David Ricardo’s Economic Theory is Sound Doctrine


David Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy and Taxation was first published by John Murray in 1817 and remained the classic statement of economic theory for at least a hundred years. It is always wise to look at Ricardo’s doctrine when faced with a new economic situation. Two quotations from the Principles seem particularly relevant at the present time. The first concerns the difficulties caused by excess debt, if it reaches the point of reducing the future freedom of action of a government:

“If, on the breaking out of any future war, we shall not have very considerably reduced our debt, one of two things must happen, either the whole expense of that war must be defrayed by taxes raised from year to year, or we must, at the end of that war, if not before, submit to a national bankruptcy; not that we shall be unable to bear any large additions to the debt; it would be difficult to set limits to the powers of a great nation; but assuredly there are limits to the price, which in the form of perpetual taxation, individuals will submit to pay for the privilege merely of living in their nation country.” (Ricardo, Principles, Ed. Straffa, p.249).

Gordon Brown has no intention of embarking on a new war, though he has defence commitments in Afghanistan, but he has failed to foresee that a large deficit makes it more difficult to support future deficits. They will be harder to meet by borrowing and they will result in levels of taxation which will discourage enterprise and possibly lead to migration.

On page 356 there is the statement on which the nineteenth century gold standard was based:
“Experience, however, shows that neither a State nor a Bank ever have had the unrestricted power of issuing paper money, without abusing that power; in all States, therefore, the issue of paper money ought to be under some check and control; and none seems so proper for that purpose as that of subjecting the issues of paper money to the obligation of paying their notes, either in gold or bullion.”

Under the gold standard, national governments had to regulate the issue of money by the discipline of convertibility into gold. William Stanley Jevons published his book on Money in 1873 – 58 years after Ricardo. He quotes Daniel Webster’s observation about the U.S.: “We have suffered more from paper money than from every other cause or calamity. It has killed and caused more injustice than even the arms and artifices of our enemy.” Jevons also observes, in his own right: The principle objections to “inconvertible paper currency are two in number,. 1. The great temptations which it offers to over issue and consequent depreciation. 2. The impossibility of varying its importance in accordance with the requirements of trade.”

The essential qualification of an exchange system in classical Ricardian economic theory is therefore one of convertibility. The value of a currency is determined by its relative scarcity, and its relative scarcity is determined by its convertibility at a fixed rate into a fixed commodity; the Victorian economists regarded gold as the most convenient commodity, and the one which had the nearest to a stable rate of production.

There is a growing feeling that the present economic crisis requires a stabilisation of national currencies against some sort of world currency. The Chinese Government is interested in a world currency system such as Maynard Keynes advocated at Bretton Woods in 1944. The Russians have called for a partial restoration of a gold based system. In The Daily Telegraph of March 30th, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard reports that Arkady Dvorkevich, the Kremlin’s Chief Economic Adviser, has stated that Russia “favours the inclusion of gold bullion in the basket-weighting of a new gold currency based on ‘Special Drawing Rights’ issued by the International Monetary Fund.”

Historically, the world has moved in the course of a century from the pre-1914 gold standard, which was a system of classical discipline based on convertibility into gold, through a succession of floating rates, with the ultimate American convertibility into gold broken in 1971. As Jevons observed, an inconvertible floating paper money is in practice extremely liable to over-issue, leading to inflation. In the absence of convertibility at a fixed rate, a currency degenerates into mere paper. The Russians are the second largest gold producer, and are also major oil and gas producers. Naturally, they would like gold to play a part in any bundle of assets on which a new world currency might be based. We are in an early stage of a new exchange debate. What is interesting is that the debate has started with big power participation from China and Russia.

William Rees-Mogg
for The Daily Reckoning Australia

William Rees-Mogg
Leading political editor William Rees-Mogg is former editor-in-chief for The Times and a member of the House of Lords. He has been credited with accurately forecasting glasnost and the fall of the Berlin Wall – as well as the 1987 crash. His political commentary appears in The Times every Monday. His financial insights can only be found in the Fleet Street Letter, the UK's longest-running investment newsletter.


  1. Our enormous trade deficit is rightly of growing concern to Americans. Since leading the global drive toward trade liberalization by signing the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1947, America has been transformed from the wealthiest nation on earth – its preeminent industrial power – into a skid row bum, literally begging the rest of the world for cash to keep us afloat. It’s a disgusting spectacle. Our cumulative trade deficit since 1976, financed by a sell-off of American assets, exceeds $9.2 trillion. What will happen when those assets are depleted? Today’s recession is the answer.

