The Principles of Political Economy, by John Stuart Mill

Chapter 21

Of the Distribution of the Precious Metals Through the Commercial World

§1. Having now examined the mechanism by which the commercial transactions between nations are actually conducted, we have next to inquire whether this mode of conducting them makes any difference in the conclusions respecting international values, which we previously arrived at on the hypothesis of barter.

The nearest analogy would lead us to presume the negative. We did not find that the intervention of money and its substitutes made any difference in the law of value as applied to adjacent places. Things which would have been equal in value if the mode of exchange had been by barter, are worth equal sums of money. The introduction of money is a mere addition of one more commodity, of which the value is regulated by the same laws as that of all other commodities. We shall not be surprised, therefore, if we find that international values also are determined by the same causes under a money and bill system, as they would be under a system of barter; and that money has little to do in the matter, except to furnish a convenient mode of comparing values.

All interchange is, in substance and effect, barter: whoever sells commodities for money, and with that money buys other goods, really buys those goods with his own commodities. And so of nations: their trade is a mere exchange of exports for imports: and whether money is employed or not, things are only in their permanent state when the exports and imports exactly pay for each other. When this is the case, equal sums of money are due from each country to the other, the debts are settled by bills, and there is no balance to be paid in the precious metals. The trade is in a state like that which is called in mechanics a condition of stable equilibrium.

But the process by which things are brought back to this state when they happen to deviate from it, is, at least outwardly, not the same in a barter system and in a money system. Under the first, the country which wants more imports than its exports will pay for, must offer its exports at a cheaper rate, as the sole means of creating a demand for them sufficient to re-establish the equilibrium. When money is used, the country seems to do a thing totally different. She takes the additional imports at the same price as before, and as she exports no equivalent, the balance of payments turns against her; the exchange becomes unfavourable, and the difference has to be paid in money. This is in appearance a very distinct operation from the former. Let us see if it differs in its essence, or only in its mechanism.

Let the country which has the balance to pay be England, and the country which receives it, France. By this transmission of the precious metals, the quantity of the currency is diminished in England, and increased in France. This I am at liberty to assume. As we shall see hereafter, it would be a very erroneous assumption if made in regard to all payments of international balances. A balance which has only to be paid once, such as the payment made for an extra importation of corn in a season of dearth, may be paid from hoards, or from the reserves of bankers, without acting on the circulation. But we are now supposing that there is an excess of imports over exports, arising from the fact that the equation of international demand is not yet established: that there is at the ordinary prices a permanent demand in England for more French goods than the English goods required in France at the ordinary prices will pay for. When this is the case, if a change were not made in the prices, there would be a perpetually renewed balance to be paid in money. The imports require to be permanently diminished, or the exports to be increased; which can only be accomplished through prices; and hence, even if the balances are at first paid from hoards, or by the exportation of bullion, they will reach the circulation at last, for until they do, nothing can stop the drain.

When, therefore, the state of prices is such that the equation of international demand cannot establish itself, the country requiring more imports than can be paid for by the exports; it is a sign that the country has more of the precious metals or their substitutes, in circulation, than can permanently circulate, and must necessarily part with some of them before the balance can be restored. The currency is accordingly contracted: prices fall, and among the rest, the prices of exportable articles; for which, accordingly, there arises, in foreign countries, a greater demand: while imported commodities have possibly risen in price, from the influx of money into foreign countries, and at all events have not participated in the general fall. But until the increased cheapness of English goods induces foreign countries to take a greater pecuniary value, or until the increased dearness (positive or comparative) of foreign goods makes England take a less pecuniary value, the exports of England will be no nearer to paying for the imports than before, and the stream of the precious metals which had begun to flow out of England, will still flow on. This efflux will continue, until the fall of prices in England brings within reach of the foreign market some commodity which England did not previously send thither; or until the reduced price of the things which she did send, has forced a demand abroad for a sufficient quantity to pay for the imports, aided, perhaps, by a reduction of the English demand for foreign goods, through their enhanced price, either positive or comparative.

