Marquis d’Argenson, Letter to the author of the Journal, concerning the Dissertation upon commerce (1751)

A Letter to the author of the Journal, concerning the Dissertation upon commerce, by the Marquis Belloni

 

In Selected essays on Commerce, agriculture, mines, fisheries, and other useful subjects, London, 1754, p228-335

SIR,

In your journal for March, 1751, you have inserted a Dissertation upon trade, by the Marquis Belloni, which I have read several times, as an excellent piece; the substance of all the best remarks which have been made by our modern politicians on that subject, containing advice to sovereigns touching the direction of commerce, manufactures and the circulation of money. But ought not he first to have considered whether it is more necessary to direct all those things with so much care and concern as he proposes, or to let them take their own way, under proper protection only? How many general and particular manufactures have been established and brought to perfection by liberty alone, each having been carried on in its own right! Every individual will be led by honor and advantage, and thence results a great whole, which will never be the consequence of a general direction. If, on the contrary, the government should be too watchful and solicitous, and laws too much extended or too minute, should happen to disturb particular manufactures, in terrifying by penalties often injudiciously inflicted, or recompensing by prices ill adjudged, you substitute intrigue instead of emulation. How many things are now carried on with tolerable success, merely from having hitherto escaped a pretended legislative Police, which instead of advancing, retards the progress of industry and improvement. Observe how trade flourished in the republics, until its prosperity was interrupted either by time, or other political causes foreign to commerce, such as wars, national debt and oppression; the reason was, those republics have a spirit ever healthy, ever active, which is liberty; and this, far from diminishing, actually constitutes the public strength; it represses evil and maintains distributive justice, and the evil being repressed, the good appears and predominates: yes, the removal of obstacles is all that is necessary to the success of trade. It asks nothing of the public, but good judges, the discouragement of monopoly, an equal protection to all the subjects, an invariable value of coin, roads and canals: besides these articles all other cares are vicious; and this vice is the more pernicious to a state, as it flows from an ill conducted zeal: this zeal has partisans, officers in employment and authority, and it requires whole ages to undeceive them of their errors.

Trade is the science of individuals; but the general direction of trade cannot be a science; for it is impossible. Oftentimes, when we dive into sciences beyond our reach, such as the general system of the universe, infinitude, the union of spirit and matter, etc., we are quit for so much loss of time; but in policy, such false presumptions carry us a great way in the fatal paths of ruin and destruction. We ought to be persuaded that, in order to attain to that knowledge which is requisite for the direction of commerce, it is not enough to know the different interests of different nations, provinces and societies; but we must also understand the interests and connections of individuals, together with the quality and value of each commodity. He therefore, who is mistaken in the least article, will direct amiss, and enact preposterous laws. Who then shall pretend to this integral and universal capacity? Non datur scientia. Nevertheless the directors of trade arrogate this to themselves; and if this arrogance be faulty, and they consult their caprices more than their understanding, the result will be, laws that cramp the commerce, and favors unjustly conferred. Sometimes the council of commerce of a nation or province, sees the common interest only through the eyes of their deputies; these sometimes propose private or particular advantages to their own towns or persons, to the prejudice of other towns and the rest of the subjects; and sometimes it is to be feared, they lay it down as a maxim to aggrandize what is great, annihilate what is little, and utterly banish equality. It is reported of M. Colbert, that when he convened several deputies of commerce at his house, and asked what he could do for the benefit of trade? the most sensible and plainest spoken man among them, replied in these three words. “Let us alone.” (Laissez nous faire) Have we ever sufficiently reflected upon the good sense of that short answer? This is no other than a kind of commentary upon it. Apply it to everything that is done for trade, and to what chiefly destroys it in monarchies; and examine its effects: you will soon find how little fruit and success is reaped from all those cares of restraint, inspection and regulation; the republics have made greater advances in trade, almost without laws and constraint, than other countries when countenanced by the ablest ministers; the instinct of the bee does more in this particular, than the genius of the greatest politician: the capital of a republican state, increases every day, by economy, agriculture, industry, brokage, manufacture, and everything that is understood by the idea of trade. There are degrees by which we ascend successively from what is simple to what is improved, and from this last to the perfection of art; these the multitude will climb of themselves, by communication, example and emulation: they never fail to follow the different steps, and never mistake when left to their own conduct; but when people pretend to show them the road and direct them, woe be to him who mistakes! The needful is neglected, in order to proceed to what is superfluous before the time. Without mentioning particular nations, how many errors of this kind have been committed to the destruction of mankind! How many colonies have been peopled at the expense of the continent! While some places enjoyed abundance, how many others have been quite deserted! How many arts have been admired at the expense of neglecting the gifts of nature elsewhere; fine palaces built, and statues erected, but lands without culture, and villages without inhabitants. These are the effects of the grand science of trade.

