A Treatise on Political Economy, Or, the Production, Distribution, and Consumption of Wealth

By Jean-Baptiste Say; Clement C. Biddle et al. | Go to book overview

with keeping it so? A fortune, however large, will seem little enough; when it comes to be divided amongst a number of children. And, even if there be no occasion to divide it, what harm is there in enlarging it; so it be done by honourable means? what else is it, but the desire of each individual to better his situation, that suggests the frugality that accumulates capital, and thereby assists the progress of industry, and leads to national opulence and civilization? Had not previous generations been actuated by this stimulus, the present one would now be in the savage state: and it is impossible to say, how much farther it may yet be possible to carry civilization. It has never been proved to my satisfaction, that nine-tenths of the population must inevitably remain in that degree of misery and semi-barbarism, which they are found in at present in most countries of Europe.

The observance of the rules of private economy keeps the consumption of a family within reasonable bounds: that is to say, the bounds prescribed in each instance by a judicious comparison of the value sacrificed in consumption, with the satisfaction it affords. None but the individual himself, can fairly and correctly estimate the loss and the gain, resulting to himself or family from each particular act of consumption; for the balance will depend upon the fortune, the rank, and the wants of himself and family; and, in some degree, perhaps, upon personal taste and feelings. To restrain consumption within too narrow limits, would involve the privation of gratification, that fortune has placed within reach; and, on the other hand, a too profuse consumption might trench upon resources, that it might be but common prudence to husband.*

Individual consumption has constant reference to the character and passions of the consumer. It is influenced alternately by the noblest and the vilest propensities of our nature; at one time it is stimulated by sensuality; at another by vanity, by generosity, by revenge, or even by covetousness. It is checked by prudence or foresight, by groundless apprehension, by distrust, or by selfishness. As these various qualities happen in turn to predominate, they direct mankind in the use they make of their

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*
On this ground sumptuary laws are superfluous and unjust. The indulgence proscribed is either within the means of the individual or not: in the former case, it is an act of oppression to prohibit a gratification involving no injury to others, equally unjustifiable as prohibition in any other particular; in the latter, it is at all events nugatory to do so; for there is no occasion for legal interference, where pecuniary circumstances alone are an effectual bar. Every irregularity of this kind works its own punishment. It has been said, that it is the duty of the government to check those habits, which have a tendency to lead people into expenses exceeding their means, but it will be found, that such habits can only be introduced by the example and encouragement of the public authorities themselves. In all other circumstances, neither custom nor fashion will ever lead the different classes of society into any expenses, but what are suitable to their respective means.

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