Sir James Steuart

An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy

Book II
Of Trade and Industry

Chap. IV: How the Prices of Goods are determined by Trade

In the price of goods, I consider two things as really existing, and quite different from one another; to wit; the real value of the commodity, and the profit upon alienation. The intention of this chapter is to establish this distinction, and to shew how the operation of trade severally influences the standard of the one and the other; that is to say, how trade has the effect of rendering fixed and determinate, two things which would otherwise be quite vague and uncertain.

I. The first thing to be known of any manufacture when it comes to be sold, is, how much of it a person can perform in a day, a week, a month, according to the nature of the work, which may require more or less time to bring it to perfection. In making such estimates, regard is to be had to what, upon an average only, a workman of the country in general may perform, without supposing him the best or the worst in his profession; or having any peculiar advantage or disadvantage as to the place where he works.

Hence the reason why some people thrive by their industry, and others not; why some manufactures flourish in one place and not in another.

II. The second thing to be known, is the value of the workman's subsistence and necessary expence, both for supplying his personal wants, and providing the instruments belonging to his profession, which must be taken upon an average as above; except when the nature of the work requires the presence of the workman in the place of consumption; for although some trades, and almost every manufacture, may be carried on in places at a distance, and therefore may fall under one general regulation as to prices, yet others there are which, by their nature, require the presence of the workman in the place of consumption; and in this case the prices must be regulated by circumstances relative to every particular place.

III. The third and last thing to be known, is the value of the materials, that is the first matter employed by the workman; and if the object of his industry be the manufacture of another, the same process of inquiry must be gone through with regard to the first, as with regard to the second: and thus the most complex manufactures may be at last reduced to the greatest simplicity. I have been more particular in this analysis of manufactures than was absolutely necessary in this place, that I might afterwards with the greater ease, point out the methods of diminishing the prices of them.

These three articles being known, the price of manufacture is determined. It cannot be lower than the amount of all the three, that is, than the real value; whatever it is higher, is the manufacturer's profit. This will ever be in proportion to demand, and therefore will fluctuate according to circumstances.

Hence appears the necessity of a great demand, in order to promote flourishiug manufactures.

By the extensive dealings of merchants, and their constant application to the study of the balance of work and demand, all the above circumstances are known to them, and are made known to the industrious, who regulate their living and expence according to their certain profit. I call it certain, because under these circumstances they seldom overvalue their work, and by not overvaluing it, they are sure of a sale: a proof of this may be had from daily experience.

Employ a workman in a country where there is little trade or industry, he proportions his price always to the urgency of your want, or your capacity to pay; but seldom to his own labour. Employ another in a country of trade, he will not impose upon you, unless perhaps you be a stranger, which supposes your being ignorant of the value; but employ the same workman in a work not usual in the country, consequently not demanded, consequently not regulated as to the value, he will proportion his price as in the first supposition.

We may therefore conclude from what has been said, that in a country where trade is established, manufactures must flourish, from the ready sale, the regulated price of work, and certain profit resulting from industry. Let us next inquire into the consequences of such a situation.

Chap. V: How foreign Trade opens to an industrious People, and the Consequences of it to the Merchants who set it on foot

The first consequence of the situation described in the preceding chapter, is, that wants are easily supplied, for the adequate value of the thing wanted.

The next consequence is, the opening of foreign trade under its two denominations of passive and active. Strangers and people of distant countries finding the difficulty of having their wants supplied at home, and the ease of having them supplied from this country, immediately have recourse to it. This is passive trade. The active is when merchants, who have executed this plan at home with success, begin to transport the labour of their countrymen into other regions, which either produce, or are capable of producing such articles of consumption, proper to be manufactured, as are most demanded at home; and consequently will meet with the readiest sale, and fetch the largest profits. Here then is the opening of foreign trade, under its two denominations of active and passive: but as we are at present considering the consequences of this new state of things with respect to the merchants, we shall take no farther notice, in this place, of that division: it will naturally come in afterwards.

What then are the consequences of this new commerce to our merchants, who have left their homes in quest of gain abroad?

