Observations on the Effects of the Corn Laws, and of a Rise or Fall in the Price of Corn on the Agriculture and General Wealth
of the Country

by the Rev. T.R. Malthus, Professor of Political Economy at the
East India College, Hertfordshire London.  Printed for J. Johnson and Co., St. Paul's Church-Yard, 1814

      A revision of the corn laws, it is understood, is immediately
to come under the consideration of the legislature. That the
decision on such a subject, should be founded on a correct and
enlightened view of the whole question, will be allowed to be of
the utmost importance, both with regard to the stability of the
measures to be adopted, and the effects to be expected from them.
     For an attempt to contribute to the stock of information
necessary to form such a decision, no apology can be necessary.
It may seem indeed probable, that but little further light can be
thrown on a subject, which, owing to the system adopted in this
country, has been so frequently the topic of discussion; but,
after the best consideration which I have been able to give it, I
own, it appears to me, that some important considerations have
been neglected on both sides of the question, and that the
effects of the corn laws, and of a rise or fall in the price of
corn, on the agriculture and general wealth of the state, have
not yet been fully laid before the public.
     If this be true, I cannot help attributing it in some degree
to the very peculiar argument brought forward by Dr Smith, in his
discussion of the bounty upon the exportation of corn. Those who
are conversant with the Wealth of nations, will be aware, that
its great author has, on this occasion, left entirely in the
background the broad, grand, and almost unanswerable arguments,
which the general principles of political economy furnish in
abundance against all systems of bounties and restrictions, and
has only brought forwards, in a prominent manner, one which, it
is intended, should apply to corn alone. It is not surprising
that so high an authority should have had the effect of
attracting the attention of the advocates of each side of the
question, in an especial manner, to this particular argument.
Those who have maintained the same cause with Dr Smith, have
treated it nearly in the same way; and, though they may have
alluded to the other more general and legitimate arguments
against bounties and restrictions, have almost universally seemed
to place their chief reliance on the appropriate and particular
argument relating to the nature of corn.
     On the other hand, those who have taken the opposite side of
the question, if they have imagined that they had combated this
particular argument with success, have been too apt to consider
the point as determined, without much reference to the more
weighty and important arguments, which remained behind.
     Among the latter description of persons I must rank myself. I
have always thought, and still think, that this peculiar argument
of Dr Smith, is fundamentally erroneous, and that it cannot be
maintained without violating the great principles of supply and
demand, and contradicting the general spirit and scope of the
reasonings, which pervade the Wealth of nations.
     But I am most ready to confess, that, on a former occasion,
when I considered the corn laws, my attention was too much
engrossed by this one peculiar view of the subject, to give the
other arguments, which belong to it, their due weight.
     I am anxious to correct an error, of which I feel conscious.
It is not however my intention, on the present occasion, to
express an opinion on the general question. I shall only
endeavour to state, with the strictest impartiality, what appear
to me to be the advantages and disadvantages of each system, in
the actual circumstances of our present situation, and what are
the specific consequences, which may be expected to result from
the adoption of either. My main object is to assist in affording
the materials for a just and enlightened decision; and, whatever
that decision may be, to prevent disappointment, in the event of
the effects of the measure not being such as were previously
contemplated. Nothing would tend so powerfully to bring the
general principles of political economy into disrepute, and to
prevent their spreading, as their being supported upon any
occasion by reasoning, which constant and unequivocal experience
should afterwards prove to be fallacious.
     We must begin, therefore, by an inquiry into the truth of Dr
Smith's argument, as we cannot with propriety proceed to the main
question, till this preliminary point is settled.
     The substance of his argument is, that corn is of so peculiar
a nature, that its real price cannot be raised by an increase of
its money price; and that, as it is clearly an increase of real
price alone which can encourage its production, the rise of money
price, occasioned by a bounty, can have no such effect.
     It is by no means intended to deny the powerful influence of
the price of corn upon the price of labour, on an average of a
considerable number of years; but that this influence is not such
as to prevent the movement of capital to, or from the land, which
is the precise point in question, will be made sufficiently
evident by a short inquiry into the manner in which labour is
paid and brought into the market, and by a consideration of the
consequences to which the assumption of Dr Smith's proposition
would inevitably lead.
     In the first place, if we inquire into the expenditure of the
labouring classes of society, we shall find, that it by no means
consists wholly in food, and still less, of course, in mere bread
or grain. In looking over that mine of information, for
everything relating to prices and labour, Sir Frederick Morton
Eden's work on the poor, I find, that in a labourer's family of
about an average size, the articles of house rent, fuel, soap,
candles, tea, sugar, and clothing, are generally equal to the
articles of bread or meal. On a very rough estimate, the whole
may be divided into five parts, of which two consist of meal or
bread, two of the articles above mentioned, and one of meat,
milk, butter, cheese, and potatoes. These divisions are, of
course, subject to considerable variations, arising from the
number of the family, and the amount of the earnings. But if they
merely approximate towards the truth, a rise in the price of corn
must be both slow and partial in its effects upon labour. Meat,
milk, butter, cheese, and potatoes are slowly affected by the
price of corn; house rent, bricks, stone, timber, fuel, soap,
candles, and clothing, still more slowly; and, as far as some of
them depend, in part or in the whole, upon foreign materials (as
is the case with leather, linen, cottons, soap, and candles),
they may be considered as independent of it; like the two
remaining articles of tea and sugar, which are by no means
unimportant in their amount.