Now this is the very process which took place on our original supposition of barter. Not only, therefore, does the trade between nations tend to the same equilibrium between exports and imports, whether money is employed or not, but the means by which this equilibrium is established are essentially the same. The country whose exports are not sufficient to pay for her imports, offers them on cheaper terms, until she succeeds in forcing the necessary demand: in other words, the Equation of International Demand, under a money system as well as under a barter system, is the law of international trade. Every country exports and imports the very same things, and in the very same quantity, under the one system as under the other. In a barter system, the trade gravitates to the point at which the sum of the imports exactly exchanges for the sum of the exports: in a money system, it gravitates to the point at which the sum of the imports and the sum of the exports exchange for the same quantity of money. And since things which are equal to the same thing are equal to one another, the exports and imports which are equal in money price, would, if money were not used, precisely exchange for one another. 1

§2. It thus appears that the law of international values, and, consequently, the division of the advantages of trade among the nations which carry it on, are the same, on the supposition of money, as they would be in a state of barter. In international, as in ordinary domestic interchanges, money is to commerce only what oil is to machinery, or railways to locomotion-a contrivance to diminish friction. In order still further to test these conclusions, let us proceed to re-examine, on the supposition of money, a question which we have already investigated on the hypothesis of barter, namely, to what extent the benefit of an improvement in the production of an exportable article, is participated in by the countries importing it.

The improvement may either consist in the cheapening of some article which was already a staple production of the country, or in the establishment of some new branch of industry, or of some process rendering an article exportable which had not till then been exported at all. It will be convenient to begin with the case of a new export, as being somewhat the simpler of the two.

The first effect is that the article falls in price, and a demand arises for it abroad. This new exportation disturbs the balance, turns the exchanges, money flows into the country (which we shall suppose to be England), and continues to flow until prices rise. This higher range of prices will somewhat check the demand in foreign countries for the new article of export; and diminish the demand which existed abroad for the other things which England was in the habit of exporting. The exports will thus be diminished; while at the same time the English public, having more money, will have a greater power of purchasing foreign commodities. If they make use of this increased power of purchase, there will be an increase of imports: and by this, and the check to exportation, the equilibrium of imports and exports will be restored. The result to foreign countries will be, that they have to pay dearer than before for their other imports, and obtain the new commodity cheaper than before, but not so much cheaper as England herself does. I say this, being well aware that the article would be actually at the very same price (cost of carriage excepted) in England and in other countries. The cheapness, however, of the article is not measured solely by the money-price, but by that price compared with the money incomes of the consumers. The price is the same to the English and to the foreign consumers; but the former pay that price from money incomes which have been increased by the new distribution of the precious metals; while the latter have had their money incomes probably diminished by the same cause. The trade, therefore, has not imparted to the foreign consumer the whole, but only a portion, of the benefit which the English consumer has derived from the improvement; while England has also benefited in the prices of foreign commodities. Thus, then, any industrial improvement which leads to the opening of a new branch of export trade, benefits a country not only by the cheapness of the article in which the improvement has taken place, but by a general cheapening of all imported products.

Let us now change the hypothesis, and suppose that the improvement, instead of creating a new export from England, cheapens an existing one. When we examined this case on the supposition of barter, it appeared to us that the foreign consumers might either obtain the same benefit from the improvement as England herself, or a less benefit, or even a greater benefit, according to the degree in which the consumption of the cheapened article is calculated to extend itself as the article diminishes in price. The same conclusions will be found true on the supposition of money.

Let the commodity in which there is an improvement, be cloth. The first effect of the improvement is that its price falls, and there is an increased demand for it in the foreign market. But this demand is of uncertain amount. Suppose the foreign consumers to increase their purchases in the exact ratio of the cheapness, or in other words, to lay out in cloth the same sum of money as before, the same aggregate payment as before will be due from foreign countries to England; the equilibrium of exports and imports will remain undisturbed, and foreigners will obtain the full advantage of the increased cheapness of cloth. But if the foreign demand for cloth is of such a character as to increase in a greater ratio than the cheapness, a larger sum than formerly will be due to England for cloth, and when paid will raise English prices, the price of cloth included; this rise, however, will affect only the foreign purchaser, English incomes being raised in a corresponding proportion; and the foreign consumer will thus derive a less advantage than England from the improvement. If, on the contrary, the cheapening of cloth does not extend the foreign demand for it in a proportional degree, a less sum of debts than before will be due to England for cloth, while there will be the usual sum of debts due from England to foreign countries; the balance of trade will turn against England, money will be exported, prices (that of cloth included) will fall, and cloth will eventually be cheapened to the foreign purchaser in a still greater ratio, than the improvement has cheapened it to England. These are the very conclusions which we deduced on the hypothesis of barter.

The result of the preceding discussion cannot be better summed up than in the words of Ricardo.2 “Gold and silver having been chosen for the general medium of circulation, they are, by the competition of commerce, distributed in such proportions amongst the different countries of the world as to accommodate themselves to the natural traffic which would take place if no such metals existed, and the trade between countries were purely a trade of barter.” Of this principle, so fertile in consequences, previous to which the theory of foreign trade was an unintelligible chaos, Mr. Ricardo, though he did not pursue it into its ramifications, was the real originator. No writer who preceded him appears to have had a glimpse of it: and few are those who even since his time have had an adequate conception of its scientific value.

