Sir James Steuart (1767)
I come now to inquire into the principles of credit; a subject already introduced in the the 27th chapter of the second book, where I examined nature of circulation, and pointed out the principles, which direct a statesman when and how to retard or accelerate its activity, according as the political interests of his people may require.
In that chapter the object was, when and how either to extend or restrain the use of credit, according to political circumstances. The inquiry now comes to be, what this credit is; upon what it is founded; what the various species of it are; what are the methods of establishing and extending it, while it is in its infancy and vigour; how to sustain it when it is overstretched; and last of all, how to let it fall as gently as possible, when by no human prudence it can be longer supported.
Many political writers in treating of credit, represent it as being of a very mysterious nature; owing its establishment to a confidence not easily accounted for, and disappearing from the slightest unfavourable circumstances.
That credit, in its fancy, is of a very delicate nature, I willingly allow. as also that we have many examples which confirm the sentiments, of those who believe it to contain, in itself, something very mysterious: but this proves no more, than that, in such cases, credit (as I consider it, and as it will appear really to be) has not been properly established. The cause of confidence has had nothing in it but opinion, and when this is the case, credit is but a shadow; and like a thin vapour, it may be dissipated by the smallest breath of wind.
They all agree that credit is no more than confidence, but they do not examine how this confidence is to be established on a solid foundation.
The operations of credit are incompatible with the involved contracts of the law, and with the spirit of intricate land-securities. The policy of such contracts was analogous to the manners of the times which gave them birth. Trade is a late refinement, in most nations of Europe, and industry is still a later: the beginnings of both are slow, imperceptible, and obscure. The instruments by which they are promoted, are the lower classes of a people; the interest of the individuals who compose them, may appear to some, to be below the attention of a statesman; and yet it is by the accumulation of their industry only, that this huge fabric is erected.
To establish that credit, which is necessary for carrying on so great a work, a statesman must lend his hand. He must give a validity to mercantile obligations, which have no name in his law-books: he must support the weak against the strong: he must reform the unwieldy procedure of courts of justice: he must facilitate the sale of property: he must establish the credibility of merchants' books regularly kept: he must discourage frauds, and support fair dealing.
When such a plan is once established, confidence will find a basis in the property of every individual who profits by it. When it is not established, credit will appear like a meteor: intelligent and crafty men will avail themselves of it, and thereby dazzle the eyes of the public, with gilded schemes of opulence and prosperity: mankind will fly to industry, confidence will be established; but as there will be no method of determining the bounds of this confidence, the promoters of the scheme will profit of the delusion: confidence will vanish; and the whole will appear to have been a mystery, a dream. Is not this a representation of many projects set on foot since the beginning of this century? What were the South Sea's and Missisippi's, but an abuse of confidence? Had ever the cause of confidence been examined into, would ever such extravagant ideas have arrived at the height they did?
Credit therefore must have a real, not an imaginary object to support it; and although I allow that in all operations of mercantile credit, there must be something left to chance and accident; yet this chance must bear a due proportion to the extraordinary profits reasonably to be expected from the undertaking.
From this it appears, what an useful speculation it is to inquire properly into the nature of credit; to deduce with accuracy the principles upon which it is founded; to banish mystery from plain reason; to shew how every the most surprizing effect of credit, whether tending to the advantage, or to the hurt of society, may easily be accounted for; and, which is the most useful of all, to point out how such effects may be foreseen, so as either to be improved or prevented.
In going through so extensive a subject, as a deduction of the principles of credit, method is very necessary; and when a detail is long, subdivisions are very convenient. I have, upon this account, divided this book into four parts.
The first shall be set apart for deducing the principles which regulate the rate of interest; because this is the basis of the whole.
The second, for the principles of banking; under which I shall have an opportunity to unfold the whole doctrine of domestic circulation.
The third, for those of exchange. which is equally well calculated for carrying on foreign circulation; and as to what regards debts, and the borrowing of money, with all the consequences which they draw along with them, these important objects will furnish ample matter for
The fourth and last part, which shall treat of the principles of public credit.
These things premised, I proceed to the definition of credit.
Credit is the reasonable expectation; entertained by him who fulfils his side of any contract, that the other contracting party will reciprocally make good his engagements.
To illustrate this, we may say with the lawyers, that as all contracts may be reduced under one of the following heads, Do ut des, do ut facias; facio ut des, facio ut facias: so he who actually gives or performs his part, is the creditor, or the person who gives credit; and he who promises only to give or to perform, is the debtor, or the person who receives it.
Credit, therefore, is no more than a well established confidence between men, in what relates to the fulfilling of their engagements. This confidence must be supported by laws, and established by manners. By laws, the execution of formal contracts may be enforced: manners, alone, can introduce that entire confidence which is requisite to form the spirit of a trading nation.
Credit, in its fancy, must be supported by statutes, and enforced by penalties; but when it is once well established, every recourse had to law, is found to wound the delicacy of its constitution. For this reason we see, that in certain nations,(1*) the legislator wisely excludes the ordinary courts of justice from extending their rigid jurisdiction over mercantile engagements: they leave to the prudence and good faith of men versed in commerce, to solve the difficulties which result from such transactions; because they are to be interpreted more according to the constant fluctuation of manners, than to the more permanent institutions of positive law.
The more the jurisdiction of the statesman is limited; or, in other words, the less the power of any sovereign is restrained, by the laws and constitution of the state he governs, the more it behoves him to avoid every step of administration which can make his authority be felt in cases where credit is concerned. If he should happen, for example, to be a debtor himself, he must take good care never to appear in any other light to his creditor. The moment he puts on the sovereign, the same moment all confidence is lost. For these reasons, we have hitherto had few examples (I might perhaps have said none at all) where credit has been found permanently solid, under a pure monarchy.
But we must observe, at the same time, that the stability of credit is not incompatible with this form of government. At certain times, we have seen credit make a surprising progress in France; and it has never suffered any check in that state, but from acts of power, which I think have proceeded more from inadvertency, and want of knowledge, than from a formed design of defrauding creditors. These may be looked on as blunders in administration; because they have constantly disappointed the purpose for which they were intended. Let me prove this by some examples.
The arret of 21 May 1720, (of which we shall give an account hereafter), destroyed in one day the whole fabric of credit, which had been erected in France during the course of three years; and which in so short a time had mounted to a height hardly credible. I say, that in one day this inadvertent step (for no real injury was intended) destroyed the credit of 2,697,048,000 livres of bank notes, (above 120 millions sterling) and of 624,000 actions of the East India company, which (reckoned at 5000 livres apiece, the price at which the company had last sold them) amount to 3,120,000,000 livres, or above 140 millions sterling. Thus at one blow, and in one day, 260 millions sterling of paper currency, payable to bearers, were struck out of the circulation of France; by an useless and inadvertent act of power, which ruined the nation, and withered the hand which struck it: an event too little understood, and too little remembered in that kingdom.
