Defence of Usury

Jeremy Bentham, from the Warren J. Samuels Portrait Collection
Bentham, Jeremy
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First Pub. Date
London: Payne and Foss
Pub. Date
4th edition. First edition used spelling of 'Impolity' in subtitle.
15 of 15


To Dr. Smith, on Projects in Arts, &c.



I forget what son of controversy it was, among the Greeks, who having put himself to school to a professor of eminence, to learn what, in those days, went by the name of wisdom, chose an attack upon his master for the first public specimen of his proficiency. This specimen, whatever entertainment it might have afforded to the audience, afforded, it may be supposed, no great satisfaction to the master: for the thesis was, that the pupil owed him nothing for his pains. For my part, being about to shew myself in one respect as ungrateful as the Greek, it may be a matter of prudence for me to look out for something like candour by way of covering to my ingratitude: instead therefore of pretending to owe you nothing, I shall begin with acknowledging, that, as far as your track coincides with mine, I should come much nearer the truth, were I to say I owed you every thing. Should it be my fortune to gain any advantage over you, it must be with weapons which you have taught me to wield, and with which you yourself have furnished me: for, as all the great standards of truth, which can be appealed to in this line, owe, as far as I can understand, their establishment to you, I can see scarce any other way of convicting you of any error or oversight, than by judging you out of your own mouth.


In the series of letters to which this will form a sequel, I had travelled nearly thus far in my researches into the policy of the laws fixing the rate of interest, combating such arguments as fancy rather than observation had suggested to my view, when, on a sudden, recollection presented me with your formidable image, bestriding the ground over which I was travelling pretty much at my ease, and opposing the shield of your authority to any arguments I could produce.


It was a reflection mentioned by Cicero as affording him some com. fort, that the employment his talents till that time had met with, had been chiefly on the defending side. How little soever blest, on any occasion, with any portion of his eloquence, I may, on the present occasion, however, indulge myself with a portion of what constituted his comfort: for, if I presume to contend with you, it is only in defence of what I look upon as, not only an innocent, but a most meritorious race of men, who are so unfortunate as to have fallen under the rod of your displeasure. I mean projectors: under which inviduous name I understand you to comprehend, in particular, all such persons as, in the pursuit of wealth, strike out into any new channel, and more especially into any channel of invention.


It is with the professed view of checking, or rather of crushing, these adventurous spirits, whom you rank with "prodigals", that you approve of the laws which limit the rate of interest, grounding yourself on the tendency, they appear to you to have, to keep the capital of the country out of two such different sets of hands.


The passage, I am speaking of, is in the fourth chapter of your second book, volume the second of the 8vo. edition of 1784. "The legal rate" (you say) "it is to be observed, though it ought to be somewhat above, ought not to be much above, the lowest market rate. If the legal rate of interest in Great Britain, for example, was fixed so high as eight or ten per cent. the greater part of the money which was to be lent, would be lent to prodigals and projectors, who alone would be willing to give this high interest. Sober people, who will give for the use of money no more than a part of what they are likely to make by the use of it, would not venture into the competition. A great part of the capital of the country would thus be kept out of the hands which were most likely to make a profitable and advantageous use of it, and thrown into those which were most likely to waste and destroy it. Where the legal interest, on the contrary, is fixed but a very little above the lowest market rate, sober people are universally preferred as borrowers, to prodigals and projectors. The person who lends money, gets nearly as much interest from the former, as he dares to take from the latter, and his money is much safer in the hands of the one set of people than in those of the other. A great part of the capital of the country is thus thrown into the hands in which it is most likely to be employed with advantage."


It happens fortunately for the side you appear to have taken, and as unfortunately for mine, that the appellative, which the custom of the language has authorized you, and which the poverty and perversity of the language has in a manner forced you, to make use of, is one, which, along with the idea of the sort of persons in question, conveys the idea of reprobation, as indiscriminately and deservedly applied to them. With what justice or consistency, or by the influence of what causes, this stamp of indiscriminate reprobation has been thus affixed, it is not immediately necessary to enquire. But, that it does stand thus affixed, you and every body else, I imagine, will be ready enough to allow. This being the case, the question stands already decided, in the first instance at least, if not irrevocably, in the judgments of all those, who, unable or unwilling to be at the pains of analysing their ideas, suffer their minds to be led captive by the tyranny of sounds; that is, I doubt, of by far the greater proportion of those whom we are likely to have to judge us. In the conceptions of all such persons, to ask whether it be fit to restrain projects and projectors, will be as much as to ask, whether it be fit to restrain rashness, and folly, and absurdity, and knavery, and waste.


