All Commentary
Monday, March 1, 1971

Thomas Cooper: Early Libertarian

Mr. Cooley is Associate Professor of Economics, Ohio Northern University.

Twenty years before Frederic Bastiat wrote his parable of the broken window, Thomas Cooper was saying to his students at South Carolina College (now Uni­versity of South Carolina):

“Suppose a tailor to get into a law suit and to pay a lawyer fifty dollars for successfully conducting his cause—or to break his leg and pay a surgeon fifty dollars for set­ting it; these payments are pru­dent, and the services rendered fully justify them; but is he the richer for these misfortunes? Even though the lawyer and the surgeon should lay out the fifty dollars with him for a suit of cloaths, it is no compensation, for he furnishes the cloaths after having furnished also the money that pays for them. It is melancholy to think that these positions should require to be gravely argued, but the pres­ent state of public opinion requires it.”

Born in London and educated at Oxford, Cooper emigrated to the United States in 1793. A man of strong opinions, he expressed him­self freely on current public ques­tions and was so critical of the Adams Administration that he was arrested and tried under the Sedition Act (the Alien and Sedi­tion acts are usually bracketed to­gether). Cooper believed the act was unconstitutional, and the court so held. He later wrote a book on freedom of speech.

Cooper practiced law in Penn­sylvania and became a judge. On recommendation of Thomas Jef­ferson, he was appointed profes­sor of natural science and law at the University of Virginia. From there he went to South Carolina College, where he taught chemis­try and political economy. A man of parts, he was made president of the institution, a post he held for 12 years.

Champion of Free Trade

While head of South Carolina College, Cooper published his Lec­tures on the Elements of Political Economy, a comprehensive treatise expounding the classical economics in a forthright manner. With es­pecial vehemence, he championed free trade. One can imagine this did not detract from his popularity in a state that put great store upon the export of cotton to Great Britain and the import there from of manufactured goods. Indeed, Cooper appears to have been hardly less influential than John C. Calhoun in egging on the South CaroliniansWashington‘s efforts to enforce racial integration. to declare, in 1832, that the Federal tariff laws were null and void in their state. On the basis of the theory of state nullification, the doctrine of inter­position has been put forward in recent years by Southerners who resented.

For the most part, Cooper took his economics straight from Adam Smith. The private enterpriser knows best—far better than any government official—how to use his resources. Let self-interest reign. “If every man in the coun­try trades beneficially for himself, he trades beneficially for the com­munity, which does not exist inde­pendently of the individuals who compose it.”’

Governments should be kept small. “The dreadful evil of all governments (I wish I could ex­cept our own) is the evil of gov­erning too much.”

All laws, suggested Cooper, should be reconsidered every ten years and, if found unnecessary, repealed. This recalls Jefferson‘s proposal that the Constitution should be reconsidered and over­hauled every 20 years.

Cooper warned especially of the “general welfare” clause of the Constitution: “There is no tyranny that it will not authorize.”

But it is against government strictures on foreign trade that he waxed most eloquent. “Shallow politicians have… acted on the shop-keeping maxim that what one nation gains by commerce, some other loses. The fact is otherwise; each gets its wants supplied and both are gainers.”

He attacked the “infant indus­try” argument for protective tariffs, saying that this theory seeks to justify injuring consum­ers in the present for the hypo­thetical benefit of producers that might be employed by the pro­tected industry in future.

Friedrich List, then sojourning in America, took critical notice of Cooper and his free trade opinions, implying that he was little less than an anarchist. List himself, it will be remembered, was an early promoter of the customs union which established free trade be­tween the German states—but def­initely not with the outside world.

Champion of Foreign Trade

Cooper felt that even Adam Smith had conceded too much to the protectionists. Smith had held that it might be advisable to pro­tect an industry whose product promised to be of strategic impor­tance in war. Cooper held that such products would not be wanting for they would be stockpiled by a provident government, and in any case, wars seldom if ever com­pletely isolated a country from foreign sources of strategic goods.