This plainly appears from their late conduct; for in the end of 1759, at a time when the credit of France was in so flourishing a situation as to have enabled her to borrow, that very year, near 200 millions of livres; and when there was a prospect of being able to borrow, in the year following, a far greater sum, the shutting up what they called their caisse d'amortissement, for the sake of withholding 32 millions of livres interest due to the creditors, struck all credit with foreigners dead in one instant.
These examples shew what fatal consequences follow a misjudged exercise of power in matters of credit.
On the other hand, the rapid progress of credit in France before the Missisippi, and the stability of it from 1726 to the year 1759, abundantly proves, that no two things are more compatible than monarchy and confidence. All that is wanting is the establishment of one maxim in government; to wit, that the King's power is never to extend so far, as to alter the smallest article of such contracts as have been made with those who have lent money for the service of the state.
Maxims in government bind the monarch and the legislature, as laws bind subjects and subordinate magistrates: the one and the other ought to be held inviolable, so far as they regard credit; or confidence will be precarious.
What has supported the credit of Great Britain, but the maxim constantly adhered to, that the public faith pledged to her creditors is to be inviolable?
Does any one doubt, but the legislature of this nation may spunge out the public debts, with as much ease as a King of France? But in the one kingdom, the whole nation must be consulted as to the propriety of such a step; in the other, it may be done at the instigation of a single person, ignorant of the consequences: but I hope to make it appear, before the conclusion of this book, that it is impossible to form a supposition, by which a state can be benefitted by deliberately departing, for one moment, from the faith of her engagements. A national bankruptcy may no doubt happen, and become irreparable; but this must be when the state is emerging from a signal calamity, after having been involved in ruin and confusion.
Confidence, then, is the soul and essence of credit; and in every modification of it, we shall constantly find it built on this basis: but this confidence must have for its object a willingness and a capacity in the debtor to fulfil his obligations.
We have already said, that all obligations contracted with a view to be performed in future time, consist in doing or giving something in consideration of something done or given.
When actions only are stipulated in contracts, credit (in a strict acceptation of the term) is little concerned; because no adequate security can be given for performing an action: such contracts stand wholly upon the willingness and capacity of acting, which depend more upon the person than upon the faculties of the debtor. To supply this defect, we see penalties usually stipulated in such cases; which reduce those contracts to an alternative obligation of either doing or giving.
We shall therefore throw out the consideration of the first altogether, as being foreign to our purpose; and adhere to the later, which is the true object of credit. Again:
In all obligations to give any particular thing, there is constantly implied an alternative also; to wit, either the thing stipulated, or the value (id quod interest, according to the lawyers): this must be relative to money; which is the common price of all things in commerce among men.
Thus we have brought credit to the object under which we are to consider it, viz. the obligation to pay money, either for value received, or for some consideration relative to the parties, which may be the just ground of a contract.
Credit and debts are therefore inseparable, because they necessarily imply each other; and very properly come to be examined together in this book.
When money is to be paid at a distant period of time, the obligation may either be, for one precise sum; or for that sum with interest, during the interval between contracting and fulfilling the obligation.
The lending of money without interest, was very common before the introduction of trade and industry. Money then was considered as a barren stock, incapable of producing fruit; and whenever the quantity of it, in any country, exceeded the uses of circulation, the remainder was locked up in treasures: in which case, the exacting of interest for it appeared unreasonable.
Things are now changed: no money is ever locked up; and when borrowed, the regular payment of interest for it, is as essential to the obtaining of credit, as the confidence of being repaid the capital. These periodical payments are a constant corroboration of this confidence; so that it may be said with truth, that he who can give good security, to pay to perpetuity, a regular interest for money, will obtain credit for any sum, although it should appear evident, that he never can be in a capacity to refund the capital.
The reason of this may be gathered from the principles already deduced, and from the plan of our modern oeconomy.
We have said in the second book, that the current money of a country is always in proportion to the trade, industry, consumption, and alienation, which regularly take place in it; and when it happens that the money already in the country is not sufficient for carrying on these purposes, a part of the solid property, equal to the deficiency, may be melted down (as we have called it) and made to circulate in paper: that as soon again as this paper augments beyond this proportion, a part of what was before in circulation, must return upon the debtor in the paper, and be realized anew.
Let us now consider what is understood by realized. By this term is meant, that the regorging paper, or that quantity of currency which a nation possesses over and above what is necessary for its circulation, must be turned into some shape whereby it may produce an income; for it is now a maxim, that no money is to be suffered to remain useless to the proprietor of it.(2*)
When this regorging or stagnating paper then comes upon the debtor in it, if he should pay the value of it in hard specie, how would the condition of the creditor be improved?
We suppose the credit of the paper equal to the credit of the coin within the country. We also suppose that the paper has so stagnated in the hands of the bearer, that he can neither lend it, or purchase with it any species of solid property, within the country, capable to produce an income: for if any way of disposing it usefully can be found, this circumstance will prove that circulation is not overstocked at that time; consequently, the money does not regorge. But let us suppose that it does regorge: then he must either oblige the debtor in the paper to pay in coin, that he may lock it up in his coffer (as was the case of old); or he must send his coin to other countries, where circulation is not fully stocked, and where an income may be bought with it. This constantly happens when circulation is either overstocked, or when the quantity of circulation begins to diminish in a country.
Let me next suppose, that in a country overstocked with money, a sudden demand for it, far beyond the ordinary rate of circulation, shall occur: suppose a war to break out, which absorbs, in a short time, more money than, perhaps, all the coin and all the paper can supply. The state upon this occasion imposes a tax, which, let me suppose, may produce a sum equal to the interest of the money required. Is it not very certain, that such persons who found a difficulty in placing their regorging capitals, will be better pleased to purchase a part of this annual interest, than to lend it to any person who might pay it back in a short time; by which repayment the lender would again be thrown into the same inconvenience as before, of finding a proper out-let for it? This is a way of realizing superfluous money, more effectual than turning it into gold or silver.
When I speak, therefore, of realizing paper money, I understand either the converting of it into gold and silver, which is the money of the world; or the placing of it in such a way as to produce a perpetual fund of annual interest.
Were public borrowing, therefore, to work the effect of bringing the money in circulation below the proportion required for carrying on alienation, trade, etc. then an obligation to repay the capital would be necessary, and complaints would be heard against the state for not paying off their debts; because thereby the progress of industry would be prevented. But when the operations of credit are allowed to introduce a method of creating money anew, in proportion as trade and industry shall demand it, then the state has no occasion to pay back the capitals; because the public creditors enjoy far better conditions in their annual income, than if their capitals were refunded.
Let me illustrate this by an example.
