The Intellectual Foundations of Political Economy
19th Century Classical Economists
Principles of Economics: An Introductory Volume
Book 1: Preliminary Survey
|Chapter I||Chapter III|
|Chapter II||Chapter IV|
Chapter 1, Introduction
1. Political economy or economics is a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life; it examines that part of individual and social action which is most closely connected with the attainment and with the use of the material requisites of wellbeing.
Thus it is on the one side a study of wealth; and on the other, and more important side, a part of the study of man. For man's character has been moulded by his every-day work, and the material resources which he thereby procures, more than by any other influence unless it be that of his religious ideals; and the two great forming agencies of the world's history have been the religious and the economic. Here and there the ardour of the military or the artistic spirit has been for a while predominant: but religious and economic influences have nowhere been displaced from the front rank even for a time; and they have nearly always been more important than all others put together. Religious motives are more intense than economic, but their direct action seldom extends over so large a part of life. For the business by which a person earns his livelihood generally fills his thoughts during by far the greater part of those hours in which his mind is at its best; during them his character is being formed by the way in which he uses his faculties in his work, by the thoughts and the feelings which it suggests, and by his relations to his associates in work, his employers or his employees.
And very often the influence exerted on a person's character by the amount of his income is hardly less, if it is less, than that exerted by the way in which it is earned. It may make little difference to the fulness of life of a family whether its yearly income is £1000 or £5000; but it makes a very great difference whether the income is £30 or £150: for with £150 the family has, with £30 it has not, the material conditions of a complete life. It is true that in religion, in the family affections and in friendship, even the poor may find scope for many of those faculties which are the source of the highest happiness. But the conditions which surround extreme poverty, especially in densely crowded places, tend to deaden the higher faculties. Those who have been called the Residuum of our large towns have little opportunity for friendship; they know nothing of the decencies and the quiet, and very little even of the unity of family life; and religion often fails to reach them. No doubt their physical, mental, and moral ill-health is partly due to other causes than poverty: but this is the chief cause.
And, in addition to the Residuum, there are vast numbers of people both in town and country who are brought up with insufficient food, clothing, and house-room; whose education is broken off early in order that they may go to work for wages; who thenceforth are engaged during long hours in exhausting toil with imperfectly nourished bodies, and have therefore no chance of developing their higher mental faculties. Their life is not necessarily unhealthy or unhappy. Rejoicing in their affections towards God and man, and perhaps even possessing some natural refinement of feeling, they may lead lives that are far less incomplete than those of many, who have more material wealth. But, for all that, their poverty is a great and almost unmixed evil to them. Even when they are well, their weariness often amounts to pain, while their pleasures are few; and when sickness comes, the suffering caused by poverty increases tenfold. And, though a contented spirit may go far towards reconciling them to these evils, there are others to which it ought not to reconcile them. Overworked and undertaught, weary and careworn, without quiet and without leisure, they have no chance of making the best of their mental faculties.
Although then some of the evils which commonly go with poverty are not its necessary consequences; yet, broadly speaking, "the destruction of the poor is their poverty," and the study of the causes of poverty is the study of the causes of the degradation of a large part of mankind.
2. Slavery was regarded by Aristotle as an ordinance of nature, and so probably was it by the slaves themselves in olden time. The dignity of man was proclaimed by the Christian religion: it has been asserted with increasing vehemence during the last hundred years: but, only through the spread of education during quite recent times, are we beginning to feel the full import of the phrase. Now at last we are setting ourselves seriously to inquire whether it is necessary that there should be any so-called "lower classes" at all: that is, whether there need be large numbers of people doomed from their birth to hard work in order to provide for others the requisites of a refined and cultured life; while they themselves are prevented by their poverty and toil from having any share or part in that life.