     It is manifest therefore that the whole of the wages of
labour can never rise and fall in proportion to the variations in
the price of grain. And that the effect produced by these
variations, whatever may be its amount, must be very slow in its
operation, is proved by the manner in which the supply of labour
takes place; a point, which has been by no means sufficiently
attended to.
     Every change in the prices of commodities, if left to find
their natural level, is occasioned by some change, actual or
expected, in the state of the demand or supply. The reason why
the consumer pays a tax upon any manufactured commodity, or an
advance in the price of any of its component parts, is because,
if he cannot or will not pay this advance of price, the commodity
will not be supplied in the same quantity as before; and the next
year there will only be such a proportion in the market, as is
accommodated to the number of persons who will consent to pay the
tax. But, in the case of labour, the operation of withdrawing the
commodity is much slower and more painful. Although the
purchasers refuse to pay the advanced price, the same supply will
necessarily remain in the market, not only the next year, but for
some years to come. Consequently, if no increase take place in
the demand, and the advanced price of provisions be not so great,
as to make it obvious that the labourer cannot support his
family, it is probable, that he will continue to pay this
advance, till a relaxation in the rate of the increase of
population causes the market to be under-supplied with labour;
and then, of course, the competition among the purchasers will
raise the price above the proportion of the advance, in order to
restore the supply. In the same manner, if an advance in the
price of labour has taken place during two or three years of
great scarcity, it is probable that, on the return of plenty, the
real recompense of labour will continue higher than the usual
average, till a too rapid increase of population causes a
competition among the labourers, and a consequent diminution of
the price of labour below the usual rate.
     This account of the manner in which the price of corn may be
expected to operate upon the price of labour, according to the
laws which regulate the progress of population, evidently shows,
that corn and labour rarely keep an even pace together; but must
often be separated at a sufficient distance and for a sufficient
time, to change the direction of capital.
     As a further confirmation of this truth, it may be useful to
consider, secondly, the consequences to which the assumption of
Dr Smith's proposition would inevitably lead.
     If we suppose, that the real price of corn is unchangeable,
or not capable of experiencing a relative increase or decrease of
value, compared with labour and other commodities, it will
follow, that agriculture is at once excluded from the operation
of that principle, so beautifully explained and illustrated by Dr
Smith, by which capital flows from one employment to another,
according to the various and necessarily fluctuating wants of
society. It will follow , that the growth of corn has, at all
times, and in all countries, proceeded with a uniform unvarying
pace, occasioned only by the equable increase of agricultural
capital, and can never have been accelerated, or retarded, by
variations of demand. It will follow , that if a country happened
to be either overstocked or understocked with corn, no motive of
interest could exist for withdrawing capital from agriculture, in
the one case, or adding to it in the other, and thus restoring
the equilibrium between its different kinds of produce. But these
consequences, which would incontestably follow from the doctrine,
that the price of corn immediately and entirely regulates the
prices of labour and of all other commodities, are so directly
contrary to all experience, that the doctrine itself cannot
possibly be true; and we may be assured, that, whatever influence
the price of corn may have upon other commodities, it is neither
so immediate nor so complete, as to make this kind of produce an
exception to all others.
     That no such exception exists with regard to corn, is implied
in all the general reasonings of the Wealth of nations. Dr Smith
evidently felt this; and wherever, in consequence, he does not
shift the question from the exchangeable value of corn to its
physical properties, he speaks with an unusual want of precision,
and qualifies his positions by the expressions much, and in any
considerable degree. But it should be recollected, that, with
these qualifications, the argument is brought forward expressly
for the purpose of showing, that the rise of price, acknowledged
to be occasioned by a bounty, on its first establishment, is
nominal and not real. Now, what is meant to be distinctly
asserted here is, that a rise of price occasioned by a bounty
upon the exportation or restrictions upon the importation of
corn, cannot be less real than a rise of price to the same
amount, occasioned by a course of bad seasons, an increase of
population, the rapid progress of commercial wealth, or any other
natural cause; and that, if Dr Smith's argument, with its
qualifications, be valid for the purpose for which it is
advanced, it applies equally to an increased price occasioned by
a natural demand.
     Let us suppose, for instance, an increase in the demand and
the price of corn, occasioned by an unusually prosperous state of
our manufactures and foreign commerce; a fact which has
frequently come within our own experience. According to the
principles of supply and demand, and the general principles of
the Wealth of nations, such an increase in the price of corn
would give a decided stimulus to agriculture; and a more than
usual quantity of capital would be laid out upon the land, as
appears obviously to have been the case in this country during
the last twenty years. According to the peculiar argument of Dr
Smith, however, no such stimulus could have been given to
agriculture. The rise in the price of corn would have been
immediately followed by a proportionate rise in the price of
labour and of all other commodities; and, though the farmer and
landlord might have obtained, on an average, seventy five
shillings a quarter for their corn, instead of sixty, yet the
farmer would not have been enabled to cultivate better, nor the
landlord to live better. And thus it would appear, that
agriculture is beyond the operation of that principle, which
distributes the capital of a nation according to the varying
profits of stock in different employments; and that no increase
of price can, at any time or in any country, materially
accelerate the growth of corn, or determine a greater quantity of
capital to agriculture.
     The experience of every person, who sees what is going
forward on the land, and the feelings and conduct both of farmers
and landlords, abundantly contradict this reasoning.
