Urbanization avant la lettre

Bourgeois economists
on town and country

Image: Sir David Wilkie, The Parliament Close
and Public Characters 50 Years Since (1796)

François Quesnay, Tableau Économique (1758)

“[It is important] that the children of farmers are settled in the countryside, so that there are always husbandmen there; for if they are harassed into abandoning the countryside and withdrawing to the towns, they take their fathers’ wealth which used to be employed in cultivation.”

James Steuart, An Inquiry into the Principle of Political Economy (1766)

Chapter 9

“When the earth is not in common to those who live upon her spontaneous fruits, but is appropriated by a few, there either slavery or industry must be introduced among those who consume the surplus of the proprietors; because these will expect either service or work in return for their superfluity. In this case, the residence of the inhabitants will depend upon the circumstances we are going to consider; and the object of agriculture in countries where the surface of the earth is not broken up, being solely directed towards the gathering in of fruits, will determine the residence of those only who are necessary for that purpose: consequently it will follow, that in climates where the earth produces spontaneously, and in vast abundance, there may be found large cities; because the number of those who are necessary for gathering in the fruits is small in proportion to the quantity of them; whereas in other countries, where the earth’s productions are scanty, and where the climate refuses those of the copious and luxuriant kind, there will hardly be found any considerable town, because the number of those who are necessary for collecting the subsistence, bears a great proportion to the fruits themselves. I do not say, that in the first case there must be large towns, or that in the other there can be none; but I say that, in the first case, those who may be gathered into towns, bear a great proportion to the whole society; and that, in the second, they bear a small one.”

“I now proceed to the other class of inhabitants; the free hands who live upon the surplus of the farmers.

These I must subdivide into two conditions. The first, those to whom this surplus directly belongs, or who, with a revenue in money already acquired, can purchase it. The second, those who purchase it with their daily labor [proto-proletarians] or personal service.

Those of the first condition may live where they please; those of the second, must live where they can. The residence of the consumers determines, in many cases, that of the suppliers. In proportion, therefore, as those who live where they please choose to live together, in this proportion must the others follow them. And in proportion as the state thinks fit to place the administration of government in one place, in the same proportion must the administrators, and every one depending upon them, be gathered together. These I take to be principles which influence the swelling of the bulk of capitals, and smaller cities.

When the residence of the consumer does not determine that of him who supplies it, other considerations are allowed to operate. This is the case in what may properly be called manufactures, distinguished from trades, whether they be for home-consumption, or foreign exportation. These considerations are,

First, Relative to the place and situation of the establishment; which gives a preference to the sides of rivers and rivulets, when machines wrought by water are necessary; to the proximity of forests and collieries, when fire is employed; to the place which produces the substance of the manufacture; as in mines, collieries, brick-works, &c.

Secondly, Relative to the convenience of transportation, as upon navigable rivers, or by great roads.

Thirdly, Relative to the cheapness of living, consequently not (frequently) in great cities, except for their own consumption. But it must be observed, that this last consideration can hardly ever be permanent: for the very establishment being the means of raising prices, the advantage must diminish in proportion as the undertaking comes to succeed. The best rule therefore is, to set down such manufactures upon the banks of navigable rivers, where all necessary provisions may be brought from a distance at a small cost. This advantage is permanent, the others are not; and may prove in time hurtful, by a change in those very circumstances which decided as to the choice of the situation. From the establishment of manufactures we see hamlets swell into villages, and villages into towns.

Sea-ports owe their establishment to foreign trade. From one or other of these and similar principles, are mankind gathered into hamlets, villages, towns, and cities.”

Chapter 10

“We agree, I suppose, that the inhabitants of cities are not employed in agriculture, and we may agree that they are fed by it: we have examined into the causes of the increase of cities, and we have seen the fund provided for their subsistence, to wit, the surplus of fruits produced by husbandmen.

What are then the advantages resulting to the citizens from this great increase of their city? I cannot find any great benefit resulting to each individual from this circumstance; but I conclude, that the same advantages which many find in particular, must be common to great numbers, consequently great numbers are gathered together.

The principal objections against great cities are, that health there is not so good, that marriages are not so frequent as in the country, that debauchery prevails, and that abuses are multiplied.

To this I answer, that these objections lie equally against most cities, and are not peculiar to those complained of for their bulk; and that the evils proceed more from the spirit of the inhabitants, than from the size of the capital.

Thomas Gainsborough, Road from market (1768)

Thomas Gainsborough, Road from market (1768)

It is further urged, that the number of deaths exceeds the number of births in great cities; consequently smaller towns, and even the country, is stripped of its inhabitants, in order to recruit these capitals.

Here I first deny, that in all capitals the number of deaths exceeds the number of births; for in Paris it is otherwise. But supposing the assertion to be true, what conclusion can be drawn from it, except that many people who are born in the country die in town. That the country should furnish cities with inhabitants is no evil. What occasion has the country for supernumerary hands? If it has enough for the supply of its own wants, and of the demands of cities, has it not enough? Had it more, the supernumeraries would either consume without working, or, if added to the class of laborers, instead of being added to the number of free hands, would overturn the balance between the two classes; grain would become too plentiful, and that would cast a general discouragement upon agriculture: whereas, by going to cities, they acquire money, and therewith purchase the grain they would have consumed, had they remained in the country; and this money, which their additional labor in cities will force into circulation, would otherwise have remained locked up, or at least would not have gone into the country, but in consequence of the desertion of the supernumeraries. The proper and only right encouragement for agriculture, is a moderate and gradual increase of demand for the productions of the earth: this works a natural and beneficial increase of inhabitants; and this demand must come from cities, for the husbandmen never have occasion to demand; it is they who offer to sale.

