Chapter 4

The Effect of Unproductive Consumption in General

September 30, 2015

The most judicious kinds of consumption are:

  1. Such as conduce to the satisfaction of positive wants

by which term I mean those, upon the satisfaction of which depends the existence, the health, and the contentment of the generality of mankind; being the very reverse of such as are generated by re fined sensuality, pride, and caprice. Thus, the national consumption will, on the whole, be judicious, if it absorb the articles rather of convenience than of display the more linen and the less lace; the more plain and wholesome dishes, and the fewer dainties; the more warm clothing, and the less embroidery, the better. In a nation whose consump- tion is so directed, the public establishments will be remarkable rather for utility than splendour, its hospitals will be less magnificent than salutary and extensive; its roads well furnished with inns, rather than unnecessarily wide and spacious, and its towns well paved, though with few palaces to attract the gaze of strangers.

Having just considered the nature and effect of consumption in general, as well as the general effect of productive consumption in particular, it remains only to consider, in this and the following chapters, such consumption as is effected with no other end or object in view, than the mere satisfaction of a want, or the enjoyment of some pleasurable sensation.

Whoever has thoroughly comprehended the nature of consumption and production, as displayed in the preceding pages, will have arrived at the conviction, that no consumption of the class denominated unproductive, has any ulterior effect, beyond the satisfaction of a want by the destruction of exist- ing value. It is a mere exchange of a portion of existing wealth on the one side, for human gratification on the other, and nothing more. Beyond this, what can be expected? — repro- duction? how can the same identical utility be afforded a sec- ond time? Wine can not be both drunk and distilled into brandy too. Neither can the object consumed serve to establish a fresh demand, and thus indirectly to stimulate future productive exertion; for it has already been explained that the only effec- tual demand is created by the possession of wherewithal to purchase, — of something to give in exchange; and what can that be, except a product, which, before the act of exchange and consumption, must have been an item, either of revenue or of capital? The existence and intensity of the demand must invariably depend upon the amount of revenue and of capi- tal= the bare existence of revenue and of capital is all that is necessary for the stimulus of production, which nothing else can stimulate. The choice of one object of consumption nec- essarily precludes that of another; what is consumed in the shape of silks cannot be consumed in the shape of linens or woollens; nor can what has once been devoted to pleasure or amusement, be made productive also of more positive oi substantial utility.

The luxury of ostentation affords a much less substantial and solid gratification, than the luxury of comfort, if I may be allowed the expression. Besides, the latter is less costly, that is to say, involves the necessity of a smaller consumption; whereas the former is insatiable; it spreads from one to an- other, from the mere proneness to imitation; and the extent to which it may reach, is as absolutely unlimited. 11 “Pride,” says Franklin, “is a beggar quite as clamorous as want, but infi- nitely more insatiable.” Taking society in the aggregate, it will be found that, one with another, the gratification of real wants is more important to the community, than the gratification of artificial ones. The wants of the rich man occasion the production and consump- tion of an exquisite perfume, perhaps those of the poor man, the production and consumption of a good warm winter cloak; supposing the value to be equal, the diminution of the gen- eral wealth is the same in both cases; but the resulting gratifi- 217Jean-Baptise Say, A Treatise on Political Economy cation will, in the one case, be trifling transient, and scarcely perceptible; in the other, solid, ample, and of long duration. 12 nor the ability to purchase. The difficulty lies, not in finding a producer, but in finding a consumer. It will be no hard matter to supply good and elegant commodities, if there be consumers both willing and able to purchase them. But such a demand can exist only in nations enjoying comparative afflu- ence; it is affluence, that both furnishes the means of buying articles of good quality, and gives a taste for them. Now the interference of authority is not the road to affluence, which results from activity of production, seconded by the spirit of frugality; — from habits of industry pervading every channel of occupation, and of frugality tending to accumulation of capital. In a country, where these qualities are prevalent, and in no other, can individuals be at all nice or fastidious in what they consume. On the contrary, profusion and embarrassment are inseparable companions; there is no choice when necessity drives.

