated land, which make states great and powerful, but numbers of industrious people under a proper oeconomy, and advantageously and usefully employed; and the same number will be always more powerful in a small tract of ground than a great one: They are here always at hand to assist one another, to carry on manufactures, and to promote and execute any great designs: All the materials of trade and industry are in place, and by that means the charges of carriage prevented, which swallows the advantages of commerce, and renders it unprofitable. The impossibility of subsisting by idleness renders them industrious, emulation rouses their ambition, and the examples of others animate them to desire to live in splendor and plenty; and all these passions concur to set their hands and wits to work, and to promote arts, sciences, and manufactures, to strike out new trades, form new projects, and venture upon designs abroad, to enrich their own country at home.

Great numbers of people crowded together, are forced by their necessities to turn every stone, and try every method to support themselves and families, and by doing so will trace and discover by degrees all the sources of wealth. All ways will be found out to make trade commodious and profitable; numerous contrivances be thought on to come at the materials of manufactures easily and at cheap rates, and to work them again at the lowest prices. Rivers will be made navigable, engines invented, which with the assistance of few hands, shall supply the labour of multitudes; store-houses will be built to deposit goods in, whilst they wait for markets; fisheries will be erected, colonies planted to furnish new commodities and new materials of commerce, and will vent too and carry off those turbulent and unruly spirits, who are unfit to live in a peaceable state, and must rob, hang or starve there. By all these laudable methods, and many more, riches will be amassed, money become cheap, and the interest of it lessened; and the lowering the interest of money will open new trades, and still bring in more money, as well as improve the native territory, increase vastly the purchase of land, and encourage the building of cities and towns: for the less men expect for the interest or profit of their principal, the more they can afford to lay out in trade, building, or husbandry, to return but the same income; and consequently can grow rich by the commerce and the same improvements, which will undo nations where the interest of money is higher.

There are few countries in the world, but by a due culture would maintain many times the inhabitants which possess it, better than they are at present maintained. Our indulgent mother will readily yield up her hidden stores to such of her children as make a proper courtship and application to her. The treasures of the earth and seas are inexhaustible: One acre of ground well manured, cultivated, and sowed with corn, will produce ten times as much for the sustenance of man, as ten acres not cultivated, or ill cultivated; and one acre in gardens will produce ten times as much as in corn; and it is much easier, cheaper, and profitable, to improve our own country, and so increase its productions, than to fetch the like productions by force from others. It is more safe, as well as virtuous, to accept the willing and chaste embraces of conjugal affection, than by violence to extort forbidden and dangerous pleasures, and which for the most part, if not always, fail our expectations.

But supposing the soil belonging to any nation should not be sufficient to support all its inhabitants, which I believe is the case of Holland; yet it is certain they may purchase from their neighbours what they want, for very much less than they can earn at home in arts and manufactures. Labour in husbandry is the least profitable employment in the world; and ten men so employed will not earn the wages of one good artist, and the meanest mechanicks and artificers earn more than husbandmen; and consequently have a surplus from their own labour, after they have bought the production of the other’s industry. This is the circumstance of cities and trading towns, who have no growth of their own, and yet grow rich by retailing and manufacturing the growth of the neighbouring countries, over and above what they consume for their own subsistence and use; and the same is true of trading states. As Tyre, and other free states did formerly, so Holland at present grows vastly rich and formidable, by keeping its neighbours employed in the poor and menial trade of husbandry, whilst they employ their own people in arts and manufactures; a small part of which supplies them with the productions of the other’s labour, and with the rest they purchase a great part of the riches of the world. By those means they have made themselves more considerable in that little spot of land, than great empires have done by conquest, which always corrupts, and often enslaves, the conquerors as well as the conquered.

T I am &c.