§3. It is now necessary to inquire, in what manner this law of the distribution of the precious metals by means of the exchanges, affects the exchange value of money itself; and how it tallies with the law by which we found that the value of money is regulated when imported as a mere article of merchandize. For there is here a semblance of contradiction, which has, I think, contributed more than anything else to make some distinguished political economists resist the evidence of the preceding doctrines. Money, they justly think, is no exception to the general laws of value; it is a commodity like any other, and its average or natural value must depend on the cost of producing, or at least of obtaining it. That its distribution through the world, therefore, and its different value in different places, should be liable to be altered, not by causes affecting itself, but by a hundred causes unconnected with it; by everything which affects the trade in other commodities, so as to derange the equilibrium of exports and imports; appears to these thinkers a doctrine altogether inadmissible.

But the supposed anomaly exists only in semblance. The causes which bring money into or carry it out of a country through the exchanges, to restore the equilibrium of trade, and which thereby raise its value in some countries and lower it in others, are the very same causes on which the local value of money would depend, if it were never imported except as a merchandize, and never except directly from the mines. When the value of money in a country is permanently lowered by an influx of it through the balance of trade, the cause, if it is not diminished cost of production, must be one of those causes which compel a new adjustment, more favourable to the country, of the equation of international demand: namely, either an increased demand abroad for her commodities, or a diminished demand on her part for those of foreign countries. Now an increased foreign demand for the commodities of a country, or a diminished demand in the country for imported commodities, are the very causes which, on the general principles of trade, enable a country to purchase all imports, and consequently the precious metals, at a lower value. There is therefore no contradiction, but the most perfect accordance in the results of the two different modes in which the precious metals may be obtained. When money flows from country to country in consequence of changes in the international demand for commodities, and by so doing alters its own local value, it merely realizes, by a more rapid process, the effect which would otherwise take place more slowly, by an alteration in the relative breadth of the streams by which the precious metals flow into different regions of the earth from the mining countries. As therefore we before saw that the use of money as a medium of exchange does not in the least alter the law on which the values of other things, either in the same country or internationally, depend, so neither does it alter the law of the value of the precious metal itself: and there is in the whole doctrine of international values as now laid down, a unity and harmony which is a strong collateral presumption of truth.

§4. Before closing this discussion, it is fitting to point out in what manner and degree the preceding conclusions are affected by the existence of international payments not originating in commerce, and for which no equivalent in either money or commodities is expected or received; such as a tribute, or remittances of rent to absentee landlords, or of interest to foreign creditors, or a government expenditure abroad, such as England incurs in the management of some of her colonial dependencies.

To begin with the case of barter. The supposed annual remittances being made in commodities, and being exports for which there is to be no return, it is no longer requisite that the imports and exports should pay for one another: on the contrary, there must be an annual excess of exports over imports, equal to the value of the remittance. If, before the country became liable to the annual payment, foreign commerce was in its natural state of equilibrium, it will now be necessary for the purpose of effecting the remittance, that foreign countries should be induced to take a greater quantity of exports than before: which can only be done by offering those exports on cheaper terms, or in other words, by paying dearer for foreign commodities. The international values will so adjust themselves that either by greater exports, or smaller imports, or both, the requisite excess on the side of exports will be brought about; and this excess will become the permanent state. The result is that a country which makes regular payments to foreign countries, besides losing what it pays, loses also something more, by the less advantageous terms on which it is forced to exchange its productions for foreign commodities.

The same results follow on the supposition of money. Commerce being supposed to be in a state of equilibrium when the obligatory remittances begin, the first remittance is necessarily made in money. This lowers prices in the remitting country, and rises them in the receiving. The natural effect is that more commodities are exported than before, and fewer imported, and that, on the score of commerce alone, a balance of money will be constantly due from the receiving to the paying country. When the debt thus annually due to the tributary country becomes equal to the annual tribute or other regular payment due from it, no further transmission of money takes place; the equilibrium of exports and imports will no longer exist, but that of payments will; the exchange will be at par, the two debts will be set off against one another, and the tribute or remittance will be virtually paid in goods. The result to the interest of the two countries will be as already pointed out: the paying country will give a higher price for all that it buys from the receiving country, while the latter, besides receiving the tribute, obtains the exportable produce of the tributary country at a lower price.

1 The subjoined extract from the separate Essay previously referred to, will give some assistance in following the course of the phenomena. It is adapted to the imaginary case used for frustration throughout that Essay, the case of a trade between England and Germany in cloth and linen.