    Why? The American work force is the most productive on earth. Our product quality, though it may have fallen short at one time, is now on a par with the Japanese. Our workers have labored tirelessly to improve our competitiveness. Yet our deficit continues to grow. Our median wages and net worth have declined for decades. Our debt has soared.

    Clearly, there is something amiss with “free trade.” The concept of free trade is rooted in Ricardo’s principle of comparative advantage. In 1817 Ricardo hypothesized that every nation benefits when it trades what it makes best for products made best by other nations. On the surface, it seems to make sense. But is it possible that this theory is flawed in some way? Is there something that Ricardo didn’t consider?

    At this point, I should introduce myself. I am author of a book titled “Five Short Blasts: A New Economic Theory Exposes The Fatal Flaw in Globalization and Its Consequences for America.” My theory is that, as population density rises beyond some optimum level, per capita consumption begins to decline. This occurs because, as people are forced to crowd together and conserve space, it becomes ever more impractical to own many products. Falling per capita consumption, in the face of rising productivity (per capita output, which always rises), inevitably yields rising unemployment and poverty.

    This theory has huge ramifications for U.S. policy toward population management (especially immigration policy) and trade. The implications for population policy may be obvious, but why trade? It’s because these effects of an excessive population density – rising unemployment and poverty – are actually imported when we attempt to engage in free trade in manufactured goods with a nation that is much more densely populated. Our economies combine. The work of manufacturing is spread evenly across the combined labor force. But, while the more densely populated nation gets free access to a healthy market, all we get in return is access to a market emaciated by over-crowding and low per capita consumption. The result is an automatic, irreversible trade deficit and loss of jobs, tantamount to economic suicide.

    One need look no further than the U.S.’s trade data for proof of this effect. Using 2006 data, an in-depth analysis reveals that, of our top twenty per capita trade deficits in manufactured goods (the trade deficit divided by the population of the country in question), eighteen are with nations much more densely populated than our own. Even more revealing, if the nations of the world are divided equally around the median population density, the U.S. had a trade surplus in manufactured goods of $17 billion with the half of nations below the median population density. With the half above the median, we had a $480 billion deficit!

    Our trade deficit with China is getting all of the attention these days. But, when expressed in per capita terms, our deficit with China in manufactured goods is rather unremarkable – nineteenth on the list. Our per capita deficit with other nations such as Japan, Germany, Mexico, Korea and others (all much more densely populated than the U.S.) is worse. My point is not that our deficit with China isn’t a problem, but rather that it’s exactly what we should have expected when we suddenly applied a trade policy that was a proven failure around the world to a country with one fifth of the world’s population.

    Ricardo’s principle of comparative advantage is overly simplistic and flawed because it does not take into consideration this population density effect and what happens when two nations grossly disparate in population density attempt to trade freely in manufactured goods. While free trade in natural resources and free trade in manufactured goods between nations of roughly equal population density is indeed beneficial, just as Ricardo predicts, it’s a sure-fire loser when attempting to trade freely in manufactured goods with a nation with an excessive population density.

    If you‘re interested in learning more about this important new economic theory, then I invite you to visit either of my web sites at OpenWindowPublishingCo.com or PeteMurphy.wordpress.com where you can read the preface, join in the blog discussion and, of course, buy the book if you like. (It’s also available at Amazon.com.)

    Please forgive me for the somewhat spammish nature of the previous paragraph, but I don’t know how else to inject this new theory into the debate about trade without drawing attention to the book that explains the theory.

    Pete Murphy
    Author, “Five Short Blasts”

  2. Hello, Bill! Welcome indeed! But isn’t the government support for globalization just another way of getting away from their own regulations? Look at Blair. Bought and paid for, and now getting millions a year. But national loyalties left behind. Ricardo has a lot to say and was relevant, but only in a national context. Fraud, as constituted by inflation and obviously by bubble, can get around national regulation by harbouring those engaged in beggaring their own country. Hence all the jiggery pokery with GloBalls.

    Pat Donnelly
    April 4, 2009
  3. Wow Pete. You came up with that all on your own? I think Thomas Malthus would have your balls for plagiarism. I think you are clouted by your own arrogance. Recessions are normal mechanisms designed to realign economies. Oh and YOUR “net wealth” might be declining but the top echelon of your society is still getting richer. How about you go on whinging about how everything is inequitable till you make it to your 70s and finally realise we can’t live in a Utopic society where everyone has friggin millions of dollars.

    Oh and to piss on your stupid theory a bit more, China has a much higher output in volume terms because it has more people.

    And before you go slating on a pillar of modern economics and how simplified it is, practice a little humility.

    No wonder muslims want islamic law to replace democracy when idiots are given freedom of speech.

    At least we know your book will get bought… for toilet paper.

    Nevada Sierra
    June 3, 2009

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