Montesquieu
 

XX.21 To which nations it is disadvantageous to engage in commerce

Wealth consists in lands or mova­ble assets ; the lands in every coun­try are ordi­na­rily owned by its inha­bi­tants. Most sta­tes have laws that deter forei­gners from acqui­ring their lands. Indeed only the pre­sence of the land­lord can pro­perly exploit them : this kind of wealth the­re­fore belongs to each state sepa­ra­tely. But mobile assets, such as money, notes, bills of exchange, stock in com­pa­nies, ves­sels, all kinds of mer­chan­dise, belong to the entire world, which in this rela­tion­ship cons­ti­tu­tes one sin­gle state of which all socie­ties are the mem­bers ; the peo­ple that pos­ses­ses the most of these mobile world assets is the weal­thiest. Some sta­tes have an immense quan­tity of them ; they each acquire them with their pro­ducts, with the labor of their wor­kers, with their enter­prise, their dis­co­ve­ries, and even by chance. The ava­rice of nations vies for the mobile assets of the entire world. There might be a state so unfa­vo­red as to be depri­ved of the assets of other coun­tries, and fur­ther, even of almost all of its own : there the owners of land will be just colo­nia­lists of forei­gners. That state will be short of eve­ry­thing and una­ble to acquire any­thing ; it would be much bet­ter off having no trade with any nation on earth : it is trade which, in its cir­cum­stan­ces, has led it to poverty.

A coun­try that always ships out less mer­chan­dise or com­mo­di­ties than it takes in keeps itself in balance by impo­ve­ri­shing itself : it will take in less and less until, in extreme poverty, it takes in nothing more.

In tra­ding coun­tries, the money that has sud­denly vani­shed returns, because the sta­tes that have recei­ved it also owe it ; but in the sta­tes of which we are spea­king, the money never returns, because those who have taken it owe nothing.

Poland will serve as exam­ple here. She has almost none of the things that we are cal­ling mobile glo­bal assets, except per­haps the grains from her fields. Some lords own entire pro­vin­ces ; they press the labo­rer so as to obtain a lar­ger quan­tity of grain which they can send abroad and pro­cure for them­sel­ves the things which their luxury requi­res. If Poland did not trade with any nation, its peo­ple would be bet­ter off. Its gran­dees, who would have only their grain, would give it to their pea­sants to live on ; they would find unduly large domains bur­den­some : they would divide them up among their pea­sants ; with eve­ryone having access to pelts or wool in his herds, there would no lon­ger be a huge expen­di­ture to make for clo­thing ; the gran­dees, who always love luxury, and who would be able to find it only in their own coun­try, would urge the poor to work. I say that this nation would flou­rish more, unless she became bar­ba­ric, some­thing which the laws could pre­vent.

Now let us consi­der Japan. The exces­sive quan­tity of what it can take in pro­du­ces the exces­sive quan­tity of what it can ship out : things will be in balance as if impor­ta­tion and expor­ta­tion were mode­rate. Moreover, this sort of expan­sion will pro­duce a thou­sand advan­ta­ges for the state : there will be more consump­tion, more things to which the arts can be applied, more men employed, more means of acqui­ring might ; there may occur cases where a quick res­cue is nee­ded, which a state so abun­dant can pro­vide bet­ter than ano­ther. It is unli­kely that any coun­try is without super­fluous items ; but it is the nature of trade to make super­fluous things use­ful, and use­ful things neces­sary. The state will the­re­fore be able to pro­vide the neces­sary things to a grea­ter num­ber of sub­jects.

Let us say, then, that it is not the nations that need nothing that lose out by enga­ging in com­merce ; it is those that need eve­ry­thing. It is not the peo­ples who are self-suf­fi­cient, but those who have nothing at home, who find it advan­ta­geous to deal with no one.