Of prodigals I shall say no more at present. I have already stated my reasons for thinking, that it is not among them that we are to look for the natural customers for money at high rates of interest. As far as those reasons are conclusive, it will follow, that, of the two sorts of men you mention as proper objects of the burthen of these restraints, prodigals and projectors, that burthen falls exclusively on the latter. As to these, what your definition is of projectors, and what descriptions of persons you meant to include under the censure conveyed by that name, might be material for the purpose of judging of the propriety of that censure, but makes no difference in judging of the propriety of the law, which that censure is employed to justify. Whether you yourself, were the several classes of persons made to pass before you in review, would be disposed to pick out this or that class, or this and that individual, in order to exempt them from such censure, is what for that purpose we have no need to enquire. The law, it is certain, makes no such distinctions: it falls with equal weight, and with all its weight, upon all those persons, without distinction to whom the term projectors, in the most unpartial and extensive signification of which it is capable, can be applied. It falls at any rate (to repeat some of the words of my former definition), upon all such persons, as, in the pursuit of wealth, or even of any other object, endeavour, by the assistance of wealth, to strike into any channel of invention. It falls upon all such persons, as, in the cultivation of any of those arts which have been by way of eminence termed useful, direct their endeavours to any of those departments in which their utility shines most conspicuous and indubitable; upon all such persons as, in the line of any of their pursuits, aim at any thing that can be called improvement; whether it consist in the production of any new article adapted to man's use, or in the meliorating the quality, or diminishing the expence, of any of those which are already known to us. It falls, in short, upon every application of the human powers, in which ingenuity stands in need of wealth for its assistant.


High and extraordinary rates of interest, how little soever adapted to the situation of the prodigal, are certainly, as you very justly observe, particularly adapted to the situation of the projector: not however to that of the imprudent projector only, nor even to his case more than another's, but to that of the prudent and wellgrounded projector, if the existence of such a being were to be supposed. Whatever be the prudence or other qualities of the project, in whatever circumstance the novelty of it may lie, it has this circumstance against it, viz. that it is new. But the rates of interest, the highest rates allowed, are, as you expressly say they are, and as you would have them to be, adjusted to the situation which the sort of trader is in, whose trade runs in the old channels, and to the best security which such channels can afford. But in the nature of things, no new trade, no trade carried on in any new channel, can afford a security equal to that which may be afforded by a trade carried on in any of the old ones: in whatever light the matter might appear to perfect intelligence, in the eye of every prudent person, exerting the best powers of judging which the fallible condition of the human faculties affords, the novelty of any commercial adventure will oppose a chance of ill success, superadded to every one which could attend the same, or any other, adventure, already tried, and proved to be profitable by experience.


The limitation of the profit that is to be made, by lending money to persons embarked in trade, will render the monied man more anxious, you may say, about the goodness of his security, and accordingly more anxious to satisfy himself respecting the prudence of a project in the carrying on of which the money is to be employed, than he would be otherwise: and in this way it may be thought that these laws have a tendency to pick out the good projects from the bad, and favour the former at the expence of the latter. The first of these positions I admit: but I can never admit the consequence to follow. A prudent man, (I mean nothing more than a man of ordinary prudence) a prudent man acting under the sole governance of prudential motives, I still say will not, in these circumstances, pick out the good projects from the bad, for he will not meddle with projects at all. He will pick out old-established trades from all sorts of projects, good and bad; for with a new project, be it ever so promising, he never will have any thing to do. By every man that has money, five per cent. or whatever be the highest legal rate, is at all times, and always will be, to be had upon the very best security, that the best and most prosperous old-established trade can afford. Traders in general, I believe, it is commonly understood, are well enough inclined to enlarge their capital, as far as all the money they can borrow at the highest legal rate, while that rate is so low as 5 per cent., will enlarge it. How it is possible therefore for a project, be it ever so promising, to afford, to a lender at any such rate of interest, terms equally advantageous, upon the whole, with those he might be sure of obtaining from an old-established business, is more than I can conceive. loans of money may certainly chance, now and then, to find their way into the pockets of projectors as well as of other men: but when this happens it must be through incautiousness, or friendship, or the expectation of some collateral benefit, and not through any idea of the advantageousness of the transaction, in the light of a pecuniary bargain.


I should not expect to see it alledged that there is any thing, that should render the number of well-grounded projects, in comparison of the ill-grounded, less in time future, than it has been in time past. I am sure at least that I know of no reasons why it should be so, though I know of some reasons, which I shall beg leave to submit to you by and by, which appear to me pretty good ones, why the advantage should be on the side of futurity. But, unless the stock of well-grounded projects is already spent, and the whole stock of ill-grounded projects that ever were possible, are to be looked for exclusively in the time to come, the censure you have passed on projectors, measuring still the extent of it by that of the operation of the laws in the defence of which it is employed, looks as far backward as forward: it condemns as rash and ill-grounded, all those projects: by which our species have been successively advanced from that state in which acorns were their food, and raw hides their cloathing, to the state in which it stands at present: for think, Sir, let me beg of you, whether whatever is now the routine of trade was not, at its commencement, project? whether whatever is now establishment, was not, at one time, innovation?


