The Principles of Political Economy, by John Stuart Mill

Chapter 14

Of Excess of Supply

§1. After the elementary exposition of the theory of money contained in the last few chapters, we shall return to a question in the general theory of Value, which could not be satisfactorily discussed until the nature and operations of Money were in some measure understood, because the errors against which we have to contend mainly originate in a misunderstanding of those operations.

We have seen that the value of everything gravitates towards a certain medium point (which has been called the Natural Value), namely, that at which it exchanges for every other thing in the ratio of their cost of production. We have seen, too, that the actual or market value coincides, or nearly so, with the natural value, only on an average of years; and is continually either rising above, or falling below it, from alterations in the demand, or casual fluctuations in the supply: but that these variations correct themselves, through the tendency of the supply to accommodate itself to the demand which exists for the commodity at its natural value. A general convergence thus results from the balance of opposite divergences. Dearth, or scarcity, on the one hand, and over-supply, or in mercantile language, glut, on the other, are incident to all commodities. In the first case, the commodity affords to the producers or sellers, while the deficiency lasts, an unusually high rate of profit: in the second, the supply being in excess of that for which a demand exists at such a value as will afford the ordinary profit, the sellers must be content with less, and must, in extreme cases, submit to a loss.

Because this phenomenon of over-supply, and consequent inconvenience or loss to the producer or dealer, may exist in the case of any one commodity whatever, many persons, including some distinguished political economists, have thought that it may exist with regard to all commodities; that there may be a general over-production of wealth; a supply of commodities in the aggregate, surpassing the demand; and a consequent depressed condition of all classes of producers. Against this doctrine, of which Mr. Malthus and Dr. Chalmers in this country, and M. de Sismondi on the Continent, were the chief apostles, I have already contended in the First Book;1 but it was not possible, in that stage of our inquiry, to enter into a complete examination of an error (as I conceive) essentially grounded on a misunderstanding of the phenomena of Value and Price. The doctrine appears to me to involve so much inconsistency in its very conception, that I feel considerable difficulty in giving any statement of it which shall be at once clear, and satisfactory to its supporters. They agree in maintaining that there may be, and sometimes is, an excess of productions in general beyond the demand for them; that when this happens, purchasers cannot be found at prices which will repay the cost of production with a profit; that there ensues a general depression of prices or values (they are seldom accurate in discriminating between the two), so that producers, the more they produce, find themselves the poorer, instead of richer; and Dr Chalmers accordingly inculcates on capitalists the practice of a moral restraint in reference to the pursuit of gain; while Sismondi deprecates machinery, and the various inventions which increase productive power. They both maintain that accumulation of capital may proceed too fast, not merely for the moral, but for the material interests of those who produce and accumulate; and they enjoin the rich to guard against this evil by an ample unproductive consumption.

§2. When these writers speak of the supply of commodities as outrunning the demand, it is not clear which of the two elements of demand they have in view-the desire to possess, or the means of purchase; whether their meaning is that there are, in such cases, more consumable products in existence than the public desires to consume, or merely more than it is able to pay for. In this uncertainty, it is necessary to examine both suppositions.

First, let us suppose that the quantity of commodities produced is not greater than the community would be glad to consume: is it, in that case, possible that there should be a deficiency of demand for all commodities, for want of the means of payment? Those who think so cannot have considered what it is which constitutes the means of payment for commodities. It is simply commodities. Each person’s means of paying for the productions of other people consists of those which he himself possesses. All sellers are inevitably and ex vi termini buyers. Could we suddenly double the productive powers of the country, we should double the supply of commodities in every market; but we should, by the same stroke, double the purchasing power. Everybody would bring a double demand as well as supply: everybody would be able to buy twice as much, because every one would have twice as much to offer in exchange. It is probable, indeed, that there would now be a superfluity of certain things. although the community would willingly double its aggregate consumption, it may already have as much as it desires of some commodities, and it may prefer to do more than double its consumption of others, or to exercise its increased purchasing power on some new thing. If so, the supply will adapt itself accordingly, and the values of things will continue to conform to their cost of production. At any rate, it is a sheer absurdity that all things should fall in value, and that all producers should, in consequence, be insufficiently remunerated. If values remain the same, what becomes of prices is immaterial, since the remuneration of producers does not depend on how much money, but on how much of consumable articles, they obtain for their goods. Besides, money is a commodity; and if all commodities are supposed to be doubled in quantity, we must suppose money to be doubled too, and then prices would no more fall than values would.