We must take it for granted, that in every nation in Europe, there is a sum in circulation, nearly equal to the alienation, trade, etc. which goes on actually at the time. We must also take it for granted, that the amount of all debts whatsoever, public and private, paying interest to the class of creditors, is every where a very great sum: now let us suppose, that the class of debtors should be enabled (no matter by what means) to pay off what they owe, in coin newly acquired; would not, by the supposition, a sum of the old currency nearly equal to this coin newly acquired, immediately fall into stagnation, and would it not be impossible to draw any income from this stagnated coin? This was exactly the case of old. The coin far exceeded the uses of circulation, and stagnated in treasures. Wars brought it out; because then circulation augmented; peace again cutting off these extraordinary demands, the coin stagnated again, and returned to the treasures.
What is the case at present?
Money and coin are never found to surpass the uses of circulation in commercial countries. When war comes, which demands an extraordinary supply, recourse is had to borrowing upon interest; not to treasures: and the desire of purchasing this interest, which we call an annuity, draws treasures even from the enemies of those nations who have the best credit. Again, at the end of a war, in place of an empty treasury, as was the case of old, we find a huge sum of public debts. As oeconomy filled the treasury then, so oeconomy must pay off the debts now.
From what has been said, it plainly appears, that interest is now become so absolutely essential to credit, that it may be considered as the principal requisite and basis on which the whole fabric stands: we shall therefore begin by examining the origin and nature of interest, and also the principles which influence the rate, and regulate the fluctuations of it.
I shall leave it to divines and causists to determine how far the exacting of interest for money is lawful, according to the principles of our religion.
It was forbidden to the Jews, by the laws of Moses, to lend at interest to their brethren, but it was permitted to lend to strangers. Deut. Chap. xxiii, ver. 19, 20. This is one of the wisest political institutions to be met with in so remote antiquity, as we shall hereafter explain.
In the primitive ages of christianity, the lending of money at interest was certainly reputed to be unlawful on most occasions. That spirit of charity to all who were in want, was so worked in with the doctrine of our religion, that a borrower was constantly considered to be in that situation. Trade was little known; trading men were generally ill looked upon; and those who debated so far from the spirit of the times, as to think of accumulating wealth by the use of their money, commonly degenerated into usurers.
In the middle centuries, when a mistaken zeal animated christianity with a most ungodly thirst for the blood of infidels, the Jews were, in every nation in Europe, almost the only money-lenders. This circumstance still more engaged the church to dart her thunder against this practice; and the loan upon interest never took root among christians, until a spirit of trade and industry sprung up in Italy in the time of the Lombards, and from thence spread itself, through the channel of the Hans-towns, over several nations.
Then the church began to open her eyes and saw the expediency of introducing many modifications, in order to limit the general anathema which she had denounced against the whole class of money-lenders. At one time it was declared lawful to lend at interest, when the capital shared any risque in the hands of the borrower; at another, it was found allowable, when the capital was not demandable from the debtor, while he paid the interest; again, it was permitted, when the debtor was declared by sentence of a judge, to be in mora in acquitting his obligation: at last, it was permitted on bills of exchange. In short, in most Roman catholic countries, interest is now permitted in every interest for case almost, except in obligations including a stipulation of sums demandable at any time after the term of payment; and it is as yet no where considered to be so essential to loan, as to be due on all debts whatsoever; not even upon obligations payable on demand.
Expediency and the good of society (politically speaking) are the only rule for judging, when the loan upon interest should be permitted, when forbidden. While people borrowed in order only to procure a circulating equivalent for providing their necessaries, until they could have time to dispose of their effects; and while there was seldom any certain profit to be made by the use of the money borrowed, as now, by turning it into trade, it was very natural to consider the lender in an unfavourable light; because it was supposed that his money, had it not been lent, must have remained locked up in his coffers. But at present, when we see so many people employed in providing stores of necessaries for others, which, without money, cannot be done; were the loan upon interest forbidden, it would have the effect of locking up the very instrument (money) which is necessary for supplying the wants of the society. The loan, therefore, upon interest, as society now stands composed, is established, not in favour of the lenders, but of the whole community; and taking the matter in this light, no one, I suppose, will pretend that what is beneficial to a whole society should be forbidden, because of its being proportionably advantageous to some particular members of it.
If it be then allowed, that the loan upon interest is a good political institution, relatively to the present situation of European societies, the next question is, to determine a proper standard for it, so as to avoid the oppression of usurers, on one hand, and on the other, to allow such a reasonable profit to the lender, as may engage him to throw his money into circulation for the common advantage.
This question leads us directly to the examination of the principles which regulate the rate of interest; and if we can discover a certain rule, arising from the nature of things, and from the principles of commerce, which may direct a statesman how to establish a proper regulation in this matter, we may conclude with certainty concerning the exact limits, between unlawful and pinching usury, exacted by a vicious set of men, who profit of the distress of individuals; and that reasonable equivalent which men have a right to expect for the use of their money, lent for carrying on the circulation of trade, and the employment of the lower classes of a people who must subsist by their industry or labour.
We must now recal to mind the principles of demand and competition, so fully deduced in the second book, in order to answer the following question, viz.
What is the principle which regulates, at all times, the just and adequate rate of interest for money, in any particular state?
I answer, That at all times, there is in every state a certain number of persons who have occasion to borrow money, and a certain number of persons who desire to lend: there is also a certain sum of money demanded by the borrowers, and a certain sum offered to be lent. The borrowers desire to fix the interest as low as they can; the lenders seek, from a like principle of self-interest, to carry the rate of it as high as they can.
From this combination of interests arises a double competition, which fluctuates between the two parties. If more be demanded to be borrowed, than there is found to be lent, the competition will take place among the borrowers. Such among them as have the most pressing occasion for money, will offer the highest interest, and will be preferred. If, on the contrary, the money to be lent exceed the demand of the borrowers, the competition will be upon the other side. Such of the lenders, as have the most pressing occasion to draw an interest for their money, will offer it at the lowest interest, and this offer will be accepted.
I need not launch out into a repetition of what has been said concerning the influence of double competition, in fixing the price of commodities; as I suppose these principles to be now well understood, and well retained, by those who read this chapter; I shall therefore confine myself here to what is peculiar to the demand for money.
The price of commodities is extremely fluctuating: they are every one calculated for particular uses; money serves every purpose. Commodities, though of the same kind, differ in goodness: money is all, or ought to be all of the same value, relatively to its denominations. Hence the price of money (which is what we express by the term interest) is susceptible of a far greater stability and uniformity, than the price of any other thing.
We have shewn in the 28th chapter of the second book, in examining the principles which regulate the price of subsistence, that the only thing which can fix a standard for it, is frequent and familiar alienation. The same holds true of money. Were we to suppose a state, where borrowing and lending are not common, and where the laws fix no determinate interest for money, it would hardly be possible to ascertain the rate of it at any time. This was the case of old.
Before the reign of Henry VIII of England, in 1545, there was no statute regulating the rate of interest, in that kingdom. The reason is very plain. In those days there was little circulation, and the borrowing of money upon interest was considered as a mortal sin. The consequence of this was, that usurers, having nothing but conscience to restrain them, carried the price of their money to a level with the pressing occasion of spendthrifts, while others, from friendship, lent for no interest at all. Henry fixed the rate of interest at 10 per cent and his contemporary, Francis I of France, in 1522, (who was the first who borrowed money in a regular manner upon the townhouse of Paris) fixed the interest at the 12th penny, that is, at 8 1/3 per cent.