How it is that the tribe of well-grounded projects, and of prudent projectors (if by this time I may have your leave for applying this epithet to some at least among the projectors of time past), have managed to struggle through the obstacles which the laws in question have been holding in their way, it is neither easy to know, nor necessary to enquire. Manifest enough, I think, it must be by this time, that difficulties, and those not inconsiderable ones, those laws must have been holding up, in the way of projects of all sorts, of improvement (if I may say so) in every line, so long as they have had existence: reasonable therefore it must be to conclude, that, had it not been for these discouragements, projects of all sorts, well-grounded and successful ones, as well as others, would have been more numerous than they have been: and that accordingly, on the other hand, as soon, if ever, as these discouragements shall be removed, projects of all sorts, and among the rest, well-grounded and successful ones, will be more numerous than they would otherwise have been: in short, that, as, without these discouragements, the progress of mankind in the career of prosperity, would have been greater than it has been under them in time past, so, were they to be removed, it would be at least proportionably greater in time future.


That I have done you no injustice, in assigning to your idea of projectors so great a latitude, and that the unfavourable opinion you have professed to entertain of them is not confined to the above passage, might be made, I think, pretty apparent, if it be material, by another passage in the tenth chapter of your first book.*27 "The establishment of any new manufacture, of any new branch of commerce, or of any new practice in agriculture," all these you comprehend by name under the list of "projects": of every one of them you observe, that "it is a speculation from which the projector promises himself extraordinary profits. These profits (you add) are sometimes very great, and sometimes, more frequently perhaps, they are quite otherwise: but in general they bear no regular proportion to those of other old trades in the neighbourhood. If the project succeeds, they are commonly at first very high. When the trade or practice becomes thoroughly established and well known, the competition reduces them to the level of other trades." But on this head I forbear to insist: nor should I have taken this liberty of giving you back your own words, but in the hope of seeing some alteration made in them in your next edition, should I be fortunate enough to find my sentiments confirmed by your's. In other respects, what is essential to the publick, is, what the error is in the sentiments entertained, not who it is that entertains them.


I know not whether the observations which I have been troubling you with, will be thought to need, or whether they will be thought to receive, any additional support from those comfortable positions, of which you have made such good and such frequent use, concerning the constant tendency of mankind to get forward in the career of prosperity, the prevalence of prudence over imprudence, in the sum of private conduct at least, and the superior fitness of individuals for managing their own pecuniary concerns, of which they know the particulars and the circumstances, in comparison of the legislator, who can have no such knowledge. I will make the experiment: for, so long as I have the mortification to see you on the opposite side, I can never think the ground I have taken strong enough, while any thing remains that appears capable of rendering it still stronger.


"With regard to misconduct, the number of prudent and successful undertakings" (you observe*28) "is every where much greater than that of injudicious and unsuccessful ones. After all our complaints of the frequency of bankruptcies, the unhappy men who fall into this misfortune make but a very small part of the whole number engaged in trade, and all other sorts of business; not much more perhaps than one in a thousand."


'Tis in support of this position that you appeal to history for the constant and uninterrupted progress of mankind, in our island at least, in the career of prosperity: calling upon any one who should entertain a doubt of the fact, to divide the history into any number of periods, from the time of Cæsar's visit down to the present: proposing for instance the respective æras of the Restoration, the Accession of Elizabeth, that of Henry VII., the Norman Conquest, and the Heptarchy, and putting it to the sceptic to find out, if he can, among all these periods, any one at which the condition of the country was not more prosperous than at the period immediately preceding it; spite of so many wars, and fires, and plagues, and all other public calamities, with which it has been at different times afflicted, whether by the hand of God, or by the misconduct of the sovereign. No very easy task, I believe: the fact is too manifest for the most jaundiced eye to escape seeing it:—But what and whom are we to thank for it, but projects, and projectors?


"No," I think I hear you saying, "I will not thank projectors for it, I will rather thank the laws, which by fixing the rates of interest have been exercising their vigilance in repressing the temerity of projectors, and preventing their imprudence from making those defalcations from the sum of national prosperity which it would not have failed to make, had it been left free. If, during all these periods, that adventurous race of men had been left at liberty by the laws to give full scope to their rash enterprizes, the increase of national prosperity during these periods might have afforded some ground for regarding them in a more favourable point of view. But the fact is, that their activity has had these laws to check it; without which checks you must give me leave to suppose, that the current of prosperity, if not totally stopt, or turned the other way, would at any rate have been more or less retarded. Here then" (you conclude) "lies the difference between us: what you look upon as the cause of the increase about which we are both agreed, I look upon as an obstacle to it: and what you look upon as the obstacle, I look upon as the cause." instead of starting this as a sort of plea that might be urged by you, I ought, perhaps, rather to have mentioned it as what might be urged by some people in your place: for as I do not imagine your penetration would suffer you to rest satisfied with it, still less can I suppose that, if you were not, your candour would allow you to make use of it as if you were.