     Dr Smith was evidently led into this train of argument, from
his habit of considering labour as the standard measure of value,
and corn as the measure of labour. But, that corn is a very
inaccurate measure of labour, the history of our own country will
amply demonstrate; where labour, compared with corn, will be
found to have experienced very great and striking variations, not
only from year to year, but from century to century; and for ten,
twenty, and thirty years together;(1*) and that neither labour
nor any other commodity can be an accurate measure of real value
in exchange, is now considered as one of the most
incontrovertible doctrines of political economy. , and indeed
follows, as a necessary consequence, from the very definition of
value in exchange. But to allow that corn regulates the prices of
all commodities, is at once to erect it into a standard measure
of real value in exchange; and we must either deny the truth of
Dr Smith's argument, or acknowledge, that what seems to be quite
impossible is found to exist; and that a given quantity of corn,
notwithstanding the fluctuations to which its supply and demand
must be subject, and the fluctuations to which the supply and
demand of all the other commodities with which it is compared
must also be subject, will, on the average of a few years, at all
times and in all countries, purchase the same quantity of labour
and of the necessaries and conveniences of life.
     There are two obvious truths in political economy, which have
not infrequently been the sources of error.
     It is undoubtedly true, that corn might be just as
successfully cultivated, and as much capital might be laid out
upon the land, at the price of twenty shillings a quarter, as at
the price of one hundred shillings, provided that every
commodity, both at home and abroad, were precisely proportioned
to the reduced scale. In the same manner as it is strictly true,
that the industry and capital of a nation would be exactly the
same (with the slight exception at least of plate), if, in every
exchange, both at home or abroad, one shilling only were used,
where five are used now.
     But to infer, from these truths, that any natural or
artificial causes, which should raise or lower the values of corn
or silver, might be considered as matters of indifference, would
be an error of the most serious magnitude. Practically, no
material change can take place in the value of either, without
producing both lasting and temporary effects, which have a most
powerful influence on the distribution of property, and on the
demand and supply of particular commodities. The discovery of the
mines of America, during the time that it raised the price of
corn between three and four times, did not nearly so much as
double the price of labour; and, while it permanently diminished
the power of all fixed incomes, it gave a prodigious increase of
power to all landlords and capitalists. In a similar manner, the
fall in the price of corn, from whatever cause it took place,
which occurred towards the middle of the last century,
accompanied as it was by a rise, rather than a fall in the price
of labour, must have given a great relative check to the
employment of capital upon the land, and a great relative
stimulus to population; a state of things precisely calculated to
produce the reaction afterwards experienced, and to convert us
from an exporting to an importing nation.
     It is by no means sufficient for Dr Smith's argument, that
the price of corn should determine the price of labour under
precisely the same circumstances of supply and demand. To make it
applicable to his purpose, he must show, in addition, that a
natural or artificial rise in the price of corn, or in the value
of silver, will make no alteration in the state of property , and
in the supply and demand of corn and labour; a position which
experience uniformly contradicts.
     Nothing then can be more evident both from theory and
experience, than that the price of corn does not immediately and
generally regulate the prices of labour and all other
commodities; and that the real price of corn is capable of
varying for periods of sufficient length to give a decided
stimulus or discouragement to agriculture. It is, of course, only
to a temporary encouragement or discouragement, that any
commodity , where the competition is free, can be subjected. We
may increase the capital employed either upon the land or in the
cotton manufacture, but it is impossible permanently to raise the
profits of farmers or particular manufacturers above the level of
other profits; and, after the influx of a certain quantity of
capital, they will necessarily be equalized. Corn, in this
respect, is subjected to the same laws as other commodities, and
the difference between them is by no means so great as stated by
Dr Smith.
     In discussing therefore the present question, we must lay
aside the peculiar argument relating to the nature of corn; and
allowing that it is possible to encourage cultivation by corn
laws, we must direct our chief attention to the question of the
policy or impolicy of such a system.
     While our great commercial prosperity continues, it is
scarcely possible that we should become again an exporting nation
with regard to corn. The bounty has long been a dead letter; and
will probably remain so. We may at present then confine our
inquiry to the restrictions upon the importation of foreign corn
with a view to an independent supply.
     The determination of the question, respecting the policy or
impolicy of continuing the corn laws, seems to depend upon the
three following points.
     First, whether, upon the supposition of the most perfect
freedom of importation and exportation, it is probable that Great
Britain and Ireland would grow an independent supply of corn.
     Secondly, whether an independent supply, if it do not come
naturally, is an object really desirable, and one which justifies
the interference of the legislature.
     And, thirdly, if an independent supply be considered as such
an object, how far, and by what sacrifices, are restrictions upon
importation adapted to attain the end in view.
     Of the first point, it may be observed, that it cannot, in
the nature of things, be determined by general principles, but
must depend upon the size, soil, facilities of culture, and
demand for corn in the country in question. We know that it
answers to almost all small well-peopled states, to import their
corn; and there is every reason to suppose, that even a large
landed nation, abounding in a manufacturing population, and
having cultivated all its good soil, might find it cheaper to
purchase a considerable part of its corn in other countries,
where the supply , compared with the demand, was more abundant.
If the intercourse between the different parts of Europe were
perfectly easy and perfectly free, it would be by no means
natural that one country should be employing a great capital in
the cultivation of poor lands, while at no great distance, lands
comparatively rich were lying very ill cultivated, from the want
of an effectual demand. The progress of agricultural improvement
ought naturally to proceed more equably. It is true indeed that
the accumulation of capital, skill, and population in particular
districts, might give some facilities of culture not possessed by
poorer nations; but such facilities could not be expected to make
up for great differences in the quality of the soil and the
expenses of cultivation. And it is impossible to conceive that
under very great inequalities in the demand for corn in different
countries, occasioned by a very great difference in the
accumulation of mercantile and manufacturing capital and in the
number of large towns, an equalization of price could take place,
without the transfer of a part of the general supply of Europe,
from places where the demand was comparatively deficient, to
those where it was comparatively excessive.