  1. Such as are the most gradual, and absorb products of the best quality. A nation or an individual, will do wisely to di- rect consumption chiefly to those articles, that are the longest time in wearing out, and the most frequently in use. Good houses and furniture are, therefore, objects of judicious pref- erence; for there are few products that take longer time to consume than a house, or that are of more frequent utility; in fact, the best part of one’s life is passed in it. Frequent changes of fashion are unwise; for fashion takes upon itself to throw things away long before they have lost their utility, and some- times before they have lost even the freshness of novelty, thus multiplying consumption exceedingly, and rejecting as good for nothing what is perhaps still useful, convenient, or even elegant. So that a rapid succession of fashions impoverishes a state, as well by the consumption it occasions, as by that which it arrests. The pleasures of the table, of play, of pyrotechnic exhibi- tions, and the like, are to be reckoned amongst those of short- est duration. I have seen villages, that, although in want of good water, yet do not hesitate to spend in a wake or festival, that lasts but one day, as much money as would suffice to construct a conduit for the supply of that necessary of life, and a fountain or public cistern on the village green; the in- habitants preferring to get once drunk in honour of the squire or saint, and to go day after day with the greatest inconve- nience, and bring muddy water from half a league distance. The filth and discomfort prevalent in rustic habitations are attributable, partly to poverty, and partly to injudicious con- sumption. There is an advantage in consuming articles of superior qual- ity, although somewhat dearer, and for this reason= in every kind of manufacture, there are some charges that are always the same, whether the product be of good or bad quality. Coarse linen will have cost, in weaving, packing, storing, re- tailing, and carriage, before it comes to the ultimate consumer, quite as much trouble and labour, as linen of the finest qual- ity, therefore in purchasing an inferior quality, the only sav- ing is the cost of the raw material= the labour and trouble must always be paid in full, and at the same rate; yet the prod- uct of that labour and trouble are much quicker consumed, when the linen is of inferior, than when it is of superior quality.

In most countries, if a part of what is squandered in frivolous and hazardous amusements, whether in town or country, were spent in the embellishment and convenience of the habita- tions, in suitable clothing, in neat and useful furniture, or in the instruction of the population, the whole community would soon assume an appearance of improvement, civilization, and affluence, infinitely more attractive to strangers, as well as more gratifying to the people themselves. This reasoning is applicable indifferently to every class of product; for in every one there are some kinds of productive agency, that are paid equally without reference to quality; and that agency is more profitably bestowed in the raising of products of good than of bad quality; therefore, it is gener- ally more advantageous for a nation to consume the former. But this can not be done, unless the nation can discern be- tween good and bad, and have acquired taste for the former; wherein again, appears the necessity of knowledge 13 to the furtherance of national prosperity; and unless, besides, the bulk of the population be so far removed above penury, as not to be obliged to buy whatever is the cheapest in the first instance, al though it be in the long-run the dearest to the consumer. It is evident, that the interference of public author- ity in regulating the details of the manufacture, supposing it to succeed in making the manufacturer produce goods of the best quality, which is very problematical, must be quite inef- fectual in promoting their consumption; for it can give the consumer, neither the taste of what is of the better quality, 3. The collective consumption of numbers. There are some kinds of agency, that need not be multiplied in proportion to the increased consumption. One cook can dress dinner for ten as easily as for one; the same grate will roast a dozen joints as well as one; and this is the reason, why there is so much economy in the mess-table of a college, a monastery, a regiment, or a large manufactory, in the supply of great num- bers from a common kettle or kitchen, and in the dispensaries of cheap soups. 4. And lastly, on grounds entirely different, those kinds of consumption are judicious, which are consistent with moral rectitude; and, on the contrary, those, which infringe its laws, 218Book III= On Consumption generally end Jn public, as well as private calamity. But it would be too wide a digression from my subject to attempt the illustration of this position.


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