To prevent your resting satisfied with it, the following considerations would I think be sufficient.


In the first place, of the seven periods which you have pitched upon, as so many stages for the eye to rest at in viewing the progress of prosperity, it is only during the three last, that the country has had the benefit, if such we are to call it, of these laws: for it is to the reign of Henry VIII. that we owe the first of them.


Here a multitude of questions might be started: Whether the curbing of projectors formed any part of the design of that first statute, or whether the views of it were not wholly confined to the reducing the gains of that obnoxious and envied class of men, the moneylenders? Whether projectors have been most abundant before that statute, or since that statute? And whether the nation has suffered, as you might say-benefited, as I should say, most by them, upon the whole, during the former period or the latter? All these discussions, and many more that might be started, I decline engaging in, as more likely to retard, than to forward, our coming to any agreement conceiling the main question.


In the next place, I must here take the liberty of referring. you to the proof, which I think I have already given, of the proposition, that the restraints in question could never have had the effect, in any degree, of lessening the proportion of bad projects to good ones, but only of diminishing, as far as their influence may have extended, the total number of projects, good and bad together. Whatever therefore was the general tendency of the projecting spirit previously to the first of these laws, such it must have remained ever since, for any effect which they could have had in purifying and correcting it.


But what may appear more satisfactory perhaps than both the above considerations, and may afford us the best help towards extricating ourselves from the perplexity, which the plea I have been combating (and which I thought it necessary to bring to view, as the best that could be urged) seems much better calculated to plunge us into, than bring us out of, is, the consideration of the small effect which the greatest waste that can be conceived to have been made within any compass of time, by injudicious projects, can have had on the sum of prosperity, even in the estimation of those whose opinion is most unfavourable to projectors, in comparison of the effect which within the same compass of time must have been produced by prodigality.


Of the two causes, and only two causes, which you mention, as contributing to retard the accumulation of national wealth, as far as the conduct of individuals is concerned, projecting, as I observed before, is the one, and prodigality is the other: but the detriment, which society can receive even from the concurrent efficacy of both these causes, you represent, on several occasions, as inconsiderable; and, if I do not misapprehend you, too inconsiderable, either to need, or to warrant, the interposition of government to oppose it. Be this as it may with regard to projecting and prodigality taken together, with regard to prodigality at least, I am certain I do not misapprehend you. On this subject you ride triumphant, and chastise the "impertinence and presumption of kings and ministers," with a tone of authority, which it required a courage like your's to venture upon, and a genius like your's to warrant a man to assume.*29 After drawing the parallel between private thrift and public profusion, "It is" (you conclude) "the highest impertinence and presumption therefore in kings and ministers to pretend to watch over the economy of private people, and to restrain their expence, either by sumptuary laws, or by prohibiting the importation of foreign luxuries. They are themselves always, and without exception, the greatest spendthrifts in the society. let them look well after their own expence, and they may safely trust private people with theirs. If their own extravagance does not ruin the state, that of their subjects never will."


