Pamphlet by “Cato”: Thoughts on a Question of Importance Proposed to the Public, Whether it is probable that the Immense Extent of Territory acquired by this Nation at the late Peace, will operate towards the Prosperity, or the Ruin of the Island of Great-Britain?
Part I here.
When a nation has “Elegance and Luxury” introduced to its people, “it must be Manufacture and Commerce only, which can make a People numerous and prosperous.” So wrote Cato, and he continued by noting that when a nation has a more expansive territory, there is “less Necessity either of Manufactures or Commerce” as the “Multitude of common People, by whose Hands National Industry must be carried on, can easily find Support without them.” But, what if, as was the case with the British Empire, the territories become so far spread? Cato doubted that the same rules applied to such a situation; he predicted that manufacture and commerce were indeed still necessary for making the common people “numerous and prosperous.” And he made that prediction based on three reasons.
First was depopulation: when those residing in the “Mother Country” realize that a better living may be had in one of the colonies, it is not just the common person who moves: it may be “Men of Rank or Wealth, who have obtained Grants of Land” who move to the colony and thus may be bloodletting the nation. And for Cato, a little bloodletting “may be not only harmless, but serviceable to the Body; and yet excessive Bleeding will kill as certainly as any Disease, to which it is liable.” Depopulation also took the form of members of the military constantly being sent to “annoy our Enemies in Time of War, and to protect our Friends in Time of Peace.”
Second, at some point, if growth continued, it would become probable that the colonies would be “our Rivals instead of our Customers.” Circumstances were already indicating that this was accelerating, and some were predicting that Great Britain had a “half a Million Sterling loss yearly,” and Cato supposed it would soon double. Alas, wrote Cato, even if Parliament expressed any interest in stopping the profitability of colonies compared to the home country, he was sure “that any Measures they could contrive for that purpose would be quite ineffectual.”
And, thirdly, the home country’s exclusive right to trade with its colonies. Cato suspected that the exclusive right to trade “will operate slowly and silently indeed, but constantly, and at last fatally, to our own Prejudice.” Humans are inherently selfish, and Baron Montesquieu noted: “the moral Causes of the Thriving or Decay of a Nation, viz. such as arise from the Tempers or Principles of the People, the Spirit of their Constitution, or their Situation with regard to others, are unspeakably more powerful than occasional Causes, such as War, Famine and Pestilence; or their Contraries.” The moral causes are those that are “Universal and Perpetual” while the occasional causes are just that: occasional. To Cato, this was proof: “If therefore our exclusive Right to trade to our own Plantations, tempts us to trust or lean too much to it, it may sink under the Weight, and prove the Cause of our Destruction.” That could occur through Great Britain’s own merchants importing “from other Nations what they can export to the British Plantations with Advantage” and thus “add next to nothing to our Strength or Numbers; and not so much to our Wealth as may perhaps be supposed.” Those merchants “may make a splendid Figure for a Time, while the Body of the Kingdom is gradually losing its Nourishment, and falling into an incurable Consumption.”