The hope that poverty and ignorance may gradually be extinguished, derives indeed much support from the steady progress of the working classes during the nineteenth century. The steam-engine has relieved them of much exhausting and degrading toil; wages have risen; education has been improved and become more general; the railway and the printing-press have enabled members of the same trade in different parts of the country to communicate easily with one another, and to undertake and carry out broad and far-seeing lines of policy; while the growing demand for intelligent work has caused the artisan classes to increase so rapidly that they now outnumber those whose labour is entirely unskilled. A great part of the artisans have ceased to belong to the "lower classes" in the sense in which the term was originally used; and some of them already lead a more refined and noble life than did the majority of the upper classes even a century ago.
This progress has done more than anything else to give practical interest to the question whether it is really impossible that all should start in the world with a fair chance of leading a cultured life, free from the pains of poverty and the stagnating influences of excessive mechanical toil; and this question is being pressed to the front by the growing earnestness of the age. The question cannot be fully answered by economic science. For the answer depends partly on the moral and political capabilities of human nature, and on these matters the economist has no special means of information: he must do as others do, and guess as best he can. But the answer depends in a great measure upon facts and inferences, which are within the province of economics; and this it is which gives to economic studies their chief and their highest interest.
3. It might have been expected that a science, which deals with questions so vital for the wellbeing of mankind, would have engaged the attention of many of the ablest thinkers of every age, and be now well advanced towards maturity. But the fact is that the number of scientific economists has always been small relatively to the difficulty of the work to be done; so that the science is still almost in its infancy. One cause of this is that the bearing of economics on the higher wellbeing of man has been overlooked. Indeed, a science which has wealth for its subject-matter, is often repugnant at first sight to many students; for those who do most to advance the boundaries of knowledge, seldom care much about the possession of wealth for its own sake.
But a more important cause is that many of those conditions of industrial life, and of those methods of production, distribution and consumption, with which modern economic science is concerned, are themselves only of recent date. It is indeed true that the change in substance is in some respects not so great as the change in outward form; and much more of modern economic theory, than at first appears, can be adapted to the conditions of backward races. But unity in substance, underlying many varieties of form, is not easy to detect; and changes in form have had the effect of making writers in all ages profit less than they otherwise might have done by the work of their predecessors.
The economic conditions of modern life, though more complex, are in many ways more definite than those of earlier times. Business is more clearly marked off from other concerns; the rights of individuals as against others and as against the community are more sharply defined; and above all the emancipation from custom, and the growth of free activity, of constant forethought and restless enterprise, have given a new precision and a new prominence to the causes that govern the relative values of different things and different kinds of labour.
4. It is often said that the modern forms of industrial life are distinguished from the earlier by being more competitive. But this account is not quite satisfactory. The strict meaning of competition seems to be the racing of one person against another, with special reference to bidding for the sale or purchase of anything. This kind of racing is no doubt both more intense and more widely extended than it used to be: but it is only a secondary, and one might almost say, an accidental consequence from the fundamental characteristics of modern industrial life.
There is no one term that will express these characteristics adequately. They are, as we shall presently see, a certain independence and habit of choosing one's own course for oneself, a self-reliance; a deliberation and yet a promptness of choice and judgment, and a habit of forecasting the future and of shaping one's course with reference to distant aims. They may and often do cause people to compete with one another; but on the other hand they may tend, and just now indeed they are tending, in the direction of co-operation and Combination of all kinds good and evil. But these tendencies towards collective ownership and collective action are quite different from those of earlier times, because they are the result not of custom, not of any passive drifting into association with one's neighbours, but of free choice by each individual of that line of conduct which after careful deliberation seems to him the best suited for attaining his ends, whether they are selfish or unselfish.
The term "competition" has gathered about it evil savour, and has come to imply a certain selfishness and indifference to the wellbeing of others. Now it is true that there is less deliberate selfishness in early than in modern forms of industry; but there is also less deliberate unselfishness. It is deliberateness, and not selfishness, that is the characteristic of the modern age.