That the employing the expedients you mention for restraining prodigality, is indeed generally, perhaps even without exception, improper, and in many cases even ridiculous, I agree with you; nor will I here step aside from my subject to defend from that imputation another mode suggested in a former part of these papers. But however presumptuous and impertinent it may be for the sovereign to attempt in any way to check by legal restraints the prodigality of individuals, to attempt to check their bad management by such restraints seems abundantly more so. To err in the way of prodigality is the lot, though, as you well observe, not of many men, in comparison of the whole mass of mankind, yet at least of any man: the stuff fit to make a prodigal of is to be found in every alehouse, and under every hedge. But even to err in the way of projecting is the lot only of the privileged few. Prodigality, though not so common as to make any very material drain from the general mass of wealth, is however too common to be regarded as a mark of distinction or as a singularity. But the stepping aside from any of the beaten paths of traffic, is regarded as a singularity, as serving to distinguish a man from other men. Even where it requires no genius, no peculiarity of talent, as where it consists in nothing more than the finding out a new market to buy or sell in, it requires however at least a degree of courage, which is not to be found in the common herd of men. What shall we say of it, where, in addition to the vulgar quality of courage, it requires the rare endowment of genius, as in the instance of all those successive enterprizes by which arts and manufactures have been brought from their original nothing to their present splendor? Think how small a part of the community these must make, in comparison of the race of prodigals; of that very race, which, were it only on account of the smallness of its number, would appear too inconsiderable to you to deserve attention. Yet prodigality is essentially and necessarily hurtful, as far as it goes, to the opulence of the state: projecting, only by accident. Every prodigal, without exception, impairs, by the very supposition impairs, if he does not annihilate, his fortune. But it certainly is not every projector that impairs his: it is not every projector that would have done so, had there been none of those wise laws to hinder him: for the fabric of national opulence, that fabric of which you proclaim, with so generous an exultation, the continual increase, that fabric, in every apartment of which, innumerable as they are, it required the reprobated hand of a projector to lay the first stone, has required some hands at least to be employed, and successfully employed. When in comparison of the number of prodigals, which is too inconsiderable to deserve notice, the number of projectors of all kinds is so much more inconsiderable—and when from this inconsiderable number, must be deducted, the not inconsiderable proportion of successful projectors—and from this remainder again, all those who can carry on their projects without need of borrowing—think whether it be possible, that this last remainder could afford a multitude, the reducing of which would be an object, deserving the interposition of government by its magnitude, even taking for granted that it were an object proper in its nature?


If it be still a question, whether it be worth while for government, by its reason, to attempt to control the conduct of men visibly and undeniably under the dominion of passion, and acting, under that dominion, contrary to the dictates of their own reason; in short, to effect what is acknowledged to be their better judgment, against what every body, even themselves, would acknowledge to be their worse; is it endurable that the legislator should by violence substitute his own pretended reason, the result of a momentary and scornful glance, the offspring of wantonness and arrogance, much rather than of social anxiety and study, in the place of the humble reason of individuals, binding itself down with all its force to that very object which he pretends to have in view?—Nor let it be forgotten, that, on the side of the individual in this strange competition, there is the most perfect and minute knowledge and information, which interest, the whole interest of a man's reputation and fortune, can ensure: on the side of the legislator, the most perfect ignorance. All that he knows, all that he can know, is, that the enterprize is a project, which, merely because it is susceptible of that obnoxious name, he looks upon as a sort of cock, for him, in childish wantonness, to shie at.—Shall the blind lead the blind? is a question that has been put of old to indicate the height of folly: but what then shall we say of him who, being necessarily blind, insists on leading, in paths he never trod in, those who can see?


It must be by some distinction too fine for my conception, if you clear yourself from the having taken, on another occasion, but on the very point in question, the side, on which it would be my ambition to see you fix.


"What is the species of domestic industry which his capital can employ, and of which the produce is likely to be of the greatest value, every individual" (you say*30), "it is evident, can, in his local situation, judge much better than any statesman or lawgiver can do for him. The statesman, who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatsoever, and which would no where be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.


"To give the monopoly of the home market to the produce of domestic industry, in any particular art or manufacture, is in some measure to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, and must in almost all cases be either a useless or a hurtful regulation."—Thus far you: and I add, to limit the legal interest to a rate at which the carriers on of the oldest and best established and least hazardous trades are always glad to borrow, is to give the monopoly of the money-market to those traders, as against the projectors of new-imagined trades, not one of which but, were it only from the circumstance of its novelty, must, as I have already observed, appear more hazardous than the old.


These, in comparison, are but inconclusive topics. I touched upon them merely as affording, what appeared to me the only shadow of a plea, that could be brought, in defence of the policy I am contending against. I come back therefore to my first ground, and beg you once more to consider, whether, of all that host of manufactures, which we both exult in as the causes and ingredients of national prosperity, there be a single one, that could have existed at first but in the shape of a project. But, if a regulation, the tendency and effect of which is merely to check projects, in as far as they are projects, without any sort of tendency, as I have shewn, to weed out the bad ones, is defensible in its present state of imperfect efficacy, it should not only have been defensible, but much more worthy of our approbation, could the efficacy of it have been so far strengthened and compleated as to have opposed, from the beginning, an unsurmountable bar to all sorts of projects whatsoever: that is to say, if, stretching forth its hand over the first rudiments of society, it had confined us, from the beginning. to mud for our habitations, to skins for our cloathing, and to acorns for our food.


I hope you may by this time be disposed to allow me, that we have not been ill served by the projects of time past. I have already intimated, that I could not see any reason why we should apprehend our being worse served by the projects of time future. I will now venture to add, that I think I do see reason, why we should expect to be still better and better served by these projects, than by those. I mean better upon the whole, in virtue of the reduction which experience, if experience be worth any thing, should make in the proportion of the number of the ill-grounded and unsuccessful, to that of the well-grounded and successful ones.