The first is, that arriving in any new country, they find themselves in the same situation, with regard to the inhabitants, as the workmen in the country of no trade, with regard to those who employed him; that is, they proportion the price of their goods to the eagerness of acquiring, or the capacity of paying, in the inhabitants, but never to their real value.

The first profits then, upon this trade, must be very considerable; and the demand from such a country will be high or low, great or small, according to the spirit, not the real wants of the people: for these in all countries, as has been said, must first be supplied by the inhabitants themselves, before they cease to labour.

If the people of this not-trading country (as we shall now call it) be abundantly furnished with commodities useful to the traders, they will easily part with them, at first, for the instruments of luxury and ease; but the great profit of the traders will insensibly increase the demand for the productions of their new correspondents; this will have the effect of producing a competition between themselves, and thereby of throwing the demand on their side, from the principles I shall afterwards explain. This is perpetually a disadvantage in traffic: the most it; and unpolished nations in the world quickly perceive the effects of are taught to profit of the discovery, in spite of the address of those who are the most expert in commerce.

The traders will, therefore, be very fond of falling upon every method and contrivance to inspire this people with a taste of refinement and delicacy. Abundance of fine presents, consisting of every instrument of luxury and superfluity, the best adapted to the genius of the people, will be given to the prince and leading men among them. Workmen will even be employed at home to study the taste of the strangers, and to captivate their desires by every possible means. The more eager they are of presents, the more lavish the traders will be in bestowing and diversifying them. It is an animal put up to fatten, the more he eats the sooner he is fit for slaughter. When their taste for superfluity is fully formed, when the relish for their former simplicity is sophisticated, poisoned, and obliterated, then they are surely in the fetters of the traders, and the deeper they go, the less possibility there is of their getting out. The presents then will die away, having served their purpose; and if, afterwards, they are found to be continued, it will probably be to support the competition against other nations, who will incline to share of the profits.

If, on the contrary, this not-trading nation does not abound with commodities useful to the traders, these will make little account of trading with them, whatever their turn may be; but if we suppose this country inhabited by a laborious people, who, having taken a taste for refinement from the traders, apply themselves to agriculture, in order to produce articles of subsistence, they will solicit the merchants to give them part of their manufactures in exchange for these; and this trade will undoubtedly have the effect of multiplying numbers in the trading nation. But if food cannot be furnished, nor any other branch of production found out to support the correspondence, the taste for refinement will soon die away, and trade will stop in this quarter.

Had it not been for the furs in those countries adjacent to Hudson's Bay, and in Canada, the Europeans never would have thought of supplying instruments of luxury to those nations; and if the inhabitants of those regions had not taken a taste for the instruments of luxury furnished to them by the Europeans, they never would have become so indefatigable nor so dexterous hunters. At the same time we are not to suppose, that ever these Americans would have come to Europe in quest of our manufactures. It is therefore owing to our merchants, that those nations are become in any degree fond of refinement; and this taste, in all probability, will not soon exceed the proportion of the productions of their country. From these beginnings of foreign trade it is easy to trace its increase.

One step towards this, is the establishing correspondences in foreign countries; and these are more or less necessary in proportion as the country where they are established is more or less polished or acquainted with trade. They supply the want of posts, and point out to the merchants what proportion the productions of the country bear to the demand of the inhabitants for manufactures. This communicates an idea of commerce to the not-trading nation, and they insensibly begin to fix a determinate value upon their own productions, which perhaps bore no determinate value at all before.

Let me trace a little the progress of this refinement in the savages, in order to shew how it has the effect of throwing the demand upon the traders, and of creating a competition among them, for the productions of the new country.

Experience shews, that in a new-discovered country, merchants constantly find some article or other of its productions, which turns out to a great account in commerce; and we see that the longer such a trade subsists, and the more the inhabitants take a taste for European manufactures, the more their own productions rise in their value, and the less profit is made by trading with them, even in cases where the trade is carried on by companies; which is a very wise institution for one reason, that it cuts off a competition between our merchants.

This we shall shew, in its proper place, to be the best means of keeping prices low in favour of the nation; however it may work a contrary effect with respect to individuals who must buy from these monopolies.

When companies are not established, and when trade is open, our merchants, by their eagerness to profit of the new trade, betray the secrets of it, they enter into competition for the purchase of the foreign produce, and this raises prices and favours the commerce of the most ignorant savages.

