It would have been impossible for political economists long to have endured the error spoken of in the text, (1) had they not been confused by an idea, in part well founded, that the energies and refinements, as well as the riches of civilized life arose from imaginary wants. It is quite true, that the savage who knows no needs but those of food, shelter, and sleep, and after he has snared his venison and patched the rents of his hut, passes the rest of his time in animal repose, is in a lower state than the man who labours incessantly that he may procure for himself the luxuries of civilization; and true also, that the difference between one and another nation in progressive power depends in great part on vain desires; but these idle motives are merely to be considered as giving exercise to the national body and mind; they are not sources of wealth, except so far as they give the habits of industry and acquisitiveness. If a boy is clumsy and lazy, we shall do good if we can persuade him to carve cherrystones and fly kites; and this use of his fingers and limbs may eventually be the cause of his becoming a wealthy and happy man; but we must not therefore argue that cherrystones are valuable property, or that kite-flying is a profitable mode of passing time. In like manner, a nation always wastes its time and labour directly, when it invents a new want of a frivolous kind, and yet the invention of such a want may be the sign of a healthy activity, and the labour undergone to satisfy the new want may lead, indirectly, to useful discoveries or to noble arts; so that a nation is not to be discouraged in its fancies when it is either too weak or foolish to be moved to exertion by anything but fancies, or has attended to its serious business first. If a nation will not forge iron, but likes distilling lavender, by all means give it lavender to distil; only do not let its economists suppose that lavender is as profitable to it as oats, or that it helps poor people to live, any more than the schoolboy's kite provides him his dinner. Luxuries, whether national or personal, must be paid for by labour withdrawn from useful things; and no nation has a right to indulge in them until all its poor are comfortably housed and fed.
The enervating influence of luxury, and its tendencies to increase vice, are points which I keep entirely out of consideration in the present essay; but, so far as they bear on any question discussed, they merely furnish additional evidence on the side which I have taken. Thus, in the present case, I assume that the luxuries of civilized life are in possession harmless, and in acquirement, serviceable as a motive for exertion; and even on these favourable terms, we arrive at the conclusion that the nation ought not to indulge in them except under severe limitations. Much less ought it to indulge in them if the temptation consequent on their possession, or fatality incident to their manufacture, more than counterbalances the good done by the effort to obtain them.