The career of art, the great road which receives the footsteps of projectors, may be considered as a vast, and perhaps unbounded, plain, bestrewed with gulphs, such as Curtius was swallowed up in. Each requires an human victim to fall into it ere it can close, but when it once closes, it closes to open no more, and so much of the path is safe to those who follow. If the want of perfect information of former miscarriages renders the reality of human life less happy than this picture, still the similitude must be acknowledged: and we see at once the only plain and effectual method for bringing that similitude still nearer and nearer to perfection; I mean, the framing the history of the projects of time past, and (what may be executed in much greater perfection were but a finger held up by the hand of government) the making provision for recording, and collecting and publishing as they are brought forth, the race of those with which the womb of futurity is still pregnant. But to pursue this idea, the execution of which is not within my competence, would lead me too far from the purpose.


Comfortable it is to reflect, that this state of continually-improving security, is the natural state not only of the road to opulence, but of every other track of human life. In the war which industry and ingenuity maintain with fortune, past ages of ignorance and barbarism form the forlorn hope, which has been detached in advance, and made a sacrifice of for the sake of future. The golden age, it is but too true, is not the lot of the generation in which we live: but, if it is to be found in any part of the track marked out for human existence, it will be found, I trust, not in any part which is past, but in some part which is to come.


But to return to the laws against usury, and their restraining influence on projectors. I have made it, I hope, pretty apparent, that these restraints have no power or tendency to pick out bad projects from the good. Is it worth while to add, which I think I may do with some truth, that the tendency of them is rather to pick the good out from the bad? Thus much at least may be said, and it comes to the same thing, that there is one case in which, be the project what it may, they may have the effect of checking it, and another in which they can have no such effect, and that the first has for its accompaniment, and that a necessary one, a circumstance which has a strong tendency to separate and discard every project of the injudicious stamp, but which is wanting in the other case. I mean, in a word, the benefit of discussion.


It is evident enough, that upon all such projects, whatever be their nature, as find funds sufficient to carry them on, in the hands of him whose invention gave them birth, these laws are perfectly, and if by this time you will allow me to say so, very happily, without power. But for these there has not necessarily been any other judge, prior to experience, than the inventor's own partial affection. It is not only not necessary that they should have had, but it is natural enough that they should not have had, any such judge: since in most cases the advantage to be expected from the project depends upon the exclusive property in it, and consequently upon the concealment of the principle. Think, on the other hand, how different is the lot of that enterprize which depends upon the good opinion of another man, that other, a man possessed of the wealth which the projector wants, and before whom necessity forces him to appear in the character of a suppliant at least: happy if, in the imagination of his judge, he adds not to that degrading character, that of a visionary enthusiast or an impostor! At any rate, there are, in this case, two wits, set to sift into the merits of the project, for one, which was employed upon that same task in the other case: and of these two there is one, whose prejudices are certainly not most likely to be on the favourable side. True it is, that in the jumble of occurrences, an over-sanguine projector may stumble upon a patron as over-sanguine as himself; and the wishes may bribe the judgment of the one, as they did of the other. The opposite case, however, you will allow, I think, to be by much the more natural. Whatever a man's wishes may be for the success of an enterprize not yet his own, his fears are likely to be still stronger. That same pretty generally implanted principle of vanity and self-conceit, which disposes most of us to over-value each of us his own conceptions, disposes us, in a proportionable degree, to undervalue those of other men.


Is it worth adding, though it be undeniably true, that could it even be proved, by ever so uncontrovertible evidence, that, from the beginning of time to the present day, there never was a project that did not terminate in the ruin of its author, not even from such a fact as this could the legislator derive any sufficient warrant, so much as for wishing to see the spirit of projects in any degree repressed? The discouraging motto, Sic vos non vobis, may be matter of serious consideration to the individual, but what is it to the legislator? What general, let him attack with ever so superior an army, but knows that hundreds, or perhaps thousands, must perish at the first onset? Shall he, for that consideration alone, lie inactive in his lines? "Every man for himself—but God," adds the proverb (and it might have added the general, and the legislator, and all other public servants), "for us all." Those sacrifices of individual to general welfare, which, on so many occasions, are made by third persons against men's wills, shall the parties themselves be restrained from making, when they do it of their own choice? To tie men neck and heels, and throw them into the gulphs I have been speaking of, is altogether out of the question: but if at every gulph a Curtius stands mounted and caparisoned, ready to take the leap, is it for the legislator, in a fit of old-womanish tenderness, to pull him away? laying even public interest out of the question, and considering nothing but the feelings of the individuals immediately concerned, a legislator would scarcely do so, who knew the value of hope, "the most precious gift of heaven."