“We may, at first, make whatever supposition we will with respect to the value of money. Let us suppose, therefore, that before the opening of the trade, the price of cloth is the same in both countries, namely, six shillings per yard. As ten yards of cloth were supposed to exchange in England for 15 yards of linen, in Germany for 20, we must suppose that linen is sold in England at four shillings per yard, in Germany at three. Cost of carriage and importer’s profit are left, as before, out of consideration.

“In this state of prices, cloth, it is evident, cannot yet be exported from England into Germany: but linen can be imported from Germany into England. It will be so; and, in the first instance, the linen will be paid for in money.

“The efflux of money from England, and its influx into Germany, will raise money prices in the latter country, and lower them in the former. Linen will rise in Germany above three shillings per yard, and cloth above six shillings. Linen in England, being imported from Germany, will (since cost of carriage is not reckoned) sink to the same price as in that country, while cloth will fall below six shillings. As soon as the price of cloth is lower in England than in Germany, it will begin to be exported, and the price of cloth in Germany will fall to what it is in England. As long as the cloth exported does not suffice to pay for the linen imported, money will continue to flow from England into Germany, and prices generally will continue to fall in England and rise in Germany. By the fall, however, of cloth in England, cloth will fall in Germany also, and the demand for it will increase. By the rise of linen in Germany, linen must rise in England also, and the demand for it will diminish. As cloth fell in price and linen rose, there would be some particular price of both articles at which the cloth exported and the linen imported would exactly pay for each other. At this point prices would remain, because money would then cease to move out of England into Germany. What this point might be, would entirely depend upon the circumstances and inclinations of the purchasers on both sides. If the fall of cloth did not much increase the demand for it in Germany, and the rise of linen did not diminish very rapidly the demand for it in England, much money must pass before the equilibrium is restored; cloth would fall very much, and linen would rise, until England, perhaps, had to pay nearly as much for it as when she produced it for herself. But if, on the contrary, the fall of cloth caused a very rapid increase of the demand for it in Germany, and the rise of linen in Germany reduced very rapidly the demand in England from what it was under the influence of the first cheapness produced by the opening of the trade; the cloth would very soon suffice to pay for the linen, little money would pass between the two countries, and England would derive a large portion of the benefit of the trade. We have thus arrived at precisely the same conclusion, in supposing the employment of money, which we found to hold under the supposition of barter.

“In what shape the benefit accrues to the two nations from the trade is clear enough. Germany, before the commencement of the trade, paid six shillings per yard for broadcloth: she now obtains it at a lower price. This, however, is not the whole of her advantage. As the money-prices of all her other commodities have risen, the money-incomes of all her producers have increased. This is no advantage to them in buying from each other, because the price of what they buy has risen in the same ratio with their means of paying for it: but it is an advantage to them in buying anything which has not risen, and, still more, anything which has fallen. They, therefore, benefit as consumers of cloth, not merely to the extent to which cloth has fallen, but also to the extent to which other prices have risen. Suppose that this is one-tenth. The same proportion of their [48 these] money-incomes as before, will suffice to supply their other wants; and the remainder, being increased one-tenth in amount, will enable them to purchase one-tenth more cloth than before, even though cloth had not fallen: but it has fallen; so that they are doubly gainers. They purchase the same quantity with less money, and have more to expend upon their other wants.

“In England, on the contrary, general money-prices have fallen. Linen, however, has fallen more than the rest, having been lowered in price by importation from a country where it was cheaper; whereas the others have fallen only from the consequent efflux of money. Notwithstanding, therefore, the general fall of money-prices, the English producers will be exactly as they were in all other respects, while they will gain as purchasers of linen.

“The greater the efflux of money required to restore the equilibrium, the greater will be the gain of Germany, both by the fall of cloth and by the rise of her general prices. The less the efflux of money requisite, the greater will be the gain of England; because the price of linen will continue lower, and her general prices will not be reduced so much. It must not, however, be imagined that high money-prices are a good, and low money-prices an evil, in themselves. But the higher the general money-prices in any country, the Neater will be that country’s means of purchasing those commodities which, being imported from abroad, are independent of the causes which keep prices high at home.”

In practice, the cloth and the linen would not, as here supposed, be at the same price in England and in Germany: each would be dearer in money-price in the country which imported than in that which produced it, by the amount of the cost of carriage, together with the ordinary profit on the importer’s capital for the average length of time which elapsed before the commodity could be disposed of. But it does not follow that each country pays the cost of carriage of the commodity it imports; for the addition of this item to the price may operate as a greater check to demand on one side than on the other; and the equation of international demand, and consequent equilibrium of payments, may not be maintained. Money would then flow out of one country into the other, until, in the manner already illustrated, the equilibrium was restored: and, when this was effected, one country would be paying more than its own cost of carriage, and the other less.

2 Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, 3rd. ed. p. 143.

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