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.
Spheres of influence as well as empires are difficult to maintain. Maintaining them requires time, money, and sound discretion. The author whose pen name was Cato recognized this when discussing the British colonies, which he labeled as “unweildy Possessions [sic].” In making his arguments, he wrote, he did not base them “upon the Treachery of particular Men, or even the Degeneracy of the present Age, but upon the Mistakes of Human Nature.”
Mistakes of human nature are plentiful, and mistakes often occur when countries analyze their commerce. Cato lamented: “How little Men in general understand the Nature of it.” David Hume had posited that “it is a Mistake for trading Nations to look upon one another as Rivals, or as the opposite Weights in a Ballance [sic]; so that the Exaltation of one implies of necessity the Depression of the other.” Rather, the aphorism that “a rising tide lifts all boats” would also seem to apply to commerce between countries. Further, just as society divides its individuals into specialists (“Gardiner, Cook, Taylor, Mason”) so countries and cities develop their own specialties in commerce. Where a city cannot produce its own food, it trades with an agricultural community, and vice versa.
And thus comes the conclusion that a far-reaching empire need not be necessary. In ancient times, some of the strongest powers “had but small territories.” Tyre, and its daughter Carthage, were two such powers who occupied small bits of territory but began to extend their conquests and brought on their own destruction. Even at the time Cato wrote, the Dutch had found their way to “not seem at all covetous of much Ground, or many distant Settlements; yet they are the richest People in Europe, and for their Numbers the strongest; just because these Numbers are inclosed in so narrow Bounds.” This was the example Cato wished Great Britain would follow.
In concluding, Cato wrote that he wished the country would examine the question he raised with care so that the country would be less likely to destroy itself with its selfishness. He continued: “If my Fears are quite groundless, so much the better for us and our Posterity: If otherwise, it were to be wish’d that the best Means were pointed out for retarding our Ruin as much as possible.” The situation was analogous to that of a patient visiting a doctor, ailing from a bad habit. With no acute disorder, a radical prescription was not necessary; but “slow and alterative” change would bring the patient, Great Britain, into better health and increase the chances of a long life, with any luck.