Cato's Letter No. 107

Of publick Credit and Stocks.

John Trenchard (Saturday, December 15, 1722)

SIR, I have in a former letter observed, that men ever have been, and I doubt ever will be, cheated by sounds, without having any just ideas annexed to them. When words have obtained anesteem, and sort of veneration, their meanings will be varied as often as those in possession of reverence and popular applause have occasion to make different uses of them. It seems to me, that no word has suffered more from this abuse than the word credit; nor in any instance has the publick suffered more mischief than by the abuse of it.

A merchant, or tradesman, is said to be in good credit, when his visible gains appear to be greater than his expences; when he is industrious, and takes care of his affairs; when he makes punctual payments, and the wares which he sells may be depended upon as to their goodness and value; and when those who deal with him can have a reasonable assurance that he will make a profit by his care from the commodities that they entrust him with; and, if it should happen otherwise, that he has a remaining substance sufficient at last to answer all demands. A private gentleman is said to have great credit who lives within his income, has regard to his character and his honour, is just to his word and his promises, and is known to have an unencumbered estate, or one superior to all his supposed engagements; from whence his creditors form a reasonable expectation that they shall be paid again without a law-suit, and a certainty that they can be paid with one: And therefore all these will be trusted for as much as they are worth, and sometimes more, at the lowest price for the goods which they buy, and at the lowest interest for the money which they borrow.

But if a merchant be observed to live in riot and profusion, to leave his estate to the direction of servants, who cheat him, or neglect his business; if he turn projector, do not pay his bills, and shuffle in his bargains, and sell faulty goods which are bought upon his word: Or, if a gentleman be known to spend more than his income, to mortgage his lands to take no care of his estate, or how his stewards or bailiffs manage it; if he run in debt to tradesmen and mechanicks, and be perpetually borrowing money, without any thoughts how to pay it: I say, under such management, no fair dealer will have any thing to do with them; and of course they fall into the hands of scriveners, knavish attorneys, and griping usurers; will be fed from hand to mouth, pay double and treble interest for what they receive, till their creditors watch their opportunity, and sweep all.

Credit is said to run high in a nation, when there are great numbers of wealthy subjects in the former circumstances, which will always be produced by an affluent trade; and when the commodities of a country, and the production of the people’s labour, find a ready vent, and at a good price: for then they will see their account in punctuality of payment and fair dealing, and will not run the hazard of losing a regular sustenance for their families, or a constant profit arising from an open trade, for the present and occasional advantage which they may hope to receive from a knavish bargain, or a fraudulent circumvention: And those who do otherwise, are generally undone, and sell a constant and a yearly income to themselves, and possibly to their families after them, for a year or two’s purchase, and often for much less.

But if any of these be above or without the reach of the laws, or by reason of their station and figure, it be difficult to get the benefit of the laws, their credit will proportionably abate, because a great part of the security which they can give fails, and they must consequently pay greater interest and procuration for the money that they borrow, and a greater price for the goods that they buy: for, those who deal with them, will always propose to be gainers by the whole, upon computing their delays and hazards.

The credit of a state, or what we call publick credit, must be preserved by the same means as private men preserve theirs; namely, by doing strict justice to particulars; by being exact in their payments, not chicaning in their bargains, nor frightening and tricking people into them, or out of them; by letting them know what they buy, and not altering the nature or property of it, to serve after-purposes, and without the free-consent of the persons interested: And they are always to take especial care to sell nothing but what is valuable; to coin silver and gold, and not put the stamp of public authority upon base and counterfeit metals.

Indeed, states are much more concerned to keep up the opinion of their integrity than private men; because those that trust them have, in effect, only their honour and their interest to depend upon for payment; and therefore will well consider whether it be their interest to maintain their honour. I doubt private men would have little credit, and upon very ill terms too, if they could not be used, or could vacate their own securities; for, when it becomes more a man’s interest not to pay, than to pay, his debts, and he can choose which he pleases, no one would care to have any part of his fortune depend upon those resolutions. It is certainly the interest of all men to keep up the reputation of their honesty as long as it can be kept, in order to be trusted for the future; but when they can be trusted no longer, nor are able to pay what they are already trusted with, and can decline paying it when they see apparent ruin in being honest, it is easy to guess what course will be taken.