In those days, it was impossible for a statesman to determine any just rate for interest; and accordingly we find history filled with the extortion of usurers, on one hand, and the violence and injustice of princes and ministers towards those who had lent them money, on the other: was it then any wonder, that lending at interest was universally cried out against? It really produced very little good, and was the cause of manifold calamities to a state. When the Prince borrowed, it was in the most urgent distress: those who had money, foresaw the danger of being plundered if they refused to lend it to him, and of being defrauded as soon as the public distress was over: for this reason they exacted the most exorbitant interest: the consequence was, that the people were loaded with the most grievous taxes, and the tax-gatherers were the Prince's creditors, to whom such taxes were assigned.
In our days, trade, industry, and a call for money, enable the borrower to enrich himself, to supply the wants of the state, and to pay his interest regularly.
If we compare the two situations, we shall find every disadvantage attending the former, and every advantage connected with the latter.
Without good faith their can be no credit; without credit there can be no borrowing of money, no trade, no industry, no circulation, no bread for the lower classes, no luxury, not even the conveniences of life, for the rich. Under these circumstances, there can be no rule for the rate of interest; because borrowing cannot be frequent and familiar.
In proportion, therefore, as borrowing becomes frequent and familiar, the rule for fixing the rate of a legal interest becomes more practicable to a statesman. Let me make a step farther.
We have said, that it is the fluctuation of the double competition between borrowers and lenders, which occasions the rise and fall of the rate of interest; I must now point out the principles which occasion this fluctuation.
Were the interests of trade and industry so exactly established, as to produce the same profit on every branch of them, the money borrowed for carrying them on, would naturally be taken at the same rate; but this is not the case: some branches afford more, some less profit. In proportion, therefore, to the advantages to be reaped from borrowed money, the borrowers may offer more or less for the use of it.
Besides the class of men who borrow in order to profit by the loan, there is another class, who borrow in order to dissipate. The first class never can offer an interest which exceeds the proportion of their gains: the second class, finding nothing but want of credit to limit their expence, become a prey to usurers. Were it not then upon account of these last, there would be no occasion for a statute to regulate the rate of interest. The profits on trade would strike an average among the industrious classes; and this average would fall and rise, in proportion to the flourishing or decay of commerce.
Let us next examine the principles which prevent the monied men from committing extortions, and which oblige them to lend their money for that rate of interest which is in proportion to the profits upon trade and industry.
In every country there is found a sum of money (that is, of circulating value, no matter whether coin or paper) proportioned to the trade and industry of it. How this sum is determined, and how it is made to augment and diminish in proportion to industry, we have already explained in the 26th chapter of the second book: we are now to examine some of the consequences which result from the accidental stagnation of any part of it to the prejudice of alienation; and we must shew how the loan upon interest is the means of throwing it again into circulation.
There are in every state some who spend more, and some who spend less than their income. What is not spent must stagnate; or must be lent to those who spend more than the produce of their own funds. Were the first class found so to preponderate, as to require more money to borrow than all that is to be lent, the consequence would be, to prevent the borrowing of merchants; to raise interest so high as to extinguish trade; and to destroy industry; and these resources coming to fail, foreign commodities would be brought in, while exportation would be stopped, money would disappear, and all would fall into decay.
This, I believe, is a case which seldom happens; because the rise of interest (as states are now formed) has so much the effect of depreciating the value of every species of solid property, that spendthrifts are quickly stripped of it, by the growing accumulation of that canker worm, interest; their ruin terrifies many from following so hurtful an example, and their property falling into the hands of the other class, who spend less than their income; these new possessors introduce, by their example, a more frugal set of manners. This may be the case in countries where trade and industry have been introduced; and where the operations of credit have been able to draw into circulation a large quantity of solid property, according to the principles deduced in the chapter above referred to. But in nations of idleness, who circulate their coin only, and who are deprived of the resource of credit; high interest prevents them from emerging out of their sloth, and the little trade they have, continues to produce great profits, which are incompatible with foreign commerce: this may, indeed, make the coin they have to circulate for home-consumption, but it can bring no augmentation of wealth from abroad.
On the other hand, when trade and industry flourish, and when a monied interest is formed, in consequence of the melting down of solid property, and still more in consequence of a State's contracting great debts; were the money-lenders to attempt to raise the rate of interest to the standard of the spendthrift, the demands of trade, etc, would soon be cut off: the stagnation would then swell so fast in their hands, that it would in a manner choak them, and in a little time interest would fall to nothing. Whereas by contenting themselves with the standard of trade, the largest supplies (provided for the borrowers) easily find a vent, without raising the rate of interest so high as to be hurtful to any interest within the state.
Add to this, that the advantage of realizing, into lands, so unstable a property as money, must naturally throw the proprietors of the money into a competition for the lands which dissipation brings to market; thus, by rising the value of lands, the monied men, with their own hands, defeat the consequences of the dissipation of spendthrifts, and hurt their own interest, to wit, the rise of the price of money. From a combination of these circumstances, lenders become obliged to part with their money at that rate of interest which is the most consistent with that good of commerce.
We have hitherto preserved our combinations as simple as possible. We have suggested no extrinsic obstacle to borrowing and lending. If money be to be lent, and if people be found who incline to borrow, we have taken it for granted, that circulation will go on; and that the stagnations in the hands of the lenders, will find a ready vent by the dissipation of the other class: we must now make still a step farther.
The spendthrifts must have credit; that is, they must have it in their power to repay with interest what they have borrowed: any impediment to credit, will have the effect either of diminishing the demand for money, and consequently of lowering the rate of interest, or of introducing unlawful usury. If we suppose the rate of interest well determined, and usury prevented by a regular execution of good laws, it is very certain, that a statesman by hurting the credit of extravagant people, will keep the rate of interest within due bounds.
If, therefore, the laws of any country, in our days, appear defective, as to the regulation of securities for money lent upon the mortgage of solid property, while the rate of interest stands higher than is consistent with the good of trade, and with public credit; we should be slow in finding fault with such a defect. The motives of statesmen lie very deep; and it is not always proper to explain them. An example of such defects are entails upon lands, and the want of proper registers for mortgages.
Did the dissipation of landed men tend to promote foreign trade, such clogs would be pernicious: but if the tendency of dissipation be to promote domestic luxury only, and thereby to raise the price of labour and industry, the case is widely different. This observation is merely incidental: our object at present extends no farther than to shew, that the dissipation of landed men, and the credit they have to borrow money, influence, not a little, the rate of interest in every modern state.
These are the general principles which, arising from things themselves, without the interposition of a statesman, tend to regulate the rate of interest in commercial nations.
From the principles deduced the preceding chapter, we have seen how, without the aid of any law, the interest of money, in a trading nation, becomes determined, from natural causes, and from the irresistible effects of competition.