§3. A general over-supply, or excess of all commodities above the demand, so far as demand consists in means of payment, is thus shown to be an impossibility. But it may perhaps he supposed that it is not the ability to purchase, but the desire to possess, that falls short, and that the general produce of industry may be greater than the community desires to consume — the part, at least, of the community which has an equivalent to give. It is evident enough, that produce makes a market for produce, and that there is wealth in the country with which to purchase all the wealth in the country; but those who have the means, may not have the wants, and those who have the wants may be without the means. A portion, therefore, of the commodities produced may be unable to find a market, from the absence of means in those who have the desire to consume, and the want of desire in those who have the means.

This is much the most plausible form of the doctrine, and does not, like that which we first examined, involve a contradiction. There may easily be a greater quantity of any particular commodity than is desired by those who have the ability to purchase, and it is abstractedly conceivable that this might be the case with all commodities. The error is in not perceiving that though all who have an equivalent to give, might be fully provided with every consumable article which they desire, the fact that they go on adding to the production proves that this is not actually the case. Assume the most favourable hypothesis for the purpose, that of a limited community, every member of which possesses as much of necessaries and of all known luxuries as he desires: and since it is not conceivable that persons whose wants were completely satisfied would labour and economize to obtain what they did not desire, suppose that a foreigner arrives and produces an additional quantity of something of which there was already enough. Here, it will be said, is over-production: true, I reply; over-production of that particular article: the community wanted no more of that, but it wanted something. The old inhabitants, indeed, wanted nothing; but did not the foreigner himself want something? When he produced the superfluous article, was he labouring without a motive? He has produced, but the wrong thing instead of the right. He wanted, perhaps, food, and has produced watches, with which everybody was sufficiently supplied. The new comer brought with him into the country a demand for commodities, equal to all that he could produce by his industry, and it was his business to see that the supply he brought should be suitable to that demand. If he could not produce something capable of exciting a new want or desire in the community, for the satisfaction of which some one would grow more food and give it to him in exchange, he had the alternative of growing food for himself; either on fresh land, if there was any unoccupied, or as a tenant, or partner, or servant, of some former occupier, willing to be partially relieved from labour. He has produced a thing not wanted, instead of what was wanted; and he himself, perhaps, is not the kind of producer who is wanted; but there is no over-production; production is not excessive, but merely ill assorted. We saw before, that whoever brings additional commodities to the market, brings an additional power of purchase; we now see that he brings also an additional desire to consume; since if he had not that desire, he would not have troubled himself to produce. Neither of the elements of demand, therefore, can be wanting, when there is an additional supply; though it is perfectly possible that the demand may be for one thing, and the supply may unfortunately consist of another.

Driven to his last retreat, an opponent may perhaps allege, that there are persons who produce and accumulate from mere habit; not because they have any object in growing richer, or desire to add in any respect to their consumption, but from vis inertiae. They continue producing because the machine is ready mounted, and save and re-invest their savings because they have nothing on which they care to expend them. I grant that this is possible, and in some few instances probably happens; but these do not in the smallest degree affect our conclusion. For, what do these persons do with their savings? They invest them productively. that is, expend them in employing labour. In other words, having a purchasing power belonging to them, more than they know what to do with, they make over the surplus of it for the general benefit of the labouring class. Now, will that class also not know what to do with it? Are we to suppose that they too have their wants perfectly satisfied, and go on labouring from mere habit? Until this is the case; until the working classes have also reached the point of satiety-there will be no want of demand for the produce of capital, however rapidly it may accumulate: since, if there is nothing else for it to do, it can always find employment in producing the necessaries or luxuries of the labouring class. And when they too had no further desire for necessaries or luxuries, they would take the benefit of any further increase of wages by diminishing their work; so that the over-production which then for the first time would be possible in idea, could not even then take place in fact, for want of labourers. Thus, in whatever manner the question is looked at, even though we go to the extreme verge of possibility to invent a supposition favourable to it, the theory of general over-production implies an absurdity.