What nation besides our own has explained publick honour, by any other maxims than those of publick interest? Or have kept their treaties or agreements with foreign states, or one another, any longer than it was their interest upon the whole to keep them? And indeed very few have kept them so long. I am sure that no wise state will depend upon the observance of leagues and national contracts any longer. What country has not made frequent acts of resumption, when the folly and knavery of their predecessors has embezzled the publick revenues, and rendered the state unable to defend itself? Whence private men have been deprived of estates to which they had undoubted titles by the laws of their country, estates which perhaps had passed many descents and many purchases; and yet the losers sometimes have no other reason to complain, than that they want the consolation of seeing their country undone with them; which must have been the case, if they had not been undone alone. Sweden did this in the last age; Spain lately; and another country, in our time, has not only in effect cancelled all its engagements, but by various stratagems drawn the wealth of the whole into its coffers, and seized it when it was there. Which puts me in mind of a story of a butcher, who thought himself happy in the possession of a sagacious, diligent, and seemingly faithful dog, to whom, by long experience of his service, he thought he might safely trust the custody of his shambles in his absence: But Hector one day observing, against a great festival, the shop to be much fuller of meat than usual, thought it was high time to set up for himself, and so very resolutely denied his master entrance; who had then no remedy left but to shoot him.

I have above endeavoured to shew what, and what alone, ought to be called credit. But there has lately risen up, in our age, a new-fangled and fantastical credulity, which has usurped the same name, and came in with the word Bite, which has been made free of a neighbouring court; whereby the poor, innocent, industrious, and unwary, people, have been delivered into the ravenous and polluted jaws of vultures and tigers; and thousands, I had almost said millions, have been sacrificed, to satiate the gluttony of a few. This has inverted the oeconomy and policy of nations; made a great kingdom turn all gamesters; and men have acquired the reputation of wisdom, from their skill in picking pockets: It has entered into the cabinets of courts; has guided the counsels of senates, and employed their whole wisdom; nay, most of their time has been employed in keeping up this wild and airy traffick; as if the business of government was not to protect people in their property, but to cheat them out of it.

This is eminently true in a neighbouring country; I wish I could say, that nothing like it had ever happened amongst us. But as no men now in power are answerable for this great mischief, so I hope and believe, that we shall have their hearty assistance to extricate us out of all these evils. And as I please myself with believing, that I speak the sense of my superiors, so I shall take the liberty to say, that neither publick nor private credit can consist in selling any thing for more than it is worth, or for any thing but what it is worth. It is certainly the interest of a country, that its commodities should sell at a good price, and find a ready vent; that private men should be able safely to trust one another; that lands should find ready purchasers, good securities, money at low interest; and that mortgages should be easily transferable. And the way to bring these good purposes to pass, is to ascertain titles; to give ready remedies to the injured; to procure general plenty by prudent laws, and by giving all encouragement to industry and honesty. But it will never be effected by authorizing or countenancing frauds; by enabling artful men to circumvent the unwary; by stamping the public seal upon counterfeit wares; or by constantly coining a new sort of property, of a precarious, uncertain, and transitory, value; and, by constant juggles and combinations, conspiring to make it more so: Which conduct, whenever practiced, must soon put an end to all publick and private credit.

In what country soever these practices meet with encouragement, all fair and honest dealing will be turned into juggling. There will quickly grow a sort of cabalistical learning: And there will be a secret and vulgar knowledge; one to be trusted only to the trusty adepts and managers; and the other to be divulged to the people, who will be told nothing but what is for the interest of their betters to communicate; and pretty advantages may be made by being in the secret. As for example: Just before any publick misfortune is to make its appearance, those who know of it may sell out; and in the height of the danger buy again; and when it is over, by taking another opportunity, they may sell a second time. And when these evils are averted, they may go to market once more; and so, toties quoties, till the greatest part of the property of a kingdom be got into the hands of but a few persons, who will then undoubtedly govern all the rest. Nor can these mischiefs be possibly prevented, but by wholly destroying this sort of traffick, or by appointing skillful pilots to set up occasional buoys and sea-marks, according to the shifting of the winds and the tides; that is, by ascertaining and publishing the real value of all publick securities, as often as there is an alteration made in them by new provisions, or by wholly preventing the abuses occasioned by the vile trade of stock-jobbing; which I conceive is not difficult to do, when stock-jobbers have no hand in directing the remedy.