     According to Oddy's European commerce, the Poles can afford
to bring their corn to Danzig at thirty two shillings a quarter.
The Baltic merchants are said to be of opinion that the price is
not very different at present; and there can be little doubt,
that if the corn growers in the neighbourhood of the Baltic could
look forward to a permanently open market in the British ports,
they would raise corn expressly for the purpose. The same
observation is applicable to America; and under such
circumstances it would answer to both countries, for many years
to come, to afford us supplies of corn, in much larger quantities
than we have ever yet received from them.
     During the five years from 1804 to 1808, both inclusive, the
bullion price of corn was about seventy five shillings per
quarter; yet, at this price, it answered to us better to import
some portion of our supplies than to bring our land into such a
state of cultivation as to grow our own consumption. We have
already shown how slowly and partially the price of corn affects
the price of labour and some of the other expenses of
cultivation. Is it credible then that if by the freedom of
importation the prices of corn were equalized, and reduced to
about forty five or fifty shillings a quarter, it could answer to
us to go on improving our agriculture with our increasing
population, or even to maintain our produce in its actual state?
     It is a great mistake to suppose that the effects of a fall
in the price of corn on cultivation may be fully compensated by a
diminution of rents. Rich land which yields a large net rent, may
indeed be kept up in its actual state, notwithstanding a fall in
the price of its produce: as a diminution of rent may be made
entirely to compensate this fall and all the additional expenses
that belong to a rich and highly taxed country. But in poor land,
the fund of rent will often be found quite insufficient for this
purpose. There is a good deal of land in this country of such a
quality that the expenses of its cultivation, together with the
outgoings of poor rates, tithes and taxes, will not allow the
farmer to pay more than a fifth or sixth of the value of the
whole produce in the shape of rent. If we were to suppose the
prices of grain to fall from seventy five shillings to fifty
shillings the quarter, the whole of such a rent would be
absorbed, even if the price of the whole produce of the farm did
not fall in proportion to the price of grain, and making some
allowance for a fall in the price of labour. The regular
cultivation of such land for grain would of course be given up,
and any sort of pasture, however scanty, would be more beneficial
both to the landlord and farmer.
     But a diminution in the real price of corn is still more
efficient, in preventing the future improvement of land, than in
throwing land, which has been already improved, out of
cultivation. In all progressive countries, the average price of
corn is never higher than what is necessary to continue the
average increase of produce. And though, in much the greater part
of the improved lands of most countries, there is what the French
economists call a disposable produce, that is, a portion which
might be taken away without interfering with future production,
yet, in reference to the whole of the actual produce and the rate
at which it is increasing, there is no part of the price so
disposable. In the employment of fresh capital upon the land to
provide for the wants of an increasing population, whether this
fresh capital be employed in bringing more land under the plough
or in improving land already in cultivation, the main question
always depends upon the expected returns of this capital; and no
part of the gross profits can be diminished without diminishing
the motive to this mode of employing it. Every diminution of
price not fully and immediately balanced by a proportionate fall
in all the necessary expenses of a farm, every tax on the land,
every tax on farming stock, every tax on the necessaries of
farmers, will tell in the computation; and if, after all these
outgoings are allowed for, the price of the produce will not
leave a fair remuneration for the capital employed, according to
the general rate of profits and a rent at least equal to the rent
of the land in its former state, no sufficient motive can exist
to undertake the projected improvement.
     It was a fatal mistake in the system of the Economists to
consider merely production and reproduction, and not the
provision for an increasing population, to which their
territorial tax would have raised the most formidable obstacles.
     On the whole then considering the present accumulation of
manufacturing population in this country, compared with any other
in Europe, the expenses attending enclosures, the price of labour
and the weight of taxes, few things seem less probable, than that
Great Britain should naturally grow an independent supply of
corn; and nothing can be more certain, than that if the prices of
wheat in Great Britain were reduced by free importation nearly to
a level with those of America and the continent, and if our
manufacturing prosperity were to continue increasing, it would
incontestably answer to us to support a part of our present
population on foreign corn, and nearly the whole probably of the
increasing population, which we may naturally expect to take
place in the course of the next twenty or twenty five years.
     The next question for consideration is, whether an
independent supply, if it do not come naturally, is an object
really desirable and one which justifies the interference of the
     The general principles of political economy teach us to buy
all our commodities where we can have them the cheapest; and
perhaps there is no general rule in the whole compass of the
science to which fewer justifiable exceptions can be found in
practice. In the simple view of present wealth, population, and
power, three of the most natural and just objects of national
ambition, I can hardly imagine an exception; as it is only by a
strict adherence to this rule that the capital of a country can
ever be made to yield its greatest amount of produce.
     It is justly stated by Dr Smith that by means of trade and
manufactures a country may enjoy a much greater quantity of
subsistence, and consequently may have a much greater population,
than what its own lands could afford. If Holland, Venice, and
Hamburg had declined a dependence upon foreign countries for
their support, they would always have remained perfectly
inconsiderable states, and never could have risen to that pitch
of wealth, power, and population, which distinguished the
meridian of their career.
      Although the price of corn affects but slowly the price of
labour, and never regulates it wholly , yet it has unquestionably
a powerful influence upon it. A most perfect freedom of
intercourse between different nations in the article of corn,
greatly contributes to an equalization of prices and a level in
the value of the precious metals. And it must be allowed that a
country which possesses any peculiar facilities for successful
exertion in manufacturing industry, can never make a full and
complete use of its advantages; unless the price of its labour
and other commodities be reduced to that level compared with
other countries, which results from the most perfect freedom of
the corn trade.