The high prices of most things in large cities is a benefit surely, not a loss to the country. But I must observe, that the great expense of living in capitals does not affect the lower classes, nor the moderate and frugal, in any proportion to what it does the rich. If you live on beef, mutton, bread, and beer, you may live as cheap in London and in Paris as in most cities I know. These articles abound, and though the demand be great, the provision made for supplying it is in proportion. But when you come to fish, fowl, and game; delicacies of every kind brought from far, by the post, by ships, and by messengers; when you have fine equipages, large houses, expensive servants, and abundance of waste in every article, without one grain of economy in any, it is no wonder that money should run away so fast. I do not, from what has been said, conclude, that there is any evident advantage in having so overgrown a capital as London in such a kingdom as England; but that I do not find great force in the objections I have met with against it. That there may be others which I do not know, I will not deny, because I am not sufficiently acquainted with that kingdom to be a competent judge of the matter.”

Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations (1775)

Book 1

“That the industry which is carried on in towns is, everywhere in Europe, more advantageous than that which is carried on in the country, without entering into any very nice computations, we may satisfy ourselves by one very simple and obvious observation. In every country of Europe we find, at least, a hundred people who have acquired great fortunes from small beginnings by trade and manufactures, the industry which properly belongs to towns, for one who has done so by that which properly belongs to the country, the raising of rude produce by the improvement and cultivation of land. Industry, therefore, must be better rewarded, the wages of labor and the profits of stock must evidently be greater in the one situation than in the other. But stock and labor naturally seek the most advantageous employment. They naturally, therefore, resort as much as they can to the town, and desert the country.

The inhabitants of a town, being collected into one place, can easily combine together. The most insignificant trades carried on in towns have accordingly, in some place or other, been incorporated, and even where they have never been incorporated, yet the corporation spirit, the jealousy of strangers, the aversion to take apprentices, or to communicate the secret of their trade, generally prevail in them, and often teach them, by voluntary associations and agreements, to prevent that free competition which they cannot prohibit by bye-laws. The trades which employ but a small number of hands run most easily into such combinations. Half a dozen wool-combers, perhaps, are necessary to keep a thousand spinners and weavers at work. By combining not to take apprentices they can not only engross the employment, but reduce the whole manufacture into a sort of slavery to themselves, and raise the price of their labor much above what is due to the nature of their work.

The inhabitants of the country, dispersed in distant places, cannot easily combine together. They have not only never been incorporated, but the corporation spirit never has prevailed among them. No apprenticeship has ever been thought necessary to qualify for husbandry, the great trade of the country. After what are called the fine arts, and the liberal professions, however, there is perhaps no trade which requires so great a variety of knowledge and experience.”

Book 3

“The great commerce of every civilized society is that carried on between the inhabitants of the town and those of the country. It consists in the exchange of rude for manufactured produce, either immediately, or by the intervention of money, or of some sort of paper which represents money. The country supplies the town with the means of subsistence and the materials of manufacture. The town repays this supply by sending back a part of the manufactured produce to the inhabitants of the country. The town, in which there neither is nor can be any reproduction of substances, may very properly be said to gain its whole wealth and subsistence from the country. We must not, however, upon this account, imagine that the gain of the town is the loss of the country. The gains of both are mutual and reciprocal, and the division of labor is in this, as in all other cases, advantageous to all the different persons employed in the various occupations into which it is subdivided. The inhabitants of the country purchase of the town a greater quantity of manufactured goods, with the produce of a much smaller quantity of their own labor, than they must have employed had they attempted to prepare them themselves. The town affords a market for the surplus produce of the country, or what is over and above the maintenance of the cultivators, and it is there that the inhabitants of the country exchange it for something else which is in demand among them. The greater the number and revenue of the inhabitants of the town, the more extensive is the market which it affords to those of the country; and the more extensive that market, it is always the more advantageous to a great number. The corn which grows within a mile of the town sells there for the same price with that which comes from twenty miles distance. But the price of the latter must generally not only pay the expense of raising and bringing it to market, but afford, too, the ordinary profits of agriculture to the farmer. The proprietors and cultivators of the country, therefore, which lies in the neighborhood of the town, over and above the ordinary profits of agriculture, gain, in the price of what they sell, the whole value of the carriage of the like produce that is brought from more distant parts, and they have, besides, the whole value of this carriage in the price of what they buy. Compare the cultivation of the lands in the neighborhood of any considerable town with that of those which lie at some distance from it, and you will easily satisfy yourself how much the country is benefited by the commerce of the town. Among all the absurd speculations that have been propagated concerning the balance of trade, it has never been pretended that either the country loses by its commerce with the town, or the town by that with the country which maintains it.”

“As subsistence is, in the nature of things, prior to convenience and luxury, so the industry which procures the former must necessarily be prior to that which ministers to the latter. The cultivation and improvement of the country, therefore, which affords subsistence, must, necessarily, be prior to the increase of the town, which furnishes only the means of convenience and luxury. It is the surplus produce of the country only, or what is over and above the maintenance of the cultivators, that constitutes the subsistence of the town, which can therefore increase only with the increase of this surplus produce. The town, indeed, may not always derive its whole subsistence from the country in its neighborhood, or even from the territory to which it belongs, but from very distant countries; and this, though it forms no exception from the general rule, has occasioned considerable variations in the progress of opulence in different ages and nations.”

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