Till something of this kind be done, it is foolish to think, and worse to pretend to think, that any effectual methods can be taken to discharge and pay off the national engagements: For, in whatever country it happens, that the publick funds become the markets and standing revenues of those who can best cure the evil; where great and sudden estates may be more easily raised by knavery and juggling, than small ones by virtue and merit; where plumbs may be got at once, and vast societies may be made the accomplices of power, in order to be indulged with separate advantages; it is not to be hoped that effectual methods will be taken to dam and choke up such inexhaustible sources of wealth and dominion: On the contrary, it is to be feared, that new projects will be yearly invented, new schemes coloured with popular pretences, to toss and tumble the publick securities, and to change them into as many shapes as Proteus knew. One year shall metamorphose the schemes of another; and the next shall undo both. The leaders of one faction shall unravel the projects of their predecessors; shall charge their designs with corruption and rapine, and be more rapacious themselves; and all in their turns shall raise vast estates upon the publick ruins; and the last spirit shall be always the worst. Artful and conspiring men shall buy up desperate debts, and then use intrigues and corruption to load their country with them; and the business of nations shall stand still, or rather, it shall become their business to fish in these troubled streams, till, by long experience of the loss of their fellows, the fish will bite no longer; and then it is easy to guess what is next to be done. There is but one method which can be taken; and that will be taken.

I would gladly know what advantage ever has, or even can, accrue to the publick, by raising stocks to an imaginary value, beyond what they are really worth to an honest man, who purchases them for a regular support to himself and family, and designs not to sell them again, till he has occasion for the money that they will produce. It can most assuredly serve no honest purpose, and will promote a thousand knavish ones. Besides those before-mentioned, it turns most of the current coin of England out of the channels of trade, and the heads of all its merchants and traders off their proper business: It enriches the worst men, and ruins the innocent: It taints men’s morals, and defaces all the principles of virtue and fair dealing, and introduces combination and fraud in all sorts of traffick. It has changed honest commerce into bubbling; our traders into projectors; industry into tricking; and applause is earned, when the pillory is deserved: It has created all the dissatisfaction so much complained of, and all the mischiefs attending it, which daily threaten us, and which furnish reasons for standing or occasional troops: It has caused all the confusion in our publick finances: It has set up monstrous members and societies in the body politick, which are grown, I had almost said, too big for the whole kingdom: It has multiplied offices and dependencies in the power of the court, which in time may fill the legislature, and alter the balance of government: It has overwhelmed the nation with debts and burdens, under which it is almost ready to sink; and has hindered those debts from being paid off. For if stocks fell for more, or much more upon the Exchange, than the prices at which they are redeemable; or more can be got by jobbing them than by discharging them, than all arts will be used to prevent a redemption. But as this is not at present our case, so it is every man’s interest, concerned in our funds, to secure their principal, and to promote every means which will enable their country to pay them.

I doubt not but I shall incur the censure of many, by thus laying open our nakedness, and probing our wounds; and I cannot deny but I found some reluctance in doing it: But it must be done before they can be cured. The patient cannot now bear quacking; and if effectual remedies be not speedily taken, the case is desperate. The security and interest of the crown, the power and reputation of the kingdom, the credit and honour of the ministry, depend upon doing this great work: And I really believe that the latter have inclinations and resolutions to do it. It can never be done effectually without their assistance; and if they give it, and set themselves at the head of so publick a good, they will justly obtain a reputation far beyond any who have ever appeared before them, and will enjoy unenvied all the wealth and advantages which attend greatness and power. It is folly in any one, who is the least acquainted with the affairs of nations, to pretend not to see, that if we do not soon put our publick debts in a method of being paid, they can never be paid; and all will certainly do their utmost to prevent so fatal a mischief to their country; I mean, all who do not intend it. But if there be any such, which I hope and believe there are not, they will then undoubtedly take early care to save themselves out of the general wreck; which very few will be able to do, tho’ all will intend it. Those in the secret will have the advantage; for when selling becomes the word, no one can sell, unless he sells for little or nothing. All will be waiting for a rise; and if that happen, all or most will endeavour to sell, and then all selling is at an end: The managers and brokers will engross the books, as they did lately, and command the first sale; and by the time that they are got out, no one else will be able to get out.

There is nothing therefore left to be done, but for all honest men to join heads, hearts, and hands, to find all means to discharge the publick burdens, and to add no more to them; to search every measure how we can lessen the national expences; to avoid all occasions of engaging in new ones; and to do all in our power to increase trade and the publick wealth, without sacrificing it to any jobs or private views. Which conduct alone will enable us honestly to pay off what we owe, and to become once more a free, rich, happy, and flourishing people.

T I am, &c.

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