For instance, while custom in a primitive society extends the limits of the family, and prescribes certain duties to one's neighbours which fall into disuse in a later civilization, it also prescribes an attitude of hostility to strangers. In a modern society the obligations of family kindness become more intense, though they are concentrated on a narrower area; and neighbours are put more nearly on the same footing with strangers. In ordinary dealings with both of them the standard of fairness and honesty is lower than in some of the dealings of a primitive people with their neighbours: but it is much higher than in their dealings with strangers. Thus it is the ties of neighbourhood alone that have been relaxed: the ties of family are in many ways stronger than before, family affection leads to much more self-sacrifice and devotion than it used to do; and sympathy with those who are strangers to us is a growing source of a kind of deliberate unselfishness, that never existed before the modern age. That country which is the birthplace of modern competition devotes a larger part of its income than any other to charitable uses, and spent twenty millions on purchasing the freedom of the slaves in the West Indies.
In every age poets and social reformers have tried to stimulate the people of their own time to a nobler life by enchanting stories of the virtues of the heroes of old. But neither the records of history nor the contemporary observation of backward races, when carefully studied, give any support to the doctrine that man is on the whole harder and harsher than he was; or that he was ever more willing than he is now to sacrifice his own happiness for the benefit of others in cases where custom and law have left him free to choose his own course. Among races, whose intellectual capacity seems not to have developed in any other direction, and who have none of the originating power of the modern business man, there will be found many who show an evil sagacity in driving a hard bargain in a market even with their neighbours. No traders are more unscrupulous in taking advantage of the necessities of the unfortunate than are the corn-dealers and money-lenders of the East.
Again, the modern era has undoubtedly given new openings for dishonesty in trade. The advance of knowledge has discovered new ways of making things appear other than they are, and has rendered possible many new forms of adulteration. The producer is now far removed from the ultimate consumer; and his wrong-doings are not visited with the prompt and sharp punishment which falls on the head of a person who, being bound to live and die in his native village, plays a dishonest trick on one of his neighbours. The opportunities for knavery are certainly more numerous than they were; but there is no reason for thinking that people avail themselves of a larger proportion of such opportunities than they used to do. On the contrary, modern methods of trade imply habits of trustfulness on the one side and a power of resisting temptation to dishonesty on the other, which do not exist among a backward people. Instances of simple truth and personal fidelity are met with under all social conditions: but those who have tried to establish a business of modern type in a backward country find that they can scarcely ever depend on the native population for filling posts of trust. It is even more difficult to dispense with imported assistance for work, which calls for a strong moral character, than for that which requires great skill and mental ability. Adulteration and fraud in trade were rampant in the middle ages to an extent that is very astonishing, when we consider the difficulties of wrong-doing without detection at that time.
In every stage of civilization, in which the power of money has been prominent, poets in verse and prose have delighted to depict a past truly "Golden Age," before the pressure of mere material gold had been felt. Their idyllic pictures have been beautiful, and have stimulated noble imaginations and resolves; but they have had very little historical truth. Small communities with simple wants for which the bounty of nature has made abundant provision, have indeed sometimes been nearly free from care about their material needs, and have not been tempted to sordid ambitions. But whenever we can penetrate to the inner life of a crowded population under primitive conditions in our own time, we find more want, more narrowness, and more hardness than was manifest at a distance: and we never find a more widely diffused comfort alloyed by less suffering than exists in the western world to-day. We ought therefore not to brand the forces, which have made modern civilization, by a name which suggests evil.