      It has been sometimes urged as an argument in favour of the
corn laws, that the great sums which the country has had to pay
for foreign corn during the last twenty years must have been
injurious to her resources, and might have been saved by the
improvement of our agriculture at home. It might with just as
much propriety be urged that we lose every year by our forty
millions worth of imports, and that we should gain by diminishing
these extravagant purchases. Such a doctrine cannot be maintained
without giving up the first and most fundamental principles of
all commercial intercourse. No purchase is ever made, either at
home or abroad, unless that which is received is, in the estimate
of the purchaser, of more value than that which is given; and we
may rest quite assured, that we shall never buy corn or any other
commodities abroad, if we cannot by so doing supply our wants in
a more advantageous manner, and by a smaller quantity of capital,
than if we had attempted to raise these commodities at home.
     It may indeed occasionally happen that in an unfavourable
season, our exchanges with foreign countries may be affected by
the necessity of making unusually large purchases of corn; but
this is in itself an evil of the slightest consequence, which is
soon rectified, and in ordinary times is not more likely to
happen, if our average imports were two millions of quarters,
than if, on an average, we grew our own consumption.
      The unusual demand is in this case the sole cause of the
evil, and not the average amount imported. The habit on the part
of foreigners of supplying this amount, would on the contrary
rather facilitate than impede further supplies; and as all trade
is ultimately a trade of barter, and the power of purchasing
cannot be permanently extended without an extension of the power
of selling, the foreign countries which supplied us with corn
would evidently have their power of purchasing our commodities
increased, and would thus contribute more effectually to our
commercial and manufacturing prosperity.
      It has further been intimated by the friends of the corn
laws, that by growing our own consumption we shall keep the price
of corn within moderate bounds and to a certain degree steady.
But this also is an argument which is obviously not tenable; as
in our actual situation, it is only by keeping the price of corn
up, very considerably above the average of the rest of Europe,
that we can possibly be made to grow our own consumption.
      A bounty upon exportation in one country, may be considered,
in some degree, as a bounty upon production in Europe; and if the
growing price of corn in the country where the bounty is granted
be not higher than in others, such a premium might obviously
after a time have some tendency to create a temporary abundance
of corn and a consequent fall in its price. But restrictions upon
importation cannot have the slightest tendency of this kind.
Their whole effect is to stint the supply of the general market,
and to raise, not to lower, the price of corn.
      Nor is it in their nature permanently to secure what is of
more consequence, steadiness of prices. During the period indeed,
in which the country is obliged regularly to import some foreign
grain, a high duty upon it is effectual in steadily keeping up
the price of home corn, and giving a very decided stimulus to
agriculture. But as soon as the average supply becomes equal to
the average consumption, this steadiness ceases. A plentiful year
will occasion a sudden fall; and from the average price of the
home produce being so much higher than in the other markets of
Europe, such a fall can be but little relieved by exportation. It
must be allowed, that a free trade in corn would in all ordinary
cases not only secure a cheaper, but a more steady, supply of
      To counterbalance these striking advantages of a free trade
in corn, what are the evils which are apprehended from it?
     It is alleged, first, that security is of still more
importance than wealth, and that a great country likely to excite
the jealousy of others, if its it become dependent for the
support of any considerable portion of people upon foreign corn,
exposes itself to the risk of having its most essential supplies
suddenly fail at the time of its greatest need. That such a risk
is not very great will be readily allowed. It would be as much
against the interest of those nations which raised the
superabundant supply as against the one which wanted it, that the
intercourse should at any time be interrupted; and a rich
country, which could afford to pay high for its corn, would not
be likely to starve, while there was any to be purchased in the
market of the commercial world.
     At the same time it should be observed that we have latterly
seen the most striking instances in all quarters, of governments
acting from passion rather than interest. And though the
recurrence of such a state of things is hardly to be expected,
yet it must be allowed that if anything resembling it should take
place in future, when, instead of very nearly growing our own
consumption, we were indebted to foreign countries for the
support of two millions of our people, the distresses which our
manufacturers suffered in 1812 would be nothing compared with the
wide-wasting calamity which would be then experienced.
     According to the returns made to Parliament in the course of
the last session, the quantity of grain and flour exported in
1811 rather exceeded, than fell short of, what was imported; and
in 1812, although the average price of wheat was one hundred and
twenty five shillings the quarter, the balance of the
importations of grain and flour was only about one hundred
thousand quarters. From 1805, partly from the operation of the
corn laws passed in 1804, but much more from the difficulty and
expense of importing corn in the actual state of Europe and
America, the price of grain had risen so high and had given such
a stimulus to our agriculture, that with the powerful assistance
of Ireland, we had been rapidly approaching to the growth of an
independent supply. Though the danger therefore may not be great
of depending for a considerable portion of our subsistence upon
foreign countries, yet it must be acknowledged that nothing like
an experiment has yet been made of the distresses that might be
produced, during a widely extended war, by the united operation,
of a great difficulty in finding a market for our manufactures,
accompanied by the absolute necessity of supplying ourselves with
a very large quantity of corn.
     Secondly, it may be said, that an excessive proportion of
manufacturing population does not seem favourable to national
quiet and happiness. Independently of any difficulties respecting
the import of corn, variations in the channels of manufacturing
industry and in the facilities of obtaining a vent for its
produce are perpetually recurring. Not only during the last four
or five years, but during the whole course of the war, have the
wages of manufacturing labour been subject to great fluctuations.