But as there is no country in the world so entirely given to commerce, as not to contain great numbers of people, who are totally unacquainted with it, some regulation with respect to the rate of interest becomes necessary in order to restrain, on one hand, the frenzy of those, who, listening to nothing but the violence of their passions, are willing to procure money at any rate for the gratification of them, let the political consequences of their dissipation prove ever so hurtful to the state; and on the other, to protect those who, from necessity, may be obliged to submit to the heavy oppression of their usurious creditors.
Laws restraining usury, are directly calculated for the sake of those two classes, not engaged in commerce, and indirectly calculated for commerce itself; which otherwise might receive a wound through their sides.
In entering upon the subject mentioned in the title of this chapter, I think we may agree in this, that hitherto all regulations made concerning interest, have been calculated either for bringing it down, or for preventing its rise. The distress which may come upon a state, by its falling too low, is a phaenomenon which has not yet manifested itself in any modern state, by any symptom I can at present recollect.
Now if it be true, as I think it has been proved, that the operations of demand and competition work irresistible effects in determining the rate of interest in commercial states; the statesman who is about to make a regulation, must keep these principles constantly in his eye.
If we examine the writings of those who have treated of this subject with intelligence (among whom, I think, Sir Josiah Child has a right to stand in the foremost rank), we shall find very little attention bestowed upon that most necessary and ruling principle, competition.
He lays it down as an axiom, that low interest is the soul of trade, in which he is certainly right; but he seems to think, that it is in the power of a legislature, by statute, to bring interest down to that level which is most advantageous to trade; and in this I differ from him. I must do him the justice to say, that he no where directly affirms this proposition; but by suggesting none of the inconveniences which may follow upon an arbitrary reduction of interest by statute, he leaves his reader at liberty to suppose, that the lowering of it is solely in the hands of a statesman.
It is very plain, from the history he has given us of the successive rates of interest in England, from 10 to 6 per cent that without the interposition of statutes, such diminutions would not, in that period, have taken place, from the principle of competition: but I am not so clear that, at this time, when trade is so well understood, and credit so generally established in many nations of Europe, that a like administration would work effects equally advantageous.
It is with great diffidence I presume to differ from Child upon this subject; and I find a sensible satisfaction in perceiving that upon the whole, my principles bring me so very near to his sentiments on this matter.
The strong arguments in favour of Child's opinion, are grounded upon facts. He says, that when interest was brought down by statute, 1625, from 10 to 8 per cent instead of producing any bad effect, it had that of bringing it still lower immediately afterwards; and the same thing happened, anno 1650, when it was reduced a second time by statute, from 8 to 6 per cent, at which rate it stood at the time he wrote. These facts I give credit to, and shall now account for them, from the consequences of sudden revolutions.
When a law is made for the reduction of interest, all debtors immediately profit by it. Upon this, the creditors must either submit, or call in their capitals. If they submit, land immediately rises in its value. If they call in their capitals, they must have an outlet for lending them again, beyond the limits of the jurisdiction of the legislature. Now this outlet was not then to be found; because credit was no where well established, except in Holland, where interest was still lower.
They were, therefore, obliged to submit, and thus interest was violently brought down by statute; and a great advantage resulted from it to the commercial interests of England.
The subsequent fall of interest, in the natural way, is thus easily accounted for.
The consequence of lowering the interest, was, that the price of land rose several years in purchase: the landed men, who had long groaned under the heavy interest of 10 per cent finding their lands rise from 12 years' purchase to 15, upon reducing the interest to 8 per cent sold off part of their lands, and cleared themselves. The natural consequence of this was, to make money regorge in the hands of the monied men; to diminish the number of borrowers; and consequently, to bring the rate of interest still lower.
One sudden revolution produces another. When interest is brought down by statute, the price of land must rise by a jerk; and landed men will suddenly profit of the change in their favour. When it falls gently, by a natural revolution in the state of demand, the effects are more insensible; the sharper sighted only profit of it; others, from expectation of a still greater rise in the price of their lands, neglect to sell in the proper point of time; and may perhaps be disappointed from a new fluctuation in favour of money. This is at present actually the case in Great Britain, since the peace of 1762. I write in 1764.
These facts speak strongly in favour of Child's opinion, namely, that it is expedient to have recourse directly to the statute, whenever there is a prospect of advancing the interests of trade by a reduction of interest.
It is impossible to reply to matters of fact: all, therefore, I have to allege in favour of my own opinion, is, that it is more consistent with the very principles in which both Child and I agree; it implies no sudden revolution, and will, in a short time, operate the same effect.
The method of proceeding, according to my principles, is shortly this:
Since it is agreed on all hands, that low interest is the soul of trade, and the firmest basis of public credit; that it rises in proportion to the demand of borrowers, and sinks in proportion as money is made to regorge in the hands of the monied interest;
The statesman should set out by such steps of administration as will discourage borrowing in those who employ their money in prodigality and dissipation, as far as may be consistent with the interest of the lower classes employed in supplying home consumption, according to the principles laid down in the second book. He should abstain from borrowing himself, and even from creating new outlets for money, except from the most cogent motives. By this he will, in a short time, gently reduce the rate of interest. Then by statute he may bring it down a little, but not so very low as the foregoing operations may have reduced it; contenting himself with having farther restricted the extent of the ordinary fluctuations.
As for example: let us suppose interest limited by law to 5 per cent. and that by good management the state may be enabled to borrow easily at 3 per cent. I believe there would result a notable advantage, in reducing the legal rate to 4 per cent and were it brought down to 3 per cent there might follow a very great inconvenience to landed men, in case a war should suddenly occasion a revolution in favour of money.
The difference then between Child and me, is, that I am more scrupulous than he, in introducing restraint into political oeconomy; and my only reason against applying the statute, as he proposes, is for fear of the immediate bad effects which might follow (in many ways impossible to be foreseen) upon a sudden and violent revolution, in a point so excessively delicate as public credit.
In his days, credit was not so well established, nor was it stretched as at present: it was more accustomed to violent shocks, and could bear a rougher treatment. But in order to come the better to a thorough knowledge of this matter, let us examine what might be the consequence, if Great Britain should, at this time, bring down, by statute, the rate of interest below the level of the stocks, which I take to be the best rule for determining the present value of money; and this is also the best method of examining the expediency of Child's method of reducing interest, under the present state of all our political circumstances.
When Great Britain borrows money upon the public faith, the rate of interest is always stipulated, and these stipulations must be religiously fulfilled, or credit will be at an end.
The regulations then proposed to be made, must refer to contracts of loan entered into by private parties only.
The current value of money, I think, is best to be determined by the price of stocks. If a 4 per cent sells at par, money may be said to be then at 4 per cent. If the same stock fall to 89, then the value of money rises to near 4 1/2: if the same stock rise to 114, then the value of money falls to about 3 1/2; and so in proportion.
According, therefore, as stock is found to rise, the price of money falls, and vice versa.