It is perhaps not reasonable that such a suggestion should attach to the term "competition"; but in fact it does. In fact, when competition is arraigned, its anti-social forms are made prominent; and care is seldom taken to inquire whether there are not other forms of it, which are so essential to the maintenance of energy and spontaneity, that their cessation might probably be injurious on the balance to social wellbeing. The traders or producers, who find that a rival is offering goods at a lower price than will yield them a good profit, are angered at his intrusion, and complain of being wronged; even though it may be true that those who buy the cheaper goods are in greater need than themselves, and that the energy and resourcefulness of their rival is a social gain. In many cases the "regulation of competition" is a misleading term, that veils the formation of a privileged class of producers, who often use their combined force to frustrate the attempts of an able man to rise from a lower class than their own. Under the pretext of repressing antisocial competition, they deprive him of the liberty of carving out for himself a new career, where the services rendered by him to the consumers of the commodity would be greater than the injuries, that he inflicts on the relatively small group which objects to his competition.
If competition is contrasted with energetic co-operation in unselfish work for the public good, then even the best forms of competition are relatively evil; while its harsher and meaner forms are hateful. And in a world in which all men were perfectly virtuous, competition would be out of place; but so also would be private property and every form of private right. Men would think only of their duties; and no one would desire to have a larger share of the comforts and luxuries of life than his neighbours. Strong producers could easily bear a touch of hardship; so they would wish that their weaker neighbours, while producing less should consume more. Happy in this thought, they would work for the general good with all the energy, the inventiveness, and the eager initiative that belonged to them; and mankind would be victorious in contests with nature at every turn. Such is the Golden Age to which poets and dreamers may look forward. But in the responsible conduct of affairs, it is worse than folly to ignore the imperfections which still cling to human nature.
History in general, and especially the history of socialistic ventures, shows that ordinary men are seldom capable of pure ideal altruism for any considerable time together; and that the exceptions are to be found only when the masterful fervour of a small band of religious enthusiasts makes material concerns to count for nothing in comparison with the higher faith.
No doubt men, even now, are capable of much more unselfish service than they generally render: and the supreme aim of the economist is to discover how this latent social asset can be developed most quickly, and turned to account most wisely. But he must not decry competition in general, without analysis: he is bound to retain a neutral attitude towards any particular manifestation of it until he is sure that, human nature being what it is, the restraint of competition would not be more anti-social in its working than the competition itself.
We may conclude then that the term "competition" is not well suited to describe the special characteristics of industrial life in the modern age. We need a term that does not imply any moral qualities, whether good or evil, but which indicates the undisputed fact that modern business and industry are characterized by more self-reliant habits, more forethought, more deliberate and free choice. There is not any one term adequate for this purpose: but Freedom of Industry and Enterprise, or more shortly, Economic Freedom, points in the right direction; and it may be used in the absence of a better. Of course this deliberate and free choice may lead to a certain departure from individual freedom when co-operation or combination seems to offer the best route to the desired end. The questions how far these deliberate forms of association are likely to destroy the freedom in which they had their origin and how far they are likely to be conducive to the public weal, lie beyond the scope of the present volume.(1*)
5. This introductory chapter was followed in earlier editions by two short sketches: the one related to the growth of free enterprise and generally of economic freedom, and the other to the growth of economic science. They have no claim to be systematic histories, however compressed; they aim only at indicating some landmarks on the routes by which economic structure and economic thought have travelled to their present position. They are now transferred to Appendices A and B at the end of this volume, partly because their full drift can best be seen after some acquaintance has been made with the subject-matter of economics; and partly because in the twenty years, which have elapsed since they were first written, public opinion as to the position which the study of economic and social science should hold in a liberal education has greatly developed. There is less need now than formerly to insist that the economic problems of the present generation derive much of their subject-matter from technical and social changes that are of recent date, and that their form as well as their urgency assume throughout the effective economic freedom of the mass of the people.
The relations of many ancient Greeks and Romans with the slaves of their households were genial and humane. But even in Attica the physical and moral wellbeing of the great body of the inhabitants was not accepted as a chief aim of the citizen. Ideals of life were high, but they concerned only a. few. and the doctrine of value, which is full of complexities in the modern age, could then have been worked out on a plan; such as could be conceived to-day, only if nearly all manual work were superseded by automatic machines which required merely a definite allowance of steam-power and materials, and had no concern with the requirements of a full citizen's life. Much of modern economics might indeed have been anticipated in the towns of the Middle Ages, in which an intelligent and daring spirit was for the first time combined with patient industry. But they were not left to work out their career in peace; and the world had to wait for the dawn of the new economic era till a whole nation was ready for the ordeal of economic freedom.
