May

13

 I have been reading a memoir about David Ricardo, and researching the details of his life. Here are some interesting things I have learned:

Ricardo destined for the same line of business as his father; and received, partly in England, and partly at a school in Holland, where he resided two years, such an education as is usually given to young men intended for the mercantile profession. Classical learning formed no part of his early instruction; and it has been questioned, with how much justice we shall not undertake to decide, whether its acquisition would have done him service; and whether it might not probably have made him seek for relaxation in the study of elegant literature, rather than in the severer exercises of the understanding; and prompted him to adopt opinions sanctioned by authority, without inquiring very anxiously into the grounds on which they rested.Mr Ricardo began to be confidentially employed by his father in the business of the Stock Exchange, when he was only fourteen years of age. Neither then, however, nor at any subsequent period, was he wholly engrossed by the details of his profession. From his earliest years he evinced a taste for abstract reasoning; and manifested that determination to probe every subject of interest to the bottom, and to form his opinion upon it according to the conviction of his mind, which was a distinguishing feature of his character.

Mr. Ricardo, senior, had been accustomed to subscribe, without investigation, to the opinions of his ancestors, on all questions connected with religion and politics; and he was desirous that his children should do the same. But this system of passive obedience, and of blind submission to the dictates of authority, was quite repugnant to the principles of young Ricardo, who, at the same time that he never failed to testify the sincerest affection and respect for his father, found reason to differ from him on many important points, and even to secede from the Hebrew faith.

Not long after this event, and shortly after he had attained the age of majority, Mr Ricardo formed an union, productive of unalloyed domestic happiness, with Miss Wilkinson. Having been separated from his father, he was now thrown on his own resources; and commenced business for himself. At this important epoch of his history, the oldest and most respectable members of the Stock Exchange gave a striking proof of the esteem entertained by them for his talents and character, by voluntarily coming forward to support him in his undertakings. His success exceeded the most sanguine expectations of his friends, and in a few years he realised an ample fortune.

 "The talent for obtaining wealth," says one of Mr Ricardo's near relations, from whose account of his life we have borrowed these particulars, "is not held in much estimation; but perhaps in nothing did Mr R. more evince his extraordinary powers, than he did in his business. His complete knowledge of all its intricacies; his surprising quickness at figures and calculation; his capability of getting through, without any apparent exertion, the immense transactions in which he was concerned; his coolness and judgment, combined certainly with (for him) a fortunate tissue of public events, enabled him to leave all his contemporaries at the Stock Exchange far behind, and to raise himself infinitely higher, not only in fortune, but in general character and estimation, than any man had ever done before in that house. Such was the impression which these qualities had made on his competitors, that several of the most discerning among them, long before he had emerged into public notoriety, prognosticated in their admiration, that he would live to fill some of the highest stations in the state."*

According as his solicitude about his success in life declined, Mr Ricardo devoted a greater portion of his time to scientific and literary pursuits. When about twenty five years of age, he began the study of some branches of mathematical science, and made considerable progress in chemistry and mineralogy. He fitted up a laboratory, formed a collection of minerals, and was one of the original members of the Geological Society. But he never entered warmly into the study of these sciences. They were not adapted to the peculiar cast of his mind; and he abandoned them entirely, as soon as his attention was directed to the more congenial study of Political Economy.

David Ricardo came, for the first time, before the public as an author in 1809. The rise in the market price of bullion, and the fall of the exchange that had taken place in the course of that year, had excited a good deal of attention. Mr. Ricardo applied himself to the consideration of the subject; and the studies in which he had latterly been engaged, combined with the experience he had derived from his moneyed transactions, enabled him not only to perceive the true causes of the phenomena in question, but to trace and exhibit their practical bearing and real effect. He began this investigation without intending to lay the result of his researches before the public. But having shown his manuscript to the late Mr. Perry, the proprietor and editor of the Morning Chronicle, the latter prevailed upon him, though not without considerable difficulty, to consent to its publication, in the shape of letters, in that journal.

