The Virtue of Thrift

From the London Times

LORD ROSEBERY March 1 1909

The Virtue of Thrift

From the London Times

LORD ROSEBERY March 1 1909

The Virtue of Thrift

LORD ROSEBERY From the London Times

THRIFT is one of those virtues— there are, perhaps, more than we think—which it is much easier to preach about than to practise. To a Scotchman our reputation in the world being what it is, it would seem almost like carrying coals to Newcastle to advocate thrift in any shape or form. I will content myself with repeating in the words of Shakespeare—and they comprehend, after all, the whole truth of the matter—that thrift is blessed, not merely because of the accumulation of substance, but because of the foundation and strengthening of character. My definition of thrift will be this—getting full value for your money and looking ahead ; but, of course, the historic definition which has given so much comfort and encouragement to thousands is that of Mr. Micawber. What did Mr. Micawber say to David Copperfield on a famous occasion ? “Annual income £20, annual expenditure £19 19s. 6d. ; result, happiness.” “Annual income £20, annual expenditure £20 os. 6d. ; result, misery.” I suppose that that is practically true. It means in reality that a man who is beforehand with the world, in however small a degree, occupies a very different position, relatively to the rest of the world, from the man who is

behindhand with it to however small an extent. Of course, from the financial point of view of thrift, all know very well that it is the foundation of all opulence, all prosperity, even of those colossal fortunes which we hear of in America, but which we never realize in this country.

It is perfectly true, I think, that Mr. Andrew Carnegie, who began in the very humblest circumstances of life in the Town of Dunfermline, has worked his way up to a colossal fortune, which I cannot attempt to estimate, but which I know by his beneficent expenditure must be enormous, mainly by beginning with thrift. Recently in the newspapers we had another example of a lad who landed in South Carolina 63 years ago with 12s. in his pocket and died leaving ten millions sterling. I do not mean to argue—I am not such a fool as to argue—that it was by mere thrift that these colossal fortunes have been accumulated ; but I am going to argue, and it is my profound faith, that they were in the commencement founded on thrift, and nothing but thrift. A small but substantial sum was accumulated, which was so utilized by the genius of speculation as to amass these enormous fortunes.

Now, I want to make an exception

before I go any further. Whatever thrift is, it is not avarice. There is a broad distinction between thrift and avarice. Mr. Micwaber in his definition expressly, as it seems to me, excludes avarice, because the accumulation of sixpence at the end of the year, which he indicates as amounting to happiness, would certainly not satisfy any dream of avarice. But avarice is not generous, and, after all, it is the thrifty people who are generous. All true generosity can only proceed from thrift because it is no generosity to give money which does not belong to you, as is the case with the unthrifty; and I venture to say that of all the great philanthropists, all the great financial benefactors of their species of whom we have any record, the most generous have been thrifty men.

Let us pass from the financial value of thrift, which to me is not the greatest, to that which results in the formation of character. I know that many people, when they read speeches about thrift, say: “How can the poor be

thrifty? They have nothing to be thrifty upon.” Now the exact reverse of the case is true. Strangely enough, we have proof to the contrary in that, by the experience of Edinburgh, of Glasgow, of Manchester, and other cities—it has been found that periods of stress, and not periods of prosperity, have been the most favorable for thrift. But the case of Scotland is a much more emphatic illustration of this than any particular savings bank, in however large a town it may be situated in Scotland. The 18th century, the time of perhaps her direst poverty—at any rate, as compared with other countries in the world— was the period of her greatest thrift. One hundred and twenty years ago there were probably not more than £200,000 or £300.000 of current coin in the whole of Scotland. When you compare that with $14,000,000 of deposits in the two savings banks of Edinburgh and Glasgow you may arrive at some computation as to the difference of prosperity between the