Sometimes they have been excessively high, and at other times
proportionably low; and even during a peace they must always
remain subject to the fluctuations which arise from the caprices
of taste and fashion, and the competition of other countries.
These fluctuations naturally tend to generate discontent and
tumult and the evils which accompany them; and if to this we add,
that the situation and employment of a manufacturer and his
family are even in their best state unfavourable to health and
virtue, it cannot appear desirable that a very large proportion
of the whole society should consist of manufacturing labourers.
Wealth, population and power are, after all, only valuable, as
they tend to improve, increase, and secure the mass of human
virtue and happiness.
      Yet though the condition of the individual employed in common
manufacturing labour is not by any means desirable, most of the
effects of manufactures and commerce on the general state of
society are in the highest degree beneficial. They infuse fresh
life and activity into all classes of the state, afford
opportunities for the inferior orders to rise by personal merit
and exertion, and stimulate the higher orders to depend for
distinction upon other grounds than mere rank and riches. They
excite invention, encourage science and the useful arts, spread
intelligence and spirit, inspire a taste for conveniences and
comforts among the labouring classes; and, above all, give a new
and happier structure to society, by increasing the proportion of
the middle classes, that body on which the liberty, public
spirit, and good government of every country must mainly depend.
     If we compare such a state of society with a state merely
agricultural, the general superiority of the former is
incontestable; but it does not follow that the manufacturing
system may not be carried to excess, and that beyond a certain
point the evils which accompany it may not increase further than
its advantages. The question, as applicable to this country, is
not whether a manufacturing state is to be preferred to one
merely agricultural but whether a country the most manufacturing
of any ever recorded in history, with an agriculture however as
yet nearly keeping pace with it, would be improved in its
happiness, by a great relative increase to its manufacturing
population and relative check to its agricultural population.
     Many of the questions both in morals and politics seem to be
of the nature of the problems de maximis and minimis in fluxions;
in which there is always a point where a certain effect is the
greatest, while on either side of this point it gradually
     With a view to the permanent happiness and security from
great reverses of the lower classes of people in this country, I
should have little hesitation in thinking it desirable that its
agriculture should keep pace with its manufactures, even at the
expense of retarding in some degree the growth of manufactures;
but it is a different question, whether it is wise to break
through a general rule, and interrupt the natural course of
things, in order to produce and maintain such an equalization.
     Thirdly, it may be urged, that though a comparatively low
value of the precious metals, or a high nominal price of corn and
labour, tends rather to check commerce and manufactures, yet its
effects are permanently beneficial to those who live by the wages
of labour.
     If the labourers in two countries were to earn the same
quantity of corn, yet in one of them the nominal price of this
corn were twenty five per cent higher than in the other, the
condition of the labourers where the price of corn was the
highest, would be decidedly the best. In the purchase of all
commodities purely foreign; in the purchase of those commodities,
the raw materials of which are wholly or in part foreign, and
therefore influenced in a great degree by foreign prices, and in
the purchase of all home commodities which are taxed, and not
taxed ad valorem, they would have an unquestionable advantage:
and these articles altogether are not inconsiderable even in the
expenditure of a cottager.
     As one of the evils therefore attending the throwing open our
ports, it may be stated, that if the stimulus to population, from
the cheapness of grain, should in the course of twenty or twenty
five years reduce the earnings of the labourer to the same
quantity of corn as at present, at the same price as in the rest
of Europe, the condition of the lower classes of people in this
country would be deteriorated. And if they should not be so
reduced, it is quite clear that the encouragement to the growth
of corn will not be fully restored, even after the lapse of so
long a period.
     Fourthly, it may be observed, that though it might by no
means be advisable to commence an artificial system of
regulations in the trade of corn; yet if, by such a system
already established and other concurring causes, the prices of
corn and of many commodities had been raised above the level of
the rest of Europe, it becomes a different question, whether it
would be advisable to risk the effects of so great and sudden a
fall in the price of corn, as would be the consequence of at once
throwing open our ports. One of the cases in which, according to
Dr Smith, 'it may be a matter of deliberation how far it is
proper to restore the free importation of foreign goods after it
has been for some time interrupted, is, when particular
manufactures, by means of high duties and prohibitions upon all
foreign goods which can come into competition with them, have
been so far extended as to employ a great multitude of
     That the production of corn is not exempted from the
operation of this rule has already been shown; and there can be
no doubt that the interests of a large body of landholders and
farmers, the former to a certain extent permanently, and the
latter temporarily, would be deeply affected by such a change of
policy. These persons too may further urge, with much appearance
of justice, that in being made to suffer this injury, they would
not be treated fairly and impartially. By protecting duties of
various kinds, an unnatural quantity of capital is directed
towards manufactures and commerce and taken from the land; and
while, on account of these duties, they are obliged to purchase
both home-made and foreign goods at a kind of monopoly price,
they would be obliged to sell their own at the price of the most
enlarged competition. It may fairly indeed be said, that to
restore the freedom of the corn trade, while protecting duties on
various other commodities are allowed to remain, is not really to
restore things to their natural level, but to depress the
cultivation of the land below other kinds of industry. And
though, even in this case, it might still be a national advantage
to purchase corn where it could be had the cheapest; yet it must
be allowed that the owners of property in land would not be
treated with impartial justice.
     If under all the circumstances of the case, it should appear
impolitic to check our agriculture; and so desirable to secure an
independent supply of corn, as to justify the continued
interference of the legislature for this purpose, the next
question for our consideration is;
     Fifthly, how far and by what sacrifices, restrictions upon
the importation of foreign corn are calculated to attain the end
in view.
