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The following Essay has been the hasty production of a very few hours, stolen from the pursuit of other studies, and is published for the Sole Purpose of renewing in the public mind the consideration of a most important subject, to which the attention of the Legislature and of the Country will be more seriously invited, in the course of the present Session. The singleness of my object, and the obvious necessity of anticipating the discussions on this subject in Parliament, will, I trust, induce those who may honor these pages with their perusal, to treat with indulgent liberality, the inaccuracies of which haste is necessarily generative.
EXPEDENCY OF REPEALING THE
There is no branch of civil policy wherein modern wisdom has been more successful, in discovering and correcting erroneous principles, than in that which relates to political economy. The work of improvement however, though progressive, has been slow; for human nature is so essentially the slave of habit, and so tenacious of long-cherished opinions, that even a conviction of their having been founded in error, does not always induce the mind to resign without reluctance, prejudices with which it has been long familiar. National jealousies and individual interests have also conspired to prolong the existence of certain notions equally inconsistent with sound reason and universal prosperity, while others are not unfrequently continued in action from the timidity of legislators, to interfere with systems that have in some degree insensibly entwined and connected themselves with the whole frame and texture of society. It is to the last of these considerations, that I am disposed to attribute the unwillingness manifested by the House of Commons, during two successive sessions of parliament, to entertain even in discussion the proposition for repealing the laws, that profess to regulate the interest of money in this kingdom. During the last session, the bill introduced by Mr. Serjeant Onslow for that purpose, advanced by a kind of tacit compromise as far as to the report of the committee; but with the exception of a few general and desultory observations, the great principle of the measure was kept at an awful and disheartening distance, and while all seemed conscious of the necessity or advantages of a discussion, no member appeared willing to commence it. Caution is the characteristic of representative assemblies, and even those members who approved of the principle of the learned Serjeant's bill, and whose opinion in favor of the measure ought, from their official rank, to be entitled to the highest respect, seemed, however, well pleased to have the question postponed for future consideration. The time, they said, had not yet arrived for effecting so mighty a change in the general economy of the state. The country was not prepared to entertain it, and even the prejudices of the people were entitled to respect.
I am willing in candor to allow a certain weight to the propria ety of these objections, and it is therefore, that 1 have undertaken a review of this important question, being convinced that nothing can tend so effectually to shake their validity, as the promotion of a fair and liberal discussion. A long practice wherein the Usury Laws have been enforced with more than ordinary strictness, because their pressure and influence had been universally and constantly felt, has linked them with the concerns and interests of numberless individuals. The negociations of commerce, the transfers of property, have for ages been regulated in this country, with a secret or direct reference to their existence, and they may be fairly excused who apprehend some danger from their incautious and sudden removal.
These fears will, I trust, on further inquiry, be found either wholly chimerical, or not justified to the extent of their present influence. There is, however, another class of opponents to Mr. Serjeant Onslow's bill, who will not stoop to any compromising, but condemn the measure in toto, as a means of legalising fraud, rapine and oppression, of exposing the thoughtless and the prodigal to the schemes of speculative avarice, and of throwing the capital of the country into the hands of speculators and projectors; w ho think that it would subject the public to the inconvenience of great and sudden variations in the money market, and thereby shake the security and stability of all money transactions, and finally on important emergencies, it would essentially impede the advantageous facility now enjoyed by government, of raising supplies necessary for the service of the state. How far these several objections are consistent with sound reasoning, the recognised principles of political economy, the advantages of individuals, and the general good of society, it shall be my endeavour, in the following pages, to examine. In undertaking to question the propriety of the Usury Laws, and to combat prejudices almost consecrated by time, and apparently justified by the undeviating practice of ages, and the concurrent opinions of almost every country, it will be expedient to ascertain the sources of their origin, and the circumstances of society that gave them birth. We shall thence be enabled to judge of the spirit in which they were framed, and to estimate the degree of respect that is due to their boasted attribute of antiquity.