Scotland of to-day and the Scotland of that time. But that was the time of Scotland’s greatest thrift. It was the time when her whole current coinage did not amount, it is calculated, to £300,000; so much so, that in those days we read that the one great object of the Scottish peasant was thrift, not for the sake of livelihood, but for the sake of his funeral. To amass enough money to obtain a decent funeral was calculated, I think, at about £2. These patient and self-denying people amassed enough for that event in their lives. They toiled and spun and spared themselves for that purpose, and, much more than that, they maintained their own aged, their own parents, their own relations. They thought it a shame to take any money from the public, and their spirit of independence is, at least, equal to any spirit of independence that we boast of now. They scorned State assistance ; they scorned that any should maintain their families but themselves. They gave a little surplus in charity, for there were plenty of recipients in the beggars and tinkers of the road. The nation at large was thrifty, independent, self-respecting to a degree known, perhaps, in no other nation at no other period in the world.

When things were in this impoverished state in Scotland the Scots were a source of terror to their southern countrymen. Only the other day I lit upon a caricature—an English caricature, I need hardly say—dated 1780, ten years after the time I am writing of, when the current coin was so small in number. The caricature represents a Scotsman only half clad, with his shoes on one shoulder and an essential part of his dress on the other, barefooted, on his way to England, and underneath it was written :

“The savage’s breeks are on his shoulders

So plainly seen by all beholders,

Half starved, half naked, but one shoe ;

Yet by and by he’ll ride o’er you.”

Our great grandfathers—my great

grandfather, at any rate, was living at that time and in possession of his estate—our great grandfathers did great things in those days on a mess of pottage. They had no more, but with it they helped to mold the Empire. They maintained their poor without legal compulsion ; they sought nothing from external help, and they laid, in their nakedness and their barrenness, the foundations of the prosperity which reigns in Scotland at the present moment. None of us would care to live as they did. Some of the poorest in our country would shrink from the manner of life which was endured by some of the noblest in those days. We should not care to share their privations, but we should not be unwilling to be convinced that we possess their independence, their self-reliance and their self-respect, and I regard that as the greatest blessing resulting out of thrift—independence of character. Whether Scottish pride arose out of Scottish thrift, or whether Scottish thrift arose out of Scottish pride, I really cannot decide ; but they are closely intertwined, so closely that you cannot, perhaps, separate them. But, at any rate, the combination produced a character that has governed the country.

When we talk of thrift producing character we are equally at a loss to know whether it is not thrift that is a sign of character. Thrift means care, foresight, tenderness for those dependent on us. Whether those qualities produce thrift or whether they are produced by thrift, I will not venture to say; but, at any rate, of this I am certain, that they are inseparably intertwined. You remember what the last words were of Oliver Goldsmith, one of the greatest geniuses that ever lived in this island. You remember he wrote the “Vicar of Wakefield,” that masterpiece which has survived so many masterpieces—he wrote the “Vicar of Wakefield,” if I remember aright, to pay ofif a creditor, his landlady, or another, and he was always in financial difficulties. When he lay dying,

some one said to him, “Is your mind at ease?” He replied, “No, it is not.” Those were his last recorded words. You may be quite sure that if he had united genius to thrift his last words would have been something very different. But I said a moment ago that it was a question rather of how can the poor be thrifty. I will not go into the question except to say that I think that I have demonstrated that it has been in the power of the poorest to be thrifty in our country in the past.

But there is, at any rate, one sort of thrift which is in the power of the very poorest, and which is to refrain from waste. If I wanted to train a child to be thrifty, I should teach him to abhor waste. I do not mean waste of money. That cures itself because very soon there is no money to waste, but I mean waste of material, waste of something which is useful, which may not represent any money value to the waster. There is waste of what does not belong to us, which is a very common form of waste. There is a waste of water. I am not speaking of the waste caused by the pollution of rivers, though that, perhaps, is the most criminal form of waste which exists in our midst. There is not a river which flows round Edinburgh that is not hopelessly and wantonly polluted, so that it cannot be used for any cleanly purpose. I am not speaking of waste of water in that way, but waste in private families among individuals, a waste of that precious element which compels Edinburgh to go seeking every 20 years or so for a new source of water supply.