     With regard to the mere practicability of effecting an
independent supply, it must certainly be allowed that foreign
corn may be so prohibited as completely to secure this object. A
country with a large territory, which determines never to import
corn, except when the price indicates a scarcity, will
unquestionably in average years supply its own wants. But a law
passed with this view might be so framed as to effect its object
rather by a diminution of the people than an increase of the
corn: and even if constructed in the most judicious manner, it
can never be made entirely free from objections of this kind.
     The evils which must always belong to restrictions upon the
importation of foreign corn, are the following:
    1. A certain waste of the national resources, by the
employment of a greater quantity of capital than is necessary for
procuring the quantity of corn required.
    2. A relative disadvantage in all foreign commercial
transactions, occasioned by the high comparative prices of corn
and labour, and the low value of silver, as far as they affect
exportable commodities.
    3. Some check to population, occasioned by a check to that
abundance of corn, and demand for manufacturing labours, which
would be the result of a perfect freedom of importation.
    4. The necessity of constant revision and interference, which
belongs to almost every artificial system.
     It is true, that during the last twenty years we have
witnessed a very great increase of population and of our exported
commodities, under a high price of corn and labour; but this must
have happened in spite of these high prices, not in consequence
of them; and is to be attributed chiefly to the unusual success
of our inventions for saving labour and the unusual monopoly of
the commerce of Europe which has been thrown into our hands by
the war. When these inventions spread and Europe recovers in some
degree her industry and capital, we may not find it so easy to
support the competition. The more strongly the natural state of
the country directs it to the purchase of foreign corn, the
higher must be the protecting duty or the price of importation,
in order to secure an independent supply; and the greater
consequently will be the relative disadvantage which we shall
suffer in our commerce with other countries. This drawback may ,
it is certain, ultimately be so great as to counterbalance the
effects of our extraordinary skill, capital and machinery.
     The whole, therefore, is evidently a question of contending
advantages and disadvantages; and, as interests of the highest
importance are concerned, the most mature deliberation is
required in its decision.
     In whichever way it is settled, some sacrifices must be
submitted to. Those who contend for the unrestrained admission of
foreign corn, must not imagine that the cheapness it will
occasion will be an unmixed good; and that it will give an
additional stimulus to the commerce and population of the
country, while it leaves the present state of agriculture and its
future increase undisturbed. They must be prepared to see a
sudden stop put to the progress of our cultivation, and even some
diminution of its actual state; and they must be ready to
encounter the as yet untried risk, of making a considerable
proportion of our population dependent upon foreign supplies of
grain, and of exposing them to those vicissitudes and changes in
the channels of commerce to which manufacturing states are of
necessity subject.
     On the other hand, those who contend for a continuance and
increase of restrictions upon importation, must not imagine that
the present state of agriculture and its present rate of eminence
can be maintained without injuring other branches of the national
industry. It is certain that they will not only be injured, but
that they will be injured rather more than agriculture is
benefited; and that a determination at all events to keep up the
prices of our corn might involve us in a system of regulations,
which, in the new state of Europe which is expected, might not
only retard in some degree, as hitherto, the progress of our
foreign commerce, but ultimately begin to diminish it; in which
case our agriculture itself would soon suffer, in spite of all
our efforts to prevent it.
     If, on weighing fairly the good to be obtained and the
sacrifices to be made for it, the legislature should determine to
adhere to its present policy of restrictions, it should be
observed, in reference to the mode of doing it, that the time
chosen is by no means favourable for the adoption of such a
system of regulations as will not need future alterations. The
state of the currency must throw the most formidable obstacles in
the way of all arrangements respecting the prices of importation.
     If we return to cash payments, while bullion continues of its
present value compared with corn, labour, and most other
commodities; little alteration will be required in the existing
corn laws. The bullion price of corn is now very considerably
under sixty three shillings, the price at which the high duty
ceases according to the Act of 1804.
     If our currency continues at its present nominal value, it
will be necessary to make very considerable alterations in the
laws, or they will be a mere dead letter and become entirely
inefficient in restraining the importation of foreign corn.
     If, on the other hand, we should return to our old standard,
and at the same time the value of bullion should fall from the
restoration of general confidence, and the ceasing of an
extraordinary demand for bullion; an intermediate sort of
alteration will be necessary, greater than in the case first
mentioned, and less than in the second.
     In this state of necessary uncertainty with regard to our
currency, it would be extremely impolitic to come to any final
regulation, founded on an average which would be essentially
influenced by the nominal prices of the last five years.
     To these considerations it may be added, that there are many
reasons to expect a more than usual abundance of corn in Europe
during the repose to which we may now look forward. Such an
abundance(3*) took place after the termination of the war of
Louis XIV, and seems still more probable now, if the late
devastation of the human race and interruption to industry should
be succeeded by a peace of fifteen or twenty years.
     The prospect of an abundance of this kind, may to some
perhaps appear to justify still greater efforts to prevent the
introduction of foreign corn; and to secure our agriculture from
too sudden a shock, it may be necessary to give it some
protection. But if, under such circumstances with regard to the
price of corn in Europe, we were to endeavour to retain the
prices of the last five years, it is scarcely possible to suppose
that our foreign commerce would not in a short time begin to
languish. The difference between ninety shillings a quarter and
thirty two shillings a quarter, which is said to be the price of
the best wheat in France, is almost too great for our capital and
machinery to contend with. The wages of labour in this country,
though they have not risen in proportion to the price of corn,
have been beyond all doubt considerably influenced by it.