Suppose, then, the price of money to be at 4 per cent and that government should pass a law, forbidding any man to lend at above 3 per cent what would be the consequence? This is exactly the expedient proposed by Child: money then was at 6 per cent and he proposes, by a law, to bring it, all at once, to 4 per cent without alleging that money was then commonly got by private convention at so low a rate.
Would not the consequence be, that the creditors of private people would demand their money, in order to get 4 per cent in buying stock, and would not this additional demand for stocks make them rise? I answer in the affirmative, unless money could be employed abroad, so as to produce at least 4 per cent to the lenders, free of all charge of commission, etc. If it could not, I have little doubt, but that money would soon fall to the legal interest of 3 per cent land would rise to 40 years purchase; and landed men would profit of the rise, as Child says was the case in his time. The whole inconvenience would be limited to the immediate effects of the sudden revolution; which would occasion so great a demand upon the landed interest for the capitals due by them as to reduce them to an utter incapacity of answering it. This might be, in some measure, prevented, by a clause in the act, allowing a certain time for the liquidation of their debts. But who will pretend to foretell the immediate consequences of so great a stagnation of credit, and borrowing on land security? The purses of all monied people, would, for some time at least, be fast shut against their demand. What a shock again, would this be to all inland trade, what a discouragement to all the manufacturing interest, what distress upon all creditors for accounts furnished, and upon those who supply daily wants! I think, that although in a year or two, the first effects might come to disappear, and a notable advantage result, in the main, to the commercial interest of Great Britain, yet the distress in the interval might prove so hurtful, as to render it quite intolerable. The common people who live by the luxury of the rich, in the city of London, and who are constantly actuated by the immediate feelings of present inconveniences, might lose all patience; and being blown into a ferment, by the address of the monied interest (whose condition would be made to suffer by the scheme) might throw the state into confusion, and even impress the nation with a belief, that high interest for money, instead of being hurtful, was essential to their prosperity.
I have said above, that if we suppose that the money drawn from debtors, could not be placed abroad, free of all deductions, at a rate equal to the then value of money (supposed for the sake of an example, to be at 4 per cent), then money would fall to 3 per cent and the stocks would rise in proportion.
But let us suppose (what perhaps is the matter of fact) that the extensive operations of trade and credit, do actually fix an average for the price of stocks, from the value of money in other nations in Europe. Would not then the consequence of bringing down the rate of legal interest, below this level, be, to send out of the kingdom all the money now circulating on private security, real and personal? Would not this destroy all private credit at one blow? Would it not have the effect of preventing, among individuals, the loan upon interest altogether? What would become of the bank of England, and all other banks, whose paper in circulation is all in the hands of private people? Is not every man who has a bank note, a creditor on the bank? And would not the same interest which moved other creditors to exact their debts, under such circumstances, also move many holders of bank notes to demand payment of them? Would not a run of this nature, for a few weeks only, throw the whole nation into the most dreadful distress? May we not even suppose, that upon such an occasion, the monied interest (from a certainty of disappointing the intention of government in making the law) might form a concert among themselves to lock up their money, even although it should remain dead in their hands for a few months? What would then become of the improvement of land? Is there an industrious farmer any where to be met with, who does not borrow money, which he can so profitably turn to account upon his farm, even though he receive it at the highest legal interest? These and many more inconveniences might manifest themselves, were government to force down the value of money, beyond the ordinary operations of demand and competition: and to what purpose have recourse to authority, when it is most certain, that without any such expedient the same end may be compassed?
If it be true, as I believe it is, that the funds, or public debts of a state where credit is well established, are commonly negotiated abroad; there must, from such negotiations result an average for the value of money, by the operations of credit over the commercial world: and if it be true, that no law can be framed so as to restrain mercantile people, and those who trade in money, from turning it to the best account; then all that should be proposed by government, is, to preserve the value of it at home, within this standard. For which purpose, nothing more is necessary than to prevent the competition of the dissipating class of inhabitants, from disturbing the rate which commerce may establish from time to time. This is accomplished by the methods above hinted at, and which in the next chapter shall be more largely insisted on. If, by prudent management, the conventional rate of interest, can thus be brought below the legal, then there may be no harm in diminishing the latter by statue, not however quite so low as the conventional standard; but so as to leave a reasonable latitude for gentle fluctuations above it. From what I have said, I still think I had reason to object to Child's plan for forcing down the interest of money by statute: and had he lived to the present time, I am persuaded he would have come into this opinion.
I hope the arguments used in the foregoing chapter will not be construed as an apology for the high interest of money.
I entirely agree with Sir Josiah Child, that low interest is the soul of trade; the most active principle for promoting industry, and the improvement of land; and a requisite, without which it is hardly possible that foreign commerce can long be supported.
This proposition I take to be at this time universally admitted to be true; and did there remain, concerning it, the least doubt in the mind of any one, the writings of many, much better qualified than I can pretend to be, and among the rest those of the author just now cited, are sufficiently capable to remove it. I shall not therefore trouble my reader with a chapter upon this head, but only observe, that the terms high and low are constantly relative. Here the relation must be understood to regard other states, because when we speak of a rate of interest, we are supposed to mean something general in the country we are speaking of: accordingly, if we could suppose that, within the same state, the rate of interest should be lower in one city than any where else, this circumstance would give an advantage to such a city in all its mercantile operations.
I must farther observe, for the sake of connecting this part of our subject with our general plan, that the low interest for money is most essential to such states as carry on the most extensive foreign commerce.
In the infancy of industry, and before trade comes to be established, it is very natural that the coin of the country should be found in a great measure locked up in treasures: high interest tends to bring it forth, and in this respect works a good effect.
In proportion as alienation augments, money may be multiplied, by the melting down of solid property, as has been explained; and then the business of a statesman will be to contrive expedients for bringing the rate of it as low as possible, in order to support foreign trade, and to rival all neighbouring nations, where interest is higher. When foreign trade again comes to decline, from the multiplication of abuses introduced by luxury, low interest still continues to be useful, for supporting public credit, so necessary for defending a nation against her enemies.
If money consisted merely in the precious metals, which are not to be found in every country, but must be purchased with the produce of industry, and brought from far; and if no other expedient could be fallen upon to supply their place for the uses of circulation; then the possessors of these metals would in a manner be masters to establish for the use of them what rate of interest they thought fit.
But if this be not the case, and if money can be made of paper, to the value of all the solid property of a nation, (as far as occasion is found for it, by the owners of that property,) the use of the metals will be in a manner reduced to that of serving as a standard, for ascertaining the value of the denominations of money of accompt; perhaps for facilitating the circulation of small sums, and for paying a balance of trade to other nations.
When this comes to be the case, a statesman has it in his power to increase or diminish the extent of credit and paper money in circulation, by various expedients, which greatly influence the rate of interest.
