Cato's Letter No. 89

Every Manís true Interest found in the general Interest. How little this is considered.

John Trenchard (Saturday, August 11, 1722)

SIR, Most men see the advantage of trade to a country, and to every man in it; but very few know how to improve those advantages, and much fewer endeavour to do so. As soon as any law is enacted, or proposed for publick benefit, particular men set their wits to work how to draw separate advantages, from those provisions, whatever becomes of the publick; and indeed it is not to be hoped, must less expected, that they should ever do otherwise. But what is most to be lamented is, that the publick very often suffers by their not consulting their real interest, and in pursuing little views, whilst they lose great and substantial advantages. A very small part of mankind have capacities large enough to judge of the whole of things; but catch at every appearance which promises present benefit, without considering how it will affect their general interest; and so bring misfortunes and lasting misery upon themselves to gratify a present appetite, passion, or desire.

This is certainly true in almost every circumstance of publick and private life: The latter falls within all menís observation; and the other happens as often, though not as often taken notice of. How many are there, who do not prefer a servile office or pension before the general interest of their country, in which their own is involved; and so sacrifice their liberty and the protection which they receive from equal laws, for momentary and precarious advantages; and by such means lose or hazard a large inheritance, or make it much less valuable, for trifling benefits, which will not pay half the difference?

Nothing is so much the interest of private men, as to see the publick flourish: for without mentioning the pleasure and internal satisfaction which a generous mind must receive, in seeing all people about him contented and happy, instead of meagre and starved looks, nakedness and rags, and dejected and melancholy faces; to see all objects gay and pleasing; to see fruitful and well manured fields; rich splendid, and populous cities, instead of barren rocks, uncultivated deserts, and dispeopled and empty towns: I say, besides avoiding all this horror, every manís private advantage is so much wrapt up in the publick felicity, that by every step which he takes to depreciate his countryís happiness, he undermines and destroys his own: when the publick is secure, and trade and commerce flourish, every man who has property, or the means of acquiring property, will find and feel the blessed effects of such a circumstance of affairs; all the commodities which he has to dispose of will find a ready vent, and at a good price; his inheritance will increase every day in value; he is encouraged, and finds it his interest, to build, and improve his lands, cultivate new trades, and promote new manufactures; and by these means the people will be employed, and enabled to live in plenty, to marry, increase, and pay for the productions of the land, which otherwise will have little or no production: foreigners will be invited to partake of our happiness, and add to the publick stock; and even the poor and helpless will have their share in the general felicity, arising from the superfluities and charity of the rich. But the reverse of this glorious and happy scene shews itself in enslaved and corrupted nations.

But as this is abundantly the interest of private men, it is much more so of princes: The riches of a prince are the riches of his people, and his security and happiness are their affections: They do not consist in pompous guards, splendid courts, heaped up and extorted wealth, servile and flattering parasites, numerous, expensive, and glittering attendants, profusion, and extravagance; but in the steady and faithful duty and devotions of a grateful and contented people, who derive and own their happiness to flow from his care and beneficence. Flatterers and parasites often will find it their interest to betray him (and what else can be expected from those who betrayed their country first?), his guards often revolt from him, and sometimes murder him, and neither can be depended upon in any exigency of his affairs; his amassed wealth shall be often their plunder, and his destruction the price of their new engagements. But a whole people can never have an interest separate from the interests of a good prince: Their diffusive wealth will be always at his call, because it is to be expended for their own benefit: Their persons will ever be at his command, to defend themselves and him: This is a source of wealth and power, which can scarce ever be exhausted. When men fight for themselves and their all, they are not to be conquered till they are extinguished; and there are few instances where they have been ever conquered, at least till they were not worth conquering.

Besides, the superfluities and wanton gifts of a free and happy people will bring more money into his coffers, than racks and armies can extort from enslaved countries. The states of Brabant alone gave more money formerly to the Dukes of Burgundy and to Charles V than in all probability the whole seventeen provinces would have yielded to Spain since, if they had been all subdued; and I dare say, if England ever loses its liberties, its princes, in a little time, would not be able with whips and chains, to force as much money out of it in seven years, as we have seen it pay in one: They might fetch blood and tears from their subjects, but little else. It is undeniably therefore true, that the publick interest is the interest of both prince and people, which almost every one owns in words; and yet how few do so in their actions?