The great service of the science of Political Economy, he said, was to teach the importance of free world trade. The following are hardly the words of an anarchist:

“If Political Economy had ren­dered no other service to mankind than to make them just and rea­sonable in this respect (in respect to foreign trade), it would be of incalculable benefit. It has taught us that human improvement and national prosperity are not pro­moted in any particular nation by depressing every other but by aid­ing, encouraging, and promoting the welfare of every nation around us; that we are all in turn cus­tomers to each other, and that no man or nation can become wealthy by impoverishing his customers; (that) the richer other nations are, the more they are enabled to purchase, the cheaper they can af­ford to sell, the more improved they become in all the arts of liv­ing, in all intellectual acquirement, in everything desirable for other nations to imitate or improve upon; that if other nations become powerful by our assistance, we also of necessity become wealthy and powerful by our intercourse with them; and that peace and good neighborhoods are the means of mutual happiness among nations as among individuals….”

In the Lectures Cooper ranged over the whole area of economic theory. On many facets of the sub­ject, he was far ahead of his time. For example, cost of production, he said, does not determine value of a product. It must be in de­mand. “No purchaser cares a cent what the prime cost of an article is; that is not his lookout. His only enquiry can be, is it worth to me the price asked for it?”

He admitted that the introduc­tion of machines might create un­employment but it would be tem­porary. (He was, of course, as­suming a free labor market). When printing presses were first put into operation in Paris, he said, 6,000 copyists lost their jobs, but “in Paris there are now 60,000 persons who live by printing.”

He attacked the policy of en­dowing corporations with limited liability, holding that since the stockholders are allowed to enjoy unlimited profit, they should also endure whatever losses may be in­curred.

Champion of Private Spending Rather Than Government Spending

There were rudiments of a wel­fare state even then, but Cooper would have none of it. “All relief to persons in this country able to work is absolutely indefensible and wrong,” he said. “Even cases of disability should be left to pri­vate charity….” To combat pov­erty, he urged the “modern remedy of Savings Banks,” and suggested that the clergy teach people to save and accumulate deposits in such banks. He was, perhaps, aware that the first savings bank in the British Isles had been established by a Scottish dominion and that the first such banks in the United States were founded, not for profit, but for a charitable purpose.

He condemned Sir Robert Peel’s suggestion that a national debt might be a “national blessing” (Alexander Hamilton had averred as much) and argued that there was no merit in government spend­ing as compared with private spending. To the extent that spending benefited the spender, it benefited society.

However, he was not averse to all public works. Whether govern­ment should undertake a public work or not, he held, depends on how great a public benefit it is and whether it is too costly for in­dividuals. Then follows a state­ment which showed that he was quite familiar with the principle of cost-benefit analysis. “The guid­ing rule ought to be that an under­taking which is not likely at an early period of its completion to insure at least legal interest upon the capital expended after all de­duction is not deserving of public encouragement. I think many of our canal schemes liable to this objection. Money can be laid out so as to produce this return. It is therefore misapplied when it does not. Wait until it will.”

Lawyer, chemist, political phi­losopher, the versatile Cooper was pre-eminently an economist. He saw the importance of “political economy” in determining the course of this country’s history. Written at a time when texts in that subject were few, his Lec­tures must have made consider­able impress on American think­ing.

John Adams described him as “a learned, ingenious, scientific and talented madcap.” Certainly he was outspoken. Unorthodox ut­terances regarding religion are said to have brought about an end to his career at South Carolina College. He died in 1839.



Common Sense

The percentage of correct decisions which individuals make is very high when they are risking their own money and their own future. The percentage of correct decisions is very low when made by politicians, so-called intellectuals, and others, regardless of their intelligence, who are not faced with the discipline of having to pay for their own mistakes with their own earnings.

This is a major reason for the success of free enterprise and the free market. The percentage of correct decisions made by individ­uals directly increases and is higher as they directly participate in the results of those decisions, whether good or bad. Individuals participating in this way quickly learn from their mistakes, and although they will make others, they will usually not make the same mistakes twice. This is common sense at work and only under the free enterprise system does common sense prevail.


From the “President’s Column” of the Southern States Industrial Council Bulletin, January 1, 1971

Foot Notes

1. This and all other quotations in this article are from the Lectures (1826).

  • Mr. Cooley is Associate Professor of Economics Emeritus. Ohio Northern University, Ada, Ohio.