Consider, Sir, that it is not with the invention-lottery (that great branch of the project-lottery, for the sake of which I am defending the whole, and must continue so to do until you or somebody else can shew me how to defend it on better terms), it is not I say with the invention-lottery, as with the mine-lottery, the privateering-lottery, and so many other lotteries, which you speak of, and in no. instance, I think, very much to their advantage. In these lines, success does not, as in this, arise out of the embers of ill success, and thence propagate itself, by a happy contagion, perhaps to all eternity. let Titius have found a mine, it is not the more easy, but by so much the less easy, for Sempronius to find one too: let Titius have made a capture, it is not the more easy, but by so much the less easy, for Sempronius to do the like. But let Titius have found out a new dye, more brilliant or more durable than those in use, let him have invented a new and more convenient machine, or a new and more profitable mode of husbandry, a thousand dyers, ten thousand mechanics, a hundred thousand husbandmen, may repeat and multiply his success: and then, what is it to the public, though the fortune of Titius, or of his usurer. should have sunk under the experiment?


Birmingham and Sheffield are pitched upon by you as examples, the one of a projecting town, the other of an unprojecting one.*31 Can you forgive my saying, I rather wonder that this comparison of your own chosing, did not suggest some suspicions of the justice of the conceptions you had taken up, to the disadvantage of projectors. Sheffield is an old oak: Birmingham, but a mushroom. What if we should find the mushroom still vaster and more vigorous than the oak? Not but the one as well as the other, at what time soever planted, must equally have been planted by projectors: for though Tubal Cain himself were to be brought post from Armenia to plant Sheffield, Tubal Cain himself was as arrant a projector in his day, as ever Sir Thomas Lombe was, or Bishop Blaise: but Birmingham, it seems, claims in common parlance the title of a projecting town, to the exclusion of the other, because, being but of yesterday, the spirit of project smells fresher and stronger there than elsewhere.


When the odious sound of the word projector no longer tingles in your ears, the race of men thus stigmatized do not always find you their enemy. Projects, even under the name of "dangerous and expensive experiments," are represented as not unfit to be encouraged, even though monopoly be the means: and the monopoly is defended in that instance, by its similarity to other instances in which the like means are employed to the like purpose.


"When a company of merchants undertake at their own risk and expence to establish a new trade, with some remote and barbarous nation, it may not be unreasonable" (you observe) "to incorporate them into a joint-stock company, and to grant them, in case of their success, a monopoly of the trade for a certain number of years. It is the easiest and most natural way, in which the state can recompense them, for hazarding a dangerous and expensive experiment, of which the public is afterwards to reap the benefit. A temporary monopoly of this kind may be vindicated, upon the same principles, upon which a like monopoly of a new machine is granted to its inventor, and that of a new book to its author."


Private respect must not stop me from embracing this occasion of giving a warning, which is so much needed by mankind. If so original and independent a spirit has not been always able to save itself from being drawn aside by the fascination of sounds, into the paths of vulgar prejudice, how strict a watch ought not men of common mould to set over their judgments, to save themselves from being led astray by similar delusions?


I have sometimes been tempted to think, that were it in the power of laws to put words under proscription, as it is to put men, the cause of inventive industry might perhaps derive scarcely less assistance from a bill of attainder against the words project and projectors, than it has derived from the act authorizing the grant of patents. I should add, however, for a time: for even then the envy, and vanity, and wounded pride, of the uningenious herd, would sooner or later infuse their venom into some other word, and set it up as a new tyrant, to hover, like its predecessor, over the birth of infant genius, and crush it in its cradle.


Will not you accuse me of pushing malice beyond all bounds, if I bring down against you so numerous and respectable a body of men, as the members of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts? I do not, must not, care: for you command too much respect to have any claim to mercy. At least you will not accuse me of spiriting up against you barbarian enemies, and devoting you to the vengeance of Cherokees and Chicasaws.


Of that popular institution, the very professed and capital object is the encouragement of projects, and the propagating of that obnoxious breed, the crushing of which you commend as a fit exercise for the arm of power. But if it be right to crush the acting malefactors, it would be downright inconsistency not to crush, at the same time, or rather not to begin with crushing, these their hirers and abettors. Thank then their inadvertence, or their generosity, or their prudence, if their beadle has not yet received orders to burn in ceremony, as a libel on the society, a book that does honour to the age.