Every man sees the advantage of being formidable abroad, and safe at home, and knows that we cannot attain either but by being at the charge of it; and that the more equally and impartially taxes are laid, the fewer will be necessary, and more money raised: Yet how few men will come into equal and impartial taxes? And what have any got by contrary methods? It is certain, that less taxes than are now paid to one another, if fairly levied at first, would have ended all our wars, and not left us one penny in debt; whereas every landed man in England now owes the fourth or fifth part of his estate to the publick engagements, by declining the payment of perhaps the tenth part of it when it was due, or ought to have been due; and besides, has rendered all the rest insecure, by disabling the publick to defend it.

Who, that is interested in the national funds, does not see, that if some method be not soon taken to pay them off, they can never be paid at all; that no nation will deliver themselves up to a foreign enemy, or be contented to languish, expire and perish, at home, to make good juggling and extorting bargains, cooked up between courtiers and brokers; that publick necessities will happen in the course of human affairs, and those necessities will justify or colour uncommon measures; and that corrupt ministers, in times to come, may advise their masters to extraordinary courses, and desperate acts of power? And yet how many are there among these gentlemen (the greatest part of whose fortunes depends upon these events) who will fall into any effectual measures to make the payment of these debts due to themselves practicable, or that are not ready to catch at and to promote the raising of a new fund; though they must see that every step which they take towards it renders the payment of the old ones desperate?

How many courtiers have we seen in our days, that have not done every thing which they condemned in their predecessors; though by doing so they undermined the ground upon which they stood and played the game into their enemiesí hands again, who did the same before into theirs? How often have we seen them decline any means of raising money, though ever so fatal to trade or their country? Or when have we seen them expend it afterwards with frugality and prudence, to prevent the necessity of raising it over again? And yet, by acting thus, they lessened their own interest with the people, and in consequence too with their prince; who generally will find it necessary to discard them when they become odious and contemptible; and sometimes will think it prudent to recommend himself to his people by delivering them up as sacrifices to publick vengeance: whereas if they acted a faithful and just part, they might grow old in power, and be double blessings to their prince and to their fellow-subjects.

Who does not see the benefit of navigable rivers, which makes the carrying out our own commodities, and the bringing to us what we want, cheap and easy; and consequently increases the price of the former, and lessens the price of the latter? And yet a project of that kind always meets opposition from any people upon trifling motives, without ever considering the advantages on the other side, which most commonly must overbalance their imaginary losses, by computing their whole income and expence.

All private men see the benefit that would accrue to England, and to almost every man in it, by bringing all the materials of navigation, and particularly iron, from our own plantations, which are for the most part bought for money from rival states, who may be, and are often our enemies. Though this would settle our naval power upon a fixed and solid foundation, and leave it no longer to depend upon accidental and precarious supplies liable to the impositions and caprices of those nations, and subject to be intercepted by others who may be in war with us; yet we have seen, oftener than once, that gentlemen of great estates have denied their countries this general good, and preferred the little advantage of selling a particular wood at an advanced price, or the encouragement of a private iron-work, to so great a benefit to themselves and their country; without ever giving themselves leave to balance the much greater augmentation of wealth and security, which would accrue personally to them by keeping so much money in their country, and by bringing in a great deal more from foreign states, by making navigation easy and cheap, by supplying themselves and their tenants with the instruments and utensils of husbandry, building, and house-keeping, at lower rates, and so enabling themselves to make greater profit of their lands, and their tenants to pay them greater rents; and, above all, by increasing the publick safety and power, of which every member will soon find the sensible effects in his own private affairs.

I confess it to be generally true, that the interest of any country is to make all sorts of manufactures themselves, rather than fetch them from neighbouring countries, or even from their own plantations; but it is always an exception to that truth, when those manufactures are necessary to carry on other trades which will return much greater benefit; and more so when they are necessary to carry on all trade in general, as iron and shipping undoubtedly are, upon the cheapness of which all the trade in the world in a great measure depends.

T I am, &c.


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