The Marquis Belloni thinks it might be of service to trade, to set up custom-houses, and load one kind of commodity with higher duty than another; to exclude foreign merchandize, and favor our own by encouraging the exportation of them. This practice is but too well known in Europe; but the nation who introduced it first, has necessarily prescribed the example to others; each is willing to do the same injury to the right of nations which itself suffers: foreign manufactures were prohibited that one country might not become tributary to its neighbors; so that the Europeans, as they increased in the knowledge of trade, took measures for breaking all communication among themselves, and in time of profound peace suffer all the effects of an universal war. No, it is not the good of trade that advises these measures, but some private interest which too often gets the better of public advantage. If once the multitude is allowed to take their own way, it will soon undeceive the world in this particular, to the great advantage of society, and show that the passage of merchandize from one state to another ought to be as free as that of air and water. All Europe ought to be no other than a general and common fair; the person or nation which should make the best commodity could find the greatest advantage. The distance and expense of carriage are sufficient reasons for any nation to prefer its own goods to those of others; and where these obstacles cease, the stranger is preferable to our own countryman, otherwise you ruin instead of favoring subjects in their trade. The custom-house duties will always have a bad effect, for the finances of the nation ought to be raised from the consumption only; as all duties levied upon the transportation, be what they will, never fail to distress the trade. But presumption and self-love are so predominant among men, that they prefer a small advantage acquired by sophistry, subtlety or malice, to all that nature and humanity would afford with much more abundance and integrity; though their understanding was undoubtedly given them not to domineer but to regulate liberty. Yes, a regulated and enlighted liberty will always do more for the trade of any people, than the most intelligent domination: a single man sees more clearly into the interests of his own trade, and conducts it better than ten associates, whose interests are always divided and often opposed to each other. If he goes too far, if he usurps over or injures his neighbors, they can stop and restrain him with the assistance of justice; and this constitutes the equality, policy and balance that are necessary to trade: whereas our legislators can only perceive so many different interests in a confused manner. Liberty will enrich the merchants, and these becoming more or less wealthy, according to their talents, will endeavor to bring their manufactories to perfection. The regulations made for manufactories ought to be as so many instructions to those who are in search of this perfection, in the same manner as the books that treat of arts and sciences. There must be all sorts of degrees of goodness in the manufactories, according to the taste and circumstances of the purchasers: imperfection and fraud discredit the manufacturer, while diligence and honesty enrich and bring them into vogue. For these reasons commerce claims liberty instead of those penal laws, duties and interdictions by which it is discouraged.

Trade itself is no other than an abstract idea lately known, as well as circulation and credit. We seem to make new divinities, like the Greeks, in order to adore them: our fathers, who had less idolatry and philosophy, but more wisdom, were richer by their economy and labor, than we by our sciences of exchange, brokerage and stock-jobbing. Perhaps our posterity, undeceived by experience, will laugh at the disease that now prevails in several nations, of endeavoring to reduce the principles of trade into a system: and will place it in that rank which we now assign to the Crusades, and which we shall soon give to the folly of the political balance of power in Europe.

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