The progress of credit has been very rapid since the beginning of this century. This has been almost entirely owing to the mechanical contrivances of trading men. Lawgivers have hitherto had but imperfect notions concerning the nature of it; and there still remains, in the womb of nature, some mighty genius, born to govern a commercial nation, who alone will be able to set it on its true principles. Let us in the mean time speculate concerning them.
We have said, and every one feels, that interest falls in proportion to the redundancy of money to be lent.
Now what is this money but property, of one kind or other, thrown into circulation? I speak of trading nations, who are not confined to the quantity of their specie alone.
When a man of property wants money, may he not go to a bank, which lends upon mortgage, and by pledging his security, receive money, which is in the same instant created for his use? Do not those notes circulate as long as they are found necessary for carrying on the affairs of the nation? that is to say, the accompts of debtors and creditors of all denominations; and as soon as the quantity of them exceeds this proportion, they stagnate, and return on the debtors in them, (the bank,) who is enabled to realize them, because the original security is still in their hands, which was at first pledged when the notes were issued. This realization is commonly made in the metals; because they are the money of the world: they are real and true riches, as much as land; and they have this advantage over land, that they are transportable everywhere.
Now, does it not appear evident, that what we have been describing is a round-about operation, which it is possible to shorten?
I beg of my reader, to attend to one thing; namely, that I am not here treating of, or proposing a plan, but labouring to deduce principles in an intricate subject.
I say, when landed men go to such a bank, and receive paper for a land security, that this operation may be shortened.
Do not the notes he gets stand (though this be not expressed) upon the security of his land? Now, can any man assign any other reason but custom, why his own notes, caring expressly in their bosom the same security, might not be issued, without his being obliged to interpose the bank between the public and himself: And for what does he pay this interest? Not because he has gratuitously received any value from the bank, since in his obligation he has given a full equivalent for the notes; but the obligation he has given carries interest, and the notes carry none. Why? Because the one circulates like money, the other does not. For this advantage, therefore, of circulation, not for any additional value, does the landed man pay interest to the bank.
Had landed men, and not merchants, invented this method of turning their property into circulation, and had they been all assembled in one body, with a legislative authority, I imagine they would have had wit enough to find out that a land bank was a thing practicable in its nature.
Suppose they should agree that all their lands should be let by the acre, and that land property should be esteemed at a certain number of years purchase, in proportion to the rate of interest at the time, where would be the great difficulty in paying in lands?
This is merely a hint, to which a thousand objections may be made, as matters stand: all I say, is, that there is nothing here against principles; and though inconveniences might result to the landed interest, in every way such a plan could be laid down; yet still these inconveniences would hardly counterbalance that of landed men's being obliged to pay interest for every penny they borrow.
It is demanded, what advantage would result to the nation from such a regulation?
I answer, that by it all the borrowings of landed men would be struck out of the competition at the money-market. The monied interest alone would borrow among themselves for the purposes of trade, (for monied men do not borrow to squander,) and landed men would consequently pay with their own paper, in every case, where now they borrow in order to pay. Thus interest would be regulated by the demands of trade, and the rate of it would not be disturbed by the competition of spendthrifts.
Who can say how far the consequences of such a scheme might reach? Might not landed men begin in time to issue notes by way of loan, at a very inconsiderable interest? But I am not disposed to carry my speculations farther: perhaps what has been said may appear sufficiently aerial.
If a statesman shall find every modification of this idea impracticable; either from his own want of power, or of skill, or, which is more probable, from the opposition of the monied interest; he must take other measures for striking out, as much as possible, the competition of spendthrifts in the money-market. Entails, and lame securities, are good expedients; though they are productive of many inconveniences. His own frugal oeconomy in state affairs will go much farther than any such trifling expedients.
Did a nation enjoying peace, although indebted perhaps 140 millions sterling, begin by paying off but 2 per cent of their capital yearly, besides the current interest; while no neighbouring state was borrowing any; what would interest fall to in a short time! It may be answered, that the consequence would be, to enrich other nations; because the money regorging at home, would be sent abroad. To which I reply, by asking how any state can be enriched by their borrowing? And in what does such lending to foreigners differ from the nation's paying off their foreign creditors? Will not the return of interest from abroad compensate, pro tanto, the sums sent out for the like purpose?
But if it be said, that the consequence will be to enable other nations to bring down their own rate of interest; I allow it to be so; and so much the better, as long as it remains proportionally lower with us; which it must do, as long as we can lend abroad. We have said, and I believe with truth, that as credit is now extended, a general average is struck every where upon the value of money well secured, consequently, the lower that interest is reduced abroad, the lower still will it remain at home, as long as merchants and exchangers do subsist.
From this circumstance of the average on the rate of interest, the Dutch must, I think, have lost the great advantage they formerly enjoyed, from the low rate of it in Holland, relatively to other nations.
In Child's time, the Dutch were familiarly buying up sugars in London, above the price paid by English sugar-bakers; and, notwithstanding the additional freight and charges, they grew rich by their trade, while the others were hardly making any profit. This he accounts for from the low rate of their interest. He supposes both Dutch and English to have carried on this trade with borrowed money; for which the first paid 3 per cent and the other 6 per cent.
But at present, were it possible to get 6 per cent for money in London, what Dutchman would lend his father a shilling at 3 per cent? The English stocks are as currently bought and sold, nay, all the stockjobbing tricks are practised with the same subtlety at Amsterdam as in Change-Alley: from which I conclude, that a great part of the advantage of low interest is now lost to that nation; and I conclude farther, that it is the common interest of all trading nations to bring interest as low as possible every where.
Another cause of high interest proceeds from certain clogs laid upon circulation, which flow merely from custom and prejudice. Of this nature is the obligation laid upon debtors to pay in the metals, nothing but coin being a legal tender.
The only reason for such a regulation was the precariousness of credit in former times. Were all the circulating paper in a nation secured by law, either upon the lands or revenue of the country appropriated for that purpose, there could be no injustice or inconvenience in making paper (so secured) a legal tender in all payments. Again, how extraordinary must it appear to any reasonable man, that the same paper which passes on one side of a river, running through the same country, should not pass on its opposite bank?
The reason of this is indeed very plain: the subaltern jurisdictions on each side are different; and the debtors in the paper are different: but if the paper of both stood upon a security equally good, what is to hinder both to be received as a legal tender in all payments over the kingdom? Should not little private objects of profit among bankers (who are the servants of the state, and who are so well paid for their service) be over-ruled, when the consequences of their disputes are found to be so hurtful? But of this more, when we come to speak of banks.
The only occasion where a large quantity of coin is necessary in the liquidation of paper, is for payment of the balance of trade with foreign nations. Of this also we shall treat more at large, when we come to the doctrine of exchange. But surely nothing can be so ill judged, as to create an imaginary balance within the same state; or rather, to permit money-jobbers to create it; at the expence of raising interest, and hurting trade, in the very places where it stands most in need of encouragement.
From these principles, and others which naturally flow from them, may a statesman steer a very certain course, towards bringing the rate of interest as low as the prosperity of trade requires, or the principles of double competition between borrowers and lenders will permit.