Some account for this in a different manner. They allege that it is not this competition which raises prices; because there is also a competition among the savages, which of them shall get the merchandise; and this may be sufficient to counter-balance the other, but in proportion as the quantity of goods demanded by the savages, as an exchange for the produce of their country, becomes greater, a less quantity of this produce must be given for every parcel of the goods.

To this I answer, That I cannot admit this apparent reason to be consistent with the principles of trade, however ingenious the conceit may be.

The merchant constantly considers his own profit in parting with his goods, and is not influenced by the reasons of expediency which the savages may find, to offer him less than formerly; for were this principle of proportion admitted generally, the price of merchandise would always be at the discretion of the buyers.

The objection here stated is abundantly plain; but it must be resolved in a very different manner. Here are two solutions:

First, Prices, I have said, are made to rise, according as demand is high, not according as it is great. Now, in the objection, it is said, that, in proportion as the demand is great, a less proportion of the equivalent must go to every parcel of the merchandise; which I apprehend to be false; and this shews the necessity of making a distinction between the high and the great demand, things entirely different in trade, and which communicate quite different ideas.

Secondly, In all trade there is an exchange, and in all exchange, we have said, there is a reciprocal demand implied: it must therefore be exactly inquired into, on which hand the competition between the demanders is found; that is to say, on which hand it is strongest; according to the distinction in the second chapter.

If the inhabitants of the country be in competition for the manufactures, goods will rise in their price most undoubtedly, let the quantity of the produce they have to offer be large or small; but so soon as these prices rise above the faculties, or desire of buying, in certain individuals, their demand will stop, and their equivalent will be prevented from coming into commerce. This will disappoint the traders; and therefore, as their gains are supposed to be great, either a competition will take place among themselves, who shall carry off the quantity remaining, supposing them to have separate interests; or, if they are united, they may, from a view of expediency, voluntarily sink their price, in order to bring it within the compass of the faculties, or intention, to buy in those who are still possessed of a portion of what they want.

It is from the effects of competition among sellers that I apprehend prices are brought down, not from any imaginary proportion of quantity to quantity in the market. But of this more afterwards, in its proper place.

So soon as the price of manufactures is brought as low as possible, in the new nation; if the surplus of their commodities does not suffice to purchase a quantity of manufactures proportioned to their wants, this people must begin to labour: for labour is the necessary consequence of want, real or imaginary; and by labour it will be supplied.

When this comes to be the case, we immediately find two trading nations instead of one; the balance of which trade will always be in favour of the most industrious and frugal; as shall be fully explained in another place.

Let me now direct my inquiry more particularly towards the consequences of this new state of things produced by commerce, relative to the not-trading nation, in order to shew the effect of a passive foreign trade. I shall spare no pains in illustrating, upon every occasion, as I go along, the fundamental principles of commerce, demand, and competition, even perhaps at the expence of appearing tiresome to some of my readers.

Chap. VI: Consequences of the Introduction of a passive Foreign Trade among a People who live in Simplicity and Idleness

We now suppose the arrival of traders, all in one interest, with instruments of luxury and refinement, at a port in a country of great simplicity of manners, abundantly provided by nature with great advantages for commerce, and peopled by a nation capable of adopting a taste for superfluities.

The first thing the merchants do, is to expose their goods, and point out the advantages of many things, either agreeable or useful to mankind in general, such as wines, spirits, instruments of agriculture, arms, and ammunition for hunting, nets for fishing, manufactures for clothing, and the like. The advantages of these are presently perceived, and such commodities are eagerly sought after. The natives on their side produce what they most esteem, generally something superfluous or ornamental. The traders, after examining all circumstances, determine the object of their demand, giving the least quantity possible in return for this superfluity, in order to impress the inhabitants with a high notion of the value of their own commodities; but as this parsimony may do more hurt than good to their interest, they are very generous in making presents, from the principles mentioned above.

When the exchange is completed, and the traders depart, regret is commonly mutual; the one and the other are sorry that the superfluities of the country fall short. A return is promised by the traders, and assurances are given by the natives of a better provision another time.