I remember being a member of a small municipality of a small town in the south of England. When this question of waste came before us we found that water was allowed to run, and that every form of waste was indulged in, because it cost nothing, and so the result was a water famine that summer. Again, let us take the waste of gas and things of that kind. I believe that the Edinburgh town council recently adopted a stringent measure

for the prevention of the waste of gas —but I am not resident in the city, and so have not experienced this rigor; but, at any rate, we all of us must see that there is a constant waste of things which cost nothing to waste, and this is in reality an offence against ourselves and against the economy of the whole world. Now, if you teach your children to be thrifty, I would beg you to impress on them the criminality of waste.

Now what is the example we learn from great men in this respect? I will take three foremost men of their

countries in the last century and a half. I will take Washington, Frederick the Great and Napoleon— Washington as thrifty a man of business as ever lived; Frederick the Great, more than thrifty; Napoleon, thrifty in detail to the utmost possible extent. And then I take three other names—three names familiar to us Scotsmen, three names of great Scotsmen, and there I find more difficulty. I take Burns, Walter Scott and Gladstone. Of course, the toughest nut to crack is Burns. We, worshippers of Burns, are not accustomed to

think of him as thrifty; and, undoubtedly, from some points of view, he was not thrifty, though he had uncommonly little to be thrifty upon. But no one can see the enormous output of work that Burns did without seeing that he must have had a great thrift of time which is, perhaps, the most important form in which we can be thrifty. But I will abandon Burns as a difficult subject. Walter Scott, as we know, died ruined, but Walter Scott was eminently thrifty. The trouble with Walter Scott was that he was ambitious and endeavored to found too large a structure upon his labor. His thrift went into business which he did not understand, and, therefore, the whole structure toppled over. Of Mr. Gladstone I can speak from personal knowledge. There was no man so careful and thrifty in his expenditure, combined with great generosity and liberality. But no man who ever saw that great man at work could believe that it was anything but a sin to waste anything, especially time.

Now I want to refer to a larger sphere of thrift; and that, after all, is the main point on which I wish to insist. All great empires have been thrifty. All great empires that were meant to continue, to abide, were thrifty. Taking the Roman Empire, which, in some respects, as a centred empire, was the greatest in history, it lay like an iron clamp upon the face of the world. It was founded on thrift. When it ceased to be thrifty it degenerated and came to an end. Take the case of Prussia. It began with a little, narrow strip of sand in the North of Europe—“all sting,” as some one said from its shape and the fact that its inhabitants were almost all armed men—and it was nurtured by the thrift of Frederick the Great’s father, who prepared a vast treasure and a vast army by an economy which we should call sordid, but which was the weapon by which the greatness of Prussia was founded, and from which the present German Empire has

arisen. Take the case of France. In my humble belief France is in reality the most frugal of all nations. I am not sure that the French always put their money into the savings banks, and, therefore, they do not figure so well in the proportion of depositors to the nation as some others may do ; but, after the disastrous year of 1870, when France was crushed for a time by a foreign enemy and by a money imposition which it seemed almost impossible that any nation could pay, what happened? The stockings of the French peasantry, in which they had kept their savings of years, were emptied into the chest of the State and that huge indemnity and that war expense was paid off in a time incredibly short. The other two nations that I have spoken of were made by their thrift, but France was saved by her thrift.

Now we come to our beloved country. What are we to say of her in the way of thrift. T am bound to say that, speaking from that external point of view, I am not quite sure that thrift is a governing consideration of our Parliament at this moment. To such a degree has this absence of thrift proceeded that it is now a subject of joy to the economist that votes are passed under the guillotine, because, when any vote comes up for discussion, there is no question of its diminution, but a hundred voices for its increase; and, therefore, although politicians are apt to complain of so many votes and so much expenditure being pased under the rigid rule of silence imposed by the guillotine, the economist secretly rejoices that such is the case. I do think that it is wise for those who have the government of our affairs to remember that great empires only live as long as they are thrifty. The moment that they begin to waste or disperse their resources the day of their end is at hand ; and that is a fact abundantly proved in history—proved up to the hilt, I think, by all the examples which T have given you.