England especially was gradually prepared for the task; but towards the end of the eighteenth century, the changes, which had so far been slow and gradual, suddenly became rapid and violent. Mechanical inventions, the concentration of industries, and a system of manufacturing on a large scale for distant markets broke up the old traditions of industry, and left everyone to bargain for himself as best he might; and at the same time they stimulated an increase of population for which no provision had been made beyond standing-room in factories and workshops. Thus free competition, or rather, freedom of industry and enterprise, was set loose to run, like a huge untrained monster, its wayward course. The abuse of their new power by able but uncultured business men led to evils on every side; it unfitted mothers for their duties, it weighed down children with overwork and disease; and in many places it degraded the race. Meanwhile the kindly meant recklessness of the poor law did even more to lower the moral and physical energy of Englishmen than the hardhearted recklessness of the manufacturing discipline: for by depriving the people of those qualities which would fit them for the new order of things, it increased the evil and diminished the good caused by the advent of free enterprise.
And yet the time at which free enterprise was showing itself in an unnaturally harsh form, was the very time in which economists were most lavish in their praises of it. This was partly because they saw clearly, what we of this generation have in a great measure forgotten, the cruelty of the yoke of custom and rigid ordinance which it had displaced; and partly because the general tendency of Englishmen at the time was to hold that freedom in all matters, political and social, was worth having at every cost except the loss of security. But partly also it was that the productive forces which free enterprise was giving o the nation were the only means by which it could offer a successful resistance to Napoleon. Economists therefore treated free enterprise not indeed as an unmixed good, but as a less evil than such regulation as was practicable at the time.
Adhering to the lines of thought that had been started chiefly by medieval traders, and continued by French and English philosophers in the latter half of the eighteenth century, Ricardo and his followers developed a theory of the action of free enterprise (or, as they said, free competition), which contained many truths, that will be probably important so long as the world exists. Their work was wonderfully complete within the narrow area which it covered. But much of the best of it consists of problems relating to rent and the value of corn: - problems on the solution of which the fate of England just then seemed to depend; but many of which, in the particular form in which they were worked out by Ricardo, have very little direct bearing on the present state of things.
A good deal of the rest of their work was narrowed by its regarding too exclusively the peculiar condition of England at that time; and this narrowness has caused a reaction. So that now, when more experience, more leisure, and greater material resources have enabled us to bring free enterprise somewhat under control, to diminish its power of doing evil and increase its power of doing good, there is growing up among many economists a sort of spite against it. Some even incline to exaggerate its evils, and attribute to it the ignorance and suffering, which are the results either of tyranny and oppression in past ages, or of the misunderstanding and mismanagement of economic freedom.
Intermediate between these two extremes are the great body of economists who, working on parallel lines in many different countries, are bringing to their studies an unbiassed desire to ascertain the truth, and a willingness to go through with the long and heavy work by which alone scientific results of any value can be obtained. Varieties of mind, of temper, of training and of opportunities lead them to work in different ways, and to give their chief attention to different parts of the problem. All are bound more or less to collect and arrange facts and statistics relating to past and present times; and all are bound to occupy themselves more or less with analysis and reasoning on the basis of those facts which are ready at hand: but some find the former task the more attractive and absorbing, and others the latter. This division of labour, however, implies not opposition, but harmony of purpose. The work of all adds something or other to that knowledge, which enables us to understand the influences exerted on the quality and tone of man's life by the manner in which he earns his livelihood, and by the character of that livelihood.