The first of these letters appeared on the 6th of September 1809. They made a considerable impression, and elicited various answers. This success, and the increasing interest of the subject, induced Mr. Ricardo to commit his opinions upon it to the judgment of the public, in a more enlarged and systematic form, in the tract entitled "The High Price of Bullion a Proof of the Depreciation of Bank Notes." This tract led the way in the far-famed bullion controversy. It issued from the press several months previously to the appointment of the Bullion Committee; and is believed to have had no inconsiderable effect in forwarding that important measure. In this tract Mr Ricardo showed that redundancy and deficiency of currency are only relative terms ; and that so long as the currency of any particular country consists exclusively of gold and silver coins, or of paper immediately convertible into such coins, its value can neither rise above nor fall below the value of the metallic currencies of other countries, by a greater sum than will suffice to defray the expense of importing foreign coin or bullion, if the currency be deficient; or of exporting a portion of the existing supply, if it be redundant.

But when a country issues inconvertible paper notes, (as was then the case in England), they cannot be exported to other countries in the event of their becoming redundant at home; and whenever, under such circumstances, the exchange with foreign states is depressed below, or the price of bullion rises above, its mint price, more than the cost of sending coin or bullion abroad, it shows conclusively that too much paper has been issued, and that its value is depreciated from excess.

The principles which pervade the Report of the Bullion Committee, are substantially the same with those established by Mr Ricardo in this pamphlet, but the more comprehensive and popular manner in which they are illustrated in the Report, and the circumstance of their being recommended by a Committee composed of some of the ablest men in the country, gave them a weight and authority which they could not otherwise have obtained. And though the prejudices and ignorance of some, and the interested, and therefore determined, opposition of others, prevented for a while the adoption of the measures proposed by Mr. Ricardo and the Committee for restoring the currency to a sound and healthy state, they were afterwards carried into full effect; and afford one of the most memorable examples in our history, of the triumph of principle over selfishness, sophistry, and error.

From "On Profits":

Like all other contracts, wages should be left to the fair and free competition of the market, and should never be controlled by the interference of the legislature.

The clear and direct tendency of the poor laws is in direct opposition to these obvious principles: it is not, as the legislature benevolently intended, to amend the condition of the poor, but to deteriorate the condition of both poor and rich; instead of making the poor rich, they are calculated to make the rich poor; and whilst the present laws are in force, it is quite in the natural order of things that the fund for the maintenance of the poor should progressively increase till it has absorbed all the net revenue of the country, or at least so much of it as the state shall leave to us, after satisfying its own never-failing demands for the public expenditure.

This pernicious tendency of these laws is no longer a mystery, since it has been fully developed by the able hand of Mr Malthus; and every friend to the poor must ardently wish for their abolition. Unfortunately, however, they have been so long established, and the habits of the poor have been so formed upon their operation, that to eradicate them with safety from our political system, requires the most cautious and skilful management. It is agreed by all who are most friendly to a repeal of these laws, that if it be desirable to prevent the most overwhelming distress to those for whose benefit they were erroneously enacted, their abolition should be effected by the most gradual steps.

It is a truth which admits not a doubt, that the comforts and well-being of the poor cannot be permanently secured without some regard on their part, or some effort on the part of the legislature, to regulate the increase of their numbers, and to render less frequent among them early and improvident marriages. The operation of the system of poor laws has been directly contrary to this. They have rendered restraint superfluous, and have invited imprudence, by offering it a portion of the wages of prudence and industry.

The nature of the evil points out the remedy. By gradually contracting the sphere of the poor laws; by impressing on the poor the value of independence, by teaching them that they must look not to systematic or casual charity, but to their own exertions for support, that prudence and fore-thought are neither unnecessary nor unprofitable virtues, we shall by degrees approach a sounder and more healthful state.


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