What are the first consequences of this revolution? Is it not evident, that, in order to supply an equivalent for this new want, more hands must be set to work than formerly? And it is evident also, that this augmentation of industry will not essentially increase numbers; as was supposed to be the effect of it through the whole train of our reasoning in the first book. Why? Because there the produce of the industry was supposed to be consumed at home; and here it is intended to be exported. But if we can find out any additional consumption at home even implied by this new trade, I think it will have the effect of augmenting numbers. An example will make this plain.

Let me suppose the superfluity of this country to be the skins of wild beasts, not proper for food; the manufacture sought for, brandy. The brandy is sold for furs. He who has furs, or he who can spare time to hunt for them, will drink brandy in proportion: but I cannot find out any reason to conclude, from this simple operation, that one man more in the country must necessarily be fed, (for I have taken care to suppose, that the flesh of the animals is not proper for food) or that any augmentation of agriculture must of consequence ensue from this new traffic.

But let me throw in a circumstance which may imply an additional consumption at home, and then examine the consequences.

A poor creature, who has no equivalent to offer for food, who is miserable, and ready to perish for want of subsistence, goes a hunting, and kills a wolf; he comes to a farmer with the skin, and says; you are well fed, but you have no brandy; if you will give me a loaf I will give you this skin, which the strangers are so fond of, and they will give you brandy. But, says the farmer, I have no more bread than what is sufficient for my own family. As for that, replies the other, I will come and dig in your ground, and you and I will settle our account as to the small quantity I desire of you. The bargain is made; the poor fellow gets his loaf, and lives at least; perhaps he marries, and the farmer gets a dram. But had it not been for this dram, (that is, this new want,) which was purchased by the industry of this poor fellow, by what argument could he have induced the farmer to part with a loaf?

I here exclude the sentiment of charity. This alone, as I have often observed, is a principle of multiplication, and if it was admitted here it would ruin all my supposition; but as true it is, on the other hand, that could the poor fellow have got bread by begging, he would not probably have gone a-hunting.

Here then it appears, that the very dawning of trade, in the most unpolished countries, implies a multiplication. This is enough to point out the first step, and to connect the subject of our present inquiries with what has been already discussed in relation to other circumstances. I proceed.

So soon as all the furs are disposed of, and a taste for superfluity introduced, both the traders and the natives will be equally interested in the advancement of industry in this country. Many new objects of profit for the first will be discovered, which the proper employment of the inhabitants, in reaping the natural advantages of their soil and climate, will make effectual. The traders will therefore endeavour to set on foot many branches of industry among the savages, and the allurements of brandy, arms, and clothing, will animate these in the pursuit of them. Let me here digress for a few lines.

If we suppose slavery to be established in this country, then all the slaves will be set to work, in order to provide furs and other things demanded by the traders, that the masters may thereby be enabled to indulge themselves in the superfluities brought to them by the merchants. When liberty is the system, every one, according to his disposition, becomes industrious, in order to procure such enjoyments for himself.

In the first supposition, it is the head of the master which conducts the labour of the slave, and turns it towards ingenuity: in the second, every head is at work, and every hand is improving in dexterity. Where hands therefore are principally necessary, the slaves have the advantage; where heads are principally necessary, the advantage lies in favour of the free. Set a man to labour at so much a day, he will go on at a regular rate, and never seek to improve his method: let him be hired by the piece, he will find a thousand expedients to extend his industry. This is exactly the difference between the slave and the free man. From this I account for the difference between the progress of industry in ancient and modern times. Why was a peculium given to slaves, but to engage them to become dextrous? Had there been no peculium and no libertini, or free men, who had been trained to labour, there would have been little more industry any where, than there was in the republic of Lycurgus, where, I apprehend, neither the one or the other was to be found. I return.

When once this revolution is brought about; when those who formerly lived in simplicity become industrious. Matters put on a new face. Is not this operation quite similar to that represented in the fifth chapter of the first book? There I found the greatest difficulty, in shewing how the mutual operations of supplying food and other wants could have the effect of promoting population and agriculture, among a people who were supposed to have no idea of the system proposed to be put in execution. Here the plan appears familiar and easy. The difference between them seems to resemble that of a child's learning a language by grammar, or learning it by the ear in the country where it is spoken. In the first case, many throw the book aside, but in the other none ever fail of success.