§4. What then is it by which men who have reflected much on economical phenomena, and have even contributed to throw new light upon them by original speculations, have been led to embrace so irrational a doctrine? I conceive them to have been deceived by a mistaken interpretation of certain mercantile facts. They imagined that the possibility of a general oversupply of commodities was proved by experience. They believed that they saw this phenomenon in certain conditions of the markets, the true explanation of which is totally different.

I have already described the state of the markets for commodities which accompanies what is termed a commercial crisis. At such times there is really an excess of all commodities above the money demand: in other words, there is an under-supply of money. From the sudden annihilation of a great mass of credit, every one dislikes to part with ready money, and many are anxious to procure it at any sacrifice. Almost everybody therefore is a seller, and there are scarcely any buyers; so that there may really be, though only while the crisis lasts, an extreme depression of general prices, from what may be indiscriminately called a glut of commodities or a dearth of money. But it is a great error to suppose, with Sismondi, that a commercial crisis is the effect of a general excess of production. It is simply the consequence of an excess of speculative purchases. It is not a gradual advent of low prices, hut a sudden recoil from prices extravagantly high: its immediate cause is a contraction of credit, and the remedy is, not a dilution of supply, but the restoration of confidence. It is also evident that this temporary derangement of markets is an evil only because it is temporary. The fall being solely of money prices, if prices did not rise again no dealer would lose, since the smaller price would be worth as much to him as the larger price was before. In no manner does this phenomenon answer to the description which these celebrated economists have given of the evil of over-production. The permanent decline in the circumstances of producers, for want of markets, which those writers contemplate, is a conception to which the nature of a commercial crisis gives no support.

The other phenomenon from which the notion of a general excess of wealth and superfluity of accumulation seems to derive countenance, is one of a more permanent nature, namely, the fall of profits and interest which naturally takes place with the progress of population and production. The cause of this decline of profit is the increased cost of maintaining labour, which results from an increase of population and of the demand for food, outstripping the advance of agricultural improvement. This important feature in the economical progress of nations will receive full consideration and discussion in the succeeding Book.2 It is obviously a totally different thing from a want of market for commodities, though often confounded with it in the complaints of the producing and trading classes. The true interpretation of the modern or present state of industrial economy, is, that there is hardly any amount of business which may not be done, if people will be content to do it on small profits; and this, all active and intelligent persons in business perfectly well know. but even those who comply with the necessities of their time, grumble at what they comply with, and wish that there were less capital, or as they express it, less competition, in order that there might be greater profits. Low profits, however, are a different thing from deficiency of demand; and the production and accumulation which merely reduce profits, cannot be called excess of supply or of production. What the phenomenon really is, and its effects and necessary limits, will be seen when we treat of that express subject.

I know not of any economical facts, except the two I have specified, which can have given occasion to the opinion that a general over-production of commodities ever presented itself in actual experience. I am convinced that there is no fact in commercial affairs, which, in order to its explanation, stands in need of that chimerical supposition.

The point is fundamental; any difference of opinion on it involves radically different conceptions of Political Economy, especially in its practical aspect. On the one view, we have only to consider how a sufficient production may be combined with the best possible distribution; but on the other there is a third thing to be considered-how a market can be created for produce, or how production can be limited to the capabilities of the market. Besides; a theory so essentially self-contradictory cannot intrude itself without carrying confusion into the very heart of the subject, and making it impossible even to conceive with any distinctness many of the more complicated economical workings of society. This error has been, I conceive, fatal to the systems, as systems, of the three distinguished economists to whom I before referred, Malthus, Chalmers, and Sismondi; all of whom have admirably conceived and explained several of the elementary theorems of political economy, but this fatal misconception has spread itself like a veil between them and the more difficult portions of the subject, not suffering one ray of light to penetrate. Still more is this same confused idea constantly crossing and bewildering the speculations of minds inferior to theirs. It is but justice to two eminent names, to call attention to the fact, that the merit of having placed this most important point in its true light, belongs principally, on the Continent, to the judicious J.B. Say, and in this country to Mr Mill; who (besides the conclusive exposition which he gave of the subject in his Elements of Political Economy) had set forth the correct doctrine with great force and clearness in an early pamphlet, called forth by a temporary controversy, and entitled, “Commerce Defended;” the first of his writings which attained any celebrity, and which he pried more as having been his first introduction to the friendship of David Ricardo, the most valued and most intimate friendship of his life.

1 Supra, vol. i. pp. 66–8.

2 Infra, book iv. chap. 4.

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