That every individual in the community is entitled to the full enjoyment of his property, by whatever means honestly acquired, or of whatever species consisting, seems, in its abstract shape, to be a proposition wholly incontrovertible. It would seem to be the essential basis of society; and whenever a right so necessary to our enjoyment of civil liberty, is capriciously withheld, to the injury of individuals in a state, no law can change the character of the measure, nor divest it of its moral injustice. Legislators, however, have in all ages and in every country, evinced a mischievous passion for regulating and controlling the concerns of private property, and of directing and influencing the conduct of individuals. "Towering in pride of place," and elated by an overweening confidence in their own abilities, they presumptuously arrogate a species of omniscience, and without reflecting on the varying circumstances of hur man life, on the conflicting principles that influence society, and the numberless modifications of human character, venture to dictate one uniform course of action, to which every occurrence must be adapted. They err most widely in their ideas of what might tend to promote the general prosperity, who think that this professed object of all government is inconsistent with the indulgence of individual caprice, devising and seeking after the means of individual benefit. From habits and local circumstances, every man of ordinary understanding is a much better judge, than any minister or council, of what will promote his own good; and as society in general is made up of individuals, so does the aggregate good consist of the united sums of individual advantage.
But in no instance has this passion for interference been more manifest, than in the laws relating to the use, transfer and value, of money. Every other species of property was comparatively unrestricted; but money, since the earliest records of society, has ever been the peculiar object of legislative attention. A man might dispose of his fields, corns, houses and cattle, at his discretion, within the immediate limits of his own country; no dictate of law, or suggestion of conscience, officiously interposed to prevent him from turning them to his best advantage; but the moment that his property, by any operation of barter was converted into gold or silver, all the terrors of human legislation, aided by a false interpretation of more sacred laws, were instantly arrayed against him, lest it might, in that proscribed shape, become equally beneficial.
No satisfactory reason could, I think, be given for drawing this distinction between money and every other species of property—between the sign and the thing represented—although it has been recognised in almost every country in Europe. It has been sometimes, though incorrectly, attributed to the Mosaic law, concerning usury,' which was also long considered as the foundation of the general ecclesiastical ordinance that existed in darker ages, against taking any interest for money. The law of Moses, however, neither makes such a vain distinction, nor utters a prohibition so general. It forbids the Jews to lend upon usury to a " brother," (meaning thereby any of the children of Israel,) not money alone, but "victuals, and any thing that is lent upon usury;" but at the same time authorises, in the most distinct terms, the taking of usury, which is but another name for interest, in their dealings with " strangers." Moses, therefore, stands exculpated from all the absurd and mischievous principles imposed on society, under the sacred authority of his name, and the distinction, together with the limitations on the interest of money, must be sought in other and far less reputable sources.
In countries not engaged in commercial pursuits, and even in those ages when only a partial and restricted intercourse was allowed between nations, money could have been known in no other light than merely as a circulating medium, or a means of facilitating barter. In such a state of society, and to minds unenlarged by the liberal views of an extended commerce, it might naturally seem to bear a character essentially distinct from that of a marketable commodity, of which the value was to depend upon the amount of the supply, the extent of the demand, the profits of the employment, or the wants of the purchaser. Impressed with the belief that its value was merely factitious and artificial, such a community might proceed to frame laws to ascertain and regulate it; and imagining it to be a creature of their own caprice, might vainly hope to train it to their will. Such adelusionmiust be found particularly fascinating when it tended to gratify some prevailing passion of the legislators. It would no doubt be found a very difficult, nay hopeless ta'sk, to endeavour to dissuade those who wanted money from exercising any power they might possess in reducing its value, nor would they allow much weight to any reasonings that might tend to invalidate their darling right. Improvident people might very naturally exclaim against their more wealthy fellow-citizens for not lending them money at little or no remuneration; nor should we be surprised that such a people, possessed of legislative power, should, in
'Deuteronomy, chap, xxiii. ver. 19, 20.