     If the whole of the difference in the expense of raising corn
in this country and in the corn countries of Europe was
occasioned by taxation, and the precise amount of that taxation
as affecting corn, could be clearly ascertained; the simple and
obvious way of restoring things to their natural level and
enabling us to grow corn, as in a state of perfect freedom, would
be to lay precisely the same amount of tax on imported corn and
grant the same amount in a bounty upon exportation. Dr Smith
observes, that when the necessities of a state have obliged it to
lay a tax upon a home commodity, a duty of equal amount upon the
same kind of commodity when imported from abroad, only tends to
restore the level of industry which had necessarily been
disturbed by the tax.
     But the fact is that the whole difference of price does not
by any means arise solely from taxation. A part of it, and I
should think, no inconsiderable part, is occasioned by the
necessity of yearly cultivating and improving more poor land, to
provide for the demands of an increasing population; which land
must of course require more labour and dressing, and expense of
all kinds in its cultivation. The growing price of corn
therefore, independently of all taxation, is probably higher than
in the rest of Europe; and this circumstance not only increases
the sacrifice that must be made for an independent supply , but
enhances the difficulty of framing a legislative provision to
secure it.
     When the former very high duties upon the importation of
foreign grain were imposed, accompanied by the grant of a bounty,
the growing price of corn in this country was not higher than in
the rest of Europe; and the stimulus given to agriculture by
these laws aided by other favourable circumstances occasioned so
redundant a growth, that the average price of corn was not
affected by the prices of importation. Almost the only sacrifice
made in this case was the small rise of price occasioned by the
bounty on its first establishment, which, after it had increased
operated as a stimulus to cultivation, terminated in a period of
     If we were to attempt to pursue the same system in a very
different state of the country, by raising the importation prices
and the bounty in proportion to the fall in the value of money ,
the effects of the measure might bear very little resemblance to
those which took place before. Since 1740 Great Britain has added
nearly four millions and a half to her population, and with the
addition of Ireland probably eight millions, a greater proportion
I believe than in any other country in Europe; and from the
structure of our society and the great increase of the middle
classes, the demands for the products of pasture have probably
been augmented in a still greater proportion. Under these
circumstances it is scarcely conceivable that any effects could
make us again export corn to the same comparative extent as in
the middle of the last century. An increase of the bounty in
proportion to the fall in the value of money, would certainly not
be sufficient; and probably nothing could accomplish it but such
an excessive premium upon exportation, as would at once stop the
progress of the population and foreign commerce of the country,
in order to let the produce of corn get before it.
     In the present state of things then we must necessarily give
up the idea of creating a large average surplus. And yet very
high duties upon importation, operating alone, are peculiarly
liable to occasion great fluctuations of price. It has been
already stated, that after they have succeeded in producing an
independent supply by steady high prices, an abundant crop which
cannot be relieved by exportation, must occasion a very sudden
fall.(4*) Should this continue a second or third year, it would
unquestionably discourage cultivation, and the country would
again become partially dependent. The necessity of importing
foreign corn would of course again raise the price of
importation, and the same causes might make a similar fall and a
subsequent rise recur; and thus prices would tend to vibrate
between the high prices occasioned by the high duties on
importation and the low prices occasioned by a glut which could
not be relieved by exportation.
     It is under these difficulties that the parliament is called
upon to legislate. On account of the deliberation which the
subject naturally requires, but more particularly on account of
the present uncertain state of the currency, it would be
desirable to delay any final regulation. Should it however be
determined to proceed immediately to a revision of the present
laws, in order to render them more efficacious, there would be
some obvious advantages, both as a temporary and permanent
measure, in giving to the restrictions the form of a constant
duty upon foreign corn, not to act as a prohibition, but as a
protecting, and at the same time, profitable tax. And with a view
to prevent the great fall that might be occasioned by a glut,
under the circumstances before adverted to, but not to create an
average surplus, the old bounty might be continued, and allowed
to operate in the same way as the duty at all times, except in
extreme cases.
     These regulations would be extremely simple and obvious in
their operations, would give greater certainty to the foreign
grower, afford a profitable tax to the government, and would be
less affected even by the expected improvement of the currency,
than high importation prices founded upon any past average.(5*)


1. From the reign of Edward III to the reign of Henry VII, a
day's earnings, in corn, rose from a pack to near half a bushel,
and from Henry VII to the end of Elizabeth, it fell from near
half a bushel to little more than half a peck.

2. Adam Smith, An inquiry into the nature and causes of the
wealth of nations. 6th ed. 3 vols (1791) II, p. 202.

3. The cheapness of corn, during the first half of the last
century, was rather oddly mistaken by Dr Smith for a rise in the
value of silver. That it was owing to peculiar abundance was
obvious, from all other commodities rising instead of falling.

4. The sudden fall of the price of corn this year seems to be a
case precisely to point. It should be recollected however that
quantity always in some degree balances cheapness.

5. Since sending the above to the press I have heard of the new
resolutions that are to be proposed. The machinery seems to be a
little complicated, but if it will work easily and well, they are
greatly preferable to those which were suggested last year.
     To the free exportation asked, no rational objection can of
course be made, though its efficiency in the present state of
things may be doubted. With regard to the duties, if any be
imposed, there must always be aqueston of degree. The principal
objection which I see to the present scale, is that with an
average price of corn in the actual state of the currency, there
will be a pretty strong competition of foreign grain; whereas
with an average price on the restoration of the currency, foreign
competition will be absolutely and entirely excluded.