I have said, that matters put on a new face; that is to say, we now find two trading nations instead of one, with this difference, however, that as hitherto we have supposed the merchants all in one interest, the compound demand, that is, the competition of the buyers, has been, and must still continue on the side of the natives. This is a great prejudice to their interest, but as it is not supposed sufficient to check their industry, nor to restrain their consumption of the manufactures, let me here examine a little more particularly the consequences of the principle of demand in such a situation; for although I allow, that it can never change sides, yet it may admit of different modifications, and produce different effects, as we shall presently perceive.

The merchants we suppose all in one interest, consequently there can he no competition among them; consequently no check can be put upon their raising their prices, as long as the prices they demand are complied with. So soon as they are raised to the full extent of the abilities of the natives, or of their inclination to buy, the merchants have the choice of three things, which are all perfectly in their option, and the preference to be given to the one or the other depends entirely upon themselves, and upon the circumstances I am going to point out.

First, they may support the high demand; that is, not lower their price; which will preserve a high estimation of the manufactures in the opinion of the inhabitants, and render the profits upon their trade the greatest possible. This part they may possibly take, if they perceive the natives doubling their diligence, in order to become able, in time, to purchase considerable cargoes at a high value; from which supposition is implied a strong disposition in the people to become luxurious, since nothing but want of ability prevents them from complying with the highest demand: but still another circumstance must concur, to engage the merchants not to lower their price. The great proportion of the goods they seek for, in return, must be found in the hands of a few. This will be the case if slavery be established; for then there must be many poor, and few rich: and they are commonly the rich consumers who proportion the price they offer, rather to their desires, than to the value of the thing.

The second thing which may be done is, to open the door to a great demand; that is, to lower their prices. This will sink the value of the manufactures in the opinion of the inhabitants, and render profits less in proportion, although indeed, upon the voyage, the profits may be greater.

This part they will take, if they perceive the inhabitants do not incline to consume great quantities of the merchandize at a high value, either from want of abilities or inclination; and also, if the profits upon the trade depend upon a large consumption, as is the case in merchandize of a low value, and suited chiefly to the occasions of the lower sort. Such motives of expediency will be sufficient to make them neglect a high demand, and prefer a great one; and the more, when there is a likelihood that the consumption of low-priced goods in the beginning may beget a taste for others of a higher value, and thus extend in general the taste of superfluity.

A third part to be taken, is the least politic, and perhaps the most familiar. It is to profit by the competition between the buyers, and encourage the rising of demand as long as possible; when this comes to a stop, to make a kind of auction, by first bringing down the prices to the level of the highest bidders, and so to descend by degrees, in proportion as demand sinks. Thus we may say with propriety, according to our definitions of demand, that it commonly becomes great, in proportion as prices sink. By this operation, the traders will profit as much as possible, and sell off as much of their goods as the profits will permit.

I say, this plan, in a new discovered country, is not politic, as it both discovers a covetousness and a want of faith in the merchants, and also throws open the secrets of their trade to those who ought to be kept ignorant of them.

Let me next suppose, that the large profits of our merchants shall be discovered by others, who arrive at the same ports in a separate interest, and who enter into no combination with the first, which might prevent the natural effects of competition.

Let the state of demand among the natives be supposed the same as formerly, both as to height and greatness, in consequence of the operation of the different principles, which might have induced our merchants to follow one or other of the plans we have been describing; we must however still suppose, that they have been careful to preserve considerable profits upon every branch.

If we suppose the inhabitants to have increased in numbers, wealth, and taste for superfluity, since the last voyage, demand will be found rather on the rising hand. Upon the arrival of the merchants in competition with the former, both will offer to sale; but if both stand to the same prices, it is very natural to suppose, that the former dealers will obtain a preference; as, cateris paribus, it is always an advantage to know and to be known. The last comers, therefore, have no other way left to counterbalance this advantage, but to lower their prices.

This is a new phaenomenon: here the fall of prices is not voluntary as formerly; not consented to from expediency; not owing to a failure of demand, but to the influence of a new principle of commerce, to wit, a double competition. This I shall now examine with all the care I am capable of.

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