After having had the boldness to accuse so great a master of having fallen unawares into an error, may I take the still farther liberty, of setting conjecture to work to account for it? Scarce any man, perhaps no man, can push the work of creation, in any line, to such a pitch of compleatness, as to have gone through the task of examining with his own eyes into the grounds of every position, without exception, which he has had occasion to employ. You heard the public voice, strengthened by that of law, proclaiming all round you, that usury was a sad thing, and usurers a wicked and pernicious set of men: you heard from one at least of those quarters, that projectors were either a foolish and contemptible race, or a knavish and destructive one: hurried away by the throng, and taking very naturally for granted, that what every body said must have some ground for it, you have joined the cry, and added your suffrage to the rest. Possibly too, among the crowd of projectors which the lottery of occurrences happened to present to your observation, the prejudicial sort may have borne such a proportion to the beneficial, or shewn themselves in so much stronger colours, as to have given the popular notion a firmer hold in your judgment, than it would have had, had the contrary proportion happened to present itself to your notice. To allow no more weight to examples that fall close under our eyes, than to those which have fallen at ever so great a distance—to suffer the judgment on no occasion to indulge itself in the licence of a too hasty and extensive generalisation—not to give any proposition footing there, rill after all such defalcations have been made, as are necessary to reduce it within the limits of rigid truth—these are laws, the compleat observance whereof forms the ultimate, and hitherto, perhaps for ever, ideal term of human wisdom.


You have defended against unmerited obloquy two classes of men, the one innocent at least, the other highly useful; the spreaders of English arts in foreign climes,*32 and those whose industry exerts itself in distributing that necessary commodity which is called by the way of eminence the staff of life. May I flatter myself with having succeeded at last in my endeavours, to recommend to the same powerful protection, two other highly useful and equally persecuted sets of men, usurers and projectors.—Yes—I will, for the moment at least, indulge so flattering an idea: and, in pursuance of it, leaving usurers, for whom I have said enough already, I will consider myself as joined now with you in the same commission, and thinking with you of the best means of relieving the projector from the load of discouragement laid on him by these laws, in so far as the pressure of them falls particularly upon him. In my own view of the matter, indeed, no temperament, no middle course, is either necessary or proper: the only perfectly effectual, is the only perfectly proper remedy,—a spunge. But, as nothing is more common with mankind, than to give opposite receptions, to conclusions flowing with equal necessity from the same principle, let us accommodate our views to that contingency. According to this idea, the object, as far as confined to the present case, should be, to provide, in favour of projectors only, a dispensation from the rigour of the anti-usurious laws: such, for instance, as is enjoyed by persons engaged in the carrying trade, in virtue of the indulgence given to loans made on the footing of respondentia or bottomry. As to abuse, I see not why the danger of it should be greater in this case than in those. Whether a sum of money be embarked, or not embarked, in such or such a new manufacture on land, should not, in its own nature, be a fact much more difficult to ascertain, than whether it be embarked, or not embarked, in such or such a trading adventure by sea: and, in the one case as in the other, the payment of the interest, as well as the repayment of the principal, might be made to depend upon the success of the adventure. To confine the indulgence to new undertakings, the having obtained a patent for some invention, and the continuance of the term of the patent, might be made conditions of the allowance given to the bargain: to this might be added affidavits, expressive of the intended application, and bonds, with sureties, conditioned for the performance of the intention so declared; to be registered in one of the patent-offices or elsewhere. After this, affidavits once a year, or oftener, during the subsistence of the contract, declaring what has been done in execution of it.


If the leading-string is not yet thought tight enough, boards of control might be instituted to draw it tighter. Then opens a scene of vexation and intrigue: waste of time consumed in courting the favour of the members of the board: waste of time, in opening their understandings, clenched perhaps by ignorance, at any rate by disdain, and self-sufficiency, and vanity, and pride: the favour (for pride will make it a favour) granted to skill in the arts of self-recommendation and cabal, devoid of inventive merit, and refused to naked merit unadorned by practice in those arts: waste of time on the part of the persons themselves engaged in this impertinent inquiry: waste of somebody's money in paying them for this waste of time. All these may be necessary evils, where the money to be bestowed is public money: how idle where it is the party's own! I will not plague you, nor myself, with enquiring of whom shall be composed this board of nurses to grown gentlemen: were it only to cut the matter short, one might name at once the committees of the Society of Arts. There you have a body of men ready trained in the conduct of enquiries, which resemble that in question, in every circumstance, but that which renders it ridiculous: the members or representatives of this democratic body would be as likely, I take it, to discharge such a trust with fidelity and skill, as any aristocracy that could be substituted in their room.

in White Russia,
March 1787

Notes for this chapter

Edit. 1784, 8vo. p. 177.
B. II, ch. iii, edit. 8vo. 1784, vol. ii. p. 20.
B. II, ch. iii, vol. ii, p. 27, edit. 8vo. 1784.
B. iv, ch. 2, vol. ii, p. 182, edit. 8vo.
B. I, ch. 2, vol. i, p. 176. edit. 8vo. 1784.
B. IV, ch. 8, vol. ii, p. 514, et alibi, edit. 8vo. 1784.

End of Notes


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