Some political writers are fond of every expedient to reduce within a narrow compass many questions, which being involved in combinations, cannot be reduced to one principle. This throws them into what I call systems; of which we have an example in the question now before us.
There is nothing more difficult than to determine how far commerce runs favourably, and how far unfavourably for a nation. This would not be the case, were the rate of interest the certain measure of it. I have found it however advanced, that nothing more is necessary to be known, in order to estimate the relative profits upon the foreign trade of two nations, than to compare the common rate of interest in both, and to decide the preference in favour of that nation where it is found to be lowest.
We may say concerning this proposition, as concerning the course of exchange; that the lowness of interest and of the price of exchange are both exceedingly favourable to trade; but they are no adequate measure of the profits arising from it.
The best argument in favour of this opinion with regard to interest is, that the nation which sells the cheapest at foreign markets is constantly preferred; and, consequently, where the use of money is the lowest, the merchant can sell the cheapest.
I answer, that this consequence would be just, were all trade carried on with borrowed money, were the difference of the price of the materials or first matter, the ease of procuring them, the promptitude of payments, the industry of the manufacturer, and his dexterity, all reckoned for nothing. But such advantages are frequently found in these articles, as to be more than sufficient to counterbalance the additional interest which may be paid for the money employed in trade. This is so true, that we see the dexterity alone of the workman (living in an expensive capital, where the charge of living may be double of what it is in the country) enabling him to undersell his competitors every where: the same may be true with regard to the other articles. Farther, how absurd is it to say, that all trade is carried on with borrowed money? A very inconsiderable part of trade is carried on with borrowed money, in any country in Europe; and that part, which is carried on with borrowed money, is not so much clogged by the high rate of interest, as by want of punctuality in payments. A merchant who can turn his money in three months, borrows as cheaply at 6 per cent as another who turns his in six months, when he borrows at 3 per cent.
The object of trade is produce and manufacture. These are prepared for the market by farmers and tradesmen. Let us compare the value of them, when sold at market to the merchant, with the interest of the money borrowed by the farmers and tradesmen, in order to carry on their industry, and we shall find that the interest paid by them, bears hardly any proportion at all, to the value of what they produce. Example. A sheep borrows no money in order to produce wool; spinners and weavers borrow no money in order to enable them to spin and to weave. Thus the whole manufacture comes to market without any charge for interest.
Do we not see every day, that ingenious workmen, who obtain credit for very small sums, are soon enabled, by the means of their own industry, to produce a surprising value in manufactures, and not only to subsist, but to increase in riches? The interest they pay for the money borrowed is inconsiderable, when compared with the value, created (as it were) by the proper employment of their time and talents.
If it be said, that this is a vague assertion, supported by no proof; I answer, that the value of a man's work may be estimated by the proportion between the manufacture when brought to market, and the first matter. Nothing but the first matter, and the instruments of manufacture, can be considered as the objects of borrowed money; unless we go so far as to estimate the nourishment, and every expence of the manufacturer, and suppose that these are also supplied from borrowed money. To affirm this, would be turning arguments into cavil.
The object, therefore, of borrowed money for carrying on trade, is more relative to the merchant than to the manufacturer. Borrowing is necessary for collecting all this product and manufacture into the hands of merchants. This, no doubt, is very commonly the operation of credit: interest of money, here, comes in, to indemnify the giver of credit, for the use of his money: but this interest is due from the time only, when the borrower pays those from whom he collects, to the time he receives payment from those to whom he sells. This interval it is of the highest importance to the merchant to shorten. In proportion as it is long, and in proportion to the rate of interest, he must raise his profits; and in proportion as payments are quick and regular, and interest low, he may diminish them. Whether merchants do regulate their profits, in all commercial nations, according to the exact proportion of the respective rates of interest, and promptitude of payments among them; or whether these are determined by the circumstances of demand and competition in the several foreign markets where the trade is carried on, I leave to merchants to determine. All I shall remark is, that a well founded credit, and prompt payments, will do more service to trade, than any advantage trading men can reap from the different rate of interest in different countries.
It must not be concluded from this, that low interest is not a very great advantage to trade; all I contend for, is, that it is not the measure of it.
Another circumstance which puts nations, in our days, much more on a level than they were in former times, I have already hinted at. It is that general average which the great loads of national debts, and the extension of credit, through the several nations of Europe, who pay annually large sums of interest to their creditors, has established. Let me suppose the Dutch, for example, to have fixed, by placard, the rate of their interest at 3 per cent. I say, that as soon as the general average of interest comes to stand above this rate, from the price of public funds in England and France, we may safely conclude, that their trade can no longer be carried on with any very considerable sum of money borrowed at 3 per cent. The consequence then must be, to send the money which regorges in the hands of the frugal Dutch, into other countries, where it can produce a better return, exclusive of all expences of remitting and drawing. What the consequences of this lending to foreigners may be to Holland, shall be afterwards examined.
To conclude; I reckon it will be found, that what had led some to believe that low interest is the measure of commerce, has been owing to this; that in some of the most commercial countries and cities interest has been found to be lower than in great kingdoms: but this, I imagine, is entirely owing to the frugality of their manners, which cuts off the borrowing of the rich for the sake of dissipation. When this is accomplished, trade alone will absorb the stagnations of the frugal, and the price of interest will fall to that rate which is the best proportioned to the profits upon commerce; but this also will be less and less the case every day, in proportion to the credit and circulation of public funds in different nations.
I answer in the affirmative: provided it be supposed that dissipation do not increase in proportion to the wealth. Now in a general proposition, such as this which stands at the head of our chapter, this very necessary proviso is apt to be overlooked, and thus people are led to error. The manners of a people, not their external circumstances as to riches, are that which renders them frugal or extravagant. What, therefore, depends upon the spirit of a people, cannot be changed, but in consequence of a change of that spirit.
If the rate of interest be high, from a taste of dissipation, let foreign trade throw in what loads of money it may, interest will stand high, until manners do change. Every class of a people has their peculiar spirit. The frugal merchant will accumulate wealth, and the prodigal lord will borrow it. In this situation, internal circulation will be rapid, and lands will shift hands. If this revolution should prove a corrective to dissipation, by vesting property in those who have contracted a firm habit of frugality, then an augmentation of wealth may sink the rate of interest. But if, on the contrary, the laws and manners of the country do distinguish classes by their manner of living, and mode of expence, it is ten to one but the industrious and frugal merchant will put on the prodigal gentleman, the moment he gets into a fine country seat, and hears himself called your Honour. In certain countries, the memory of past industry carries a dreg along with it, which nothing but expensive living has power to purge away.
Let this suffice at present upon the subject of interest: it is so connected with the doctrine of credit, that it will recur again at almost every step as we go along.
1. In France particularly. 2. The terms regorging and stagnating, are the best I can fall upon to express the idea here defined; and therefore I shall take the liberty to use them in this sense wherever I shall have occasion to speak concerning a superfluity of coin or of money.
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