1. They occupy a considerable place in the forthcoming volume on Industry and Trade.
Back to Top
Chapter 2, The Substance of Economics
1. Economics is a study of men as they live and move and think in the ordinary business of life. But it concerns itself chiefly with those motives which affect, most powerfully and most steadily, man's conduct in the business part of his life. Everyone who is worth anything carries his higher nature with him into business; and, there as elsewhere, he is influenced by his personal affections, by his conceptions of duty and his reverence for high ideals. And it is true that the best energies of the ablest inventors and organizers of improved methods and appliances are stimulated by a noble emulation more than by any love of wealth for its own sake. But, for all that, the steadiest motive to ordinary business work is the desire for the pay which is the material reward of work. The pay may be on its way to be spent selfishly or unselfishly, for noble or base ends; and here the variety of human nature comes into play. But the motive is supplied by a definite amount of money: and it is this definite and exact money measurement of the steadiest motives in business life, which has enabled economics far to outrun every other branch of the study of man. Just as the chemist's fine balance has made chemistry more exact than most other physical sciences; so this economist's balance, rough and imperfect as it is, has made economics more exact than any other branch of social science. But of course economics cannot be compared with the exact physical sciences: for it deals with the ever changing and subtle forces of human nature.(1*)
The advantage which economics has over other branches of social science appears then to arise from the fact that its special field of work gives rather larger opportunities for exact methods than any other branch. It concerns itself chiefly with those desires, aspirations and other affections of human nature, the outward manifestations of which appear as incentives to action in such a form that the force or quantity of the incentives can be estimated and measured with some approach to accuracy., and which therefore are in some degree amenable to treatment by scientific machinery. An opening is made for the methods and the tests of science as soon as the force of a person's motives - not the motives themselves - can be approximately measured by the sum of money, which he will just give up in order to secure a desired satisfaction; or again by the sum which is just required to induce him to undergo a certain fatigue.
It is essential to note that the economist does not claim to measure any affection of the mind in itself, or directly; but only indirectly through its effect. No one can compare and measure accurately against one another even his own mental states at different times: and no one can measure the mental states of another at all except indirectly and conjecturally by their effects. Of course various affections belong to man's higher nature and others to his lower, and are thus different in kind. But, even if we confine our attention to mere physical pleasures and pains of the same kind, we find that they can only be compared indirectly by their effects. In fact, even this comparison is necessarily to some extent conjectural, unless they occur to the same person at the same time.
For instance the pleasures which two persons derive from smoking cannot be directly compared: nor can even those which the same person derives from it at different times. But if we find a man in doubt whether to spend a few pence on a cigar, or a cup of tea, or on riding home instead of walking home, then we may follow ordinary usage, and say that he expects from them equal pleasures.
If then we wish to compare even physical gratifications, we must do it not directly, but indirectly by the incentives which they afford to action. If the desires to secure either of two pleasures will induce people in similar circumstances each to do just an hour's extra work, or will induce men in the same rank of life and with the same means each to pay a shilling for it; we then may say that those pleasures are equal for our purposes, because the desires for them are equally strong incentives to action for persons under similar conditions.
Thus measuring a mental state, as men do in ordinary life, by its motor-force or the incentive which it affords to action, no new difficulty is introduced by the fact that some of the motives of which we have to take account belong to man's higher nature, and others to his lower.
For suppose that the person, whom we saw doubting between several little gratifications for himself, had thought after a while of a poor invalid whom he would pass on his way home; and had spent some time in making up his mind whether he would choose a physical gratification for himself, or would do a kindly act and rejoice in another's joy. As his desires turned now towards the one, now the other, there would be change in the quality of his mental states; and the philosopher is bound to study the nature of the change.
But the economist studies mental states rather through their manifestations than in themselves; and if he finds they afford evenly balanced incentives to action, he treats them prima facie as for his purpose equal. He follows indeed in a more patient and thoughtful way, and with greater precautions, what everybody is always doing every day in ordinary life. He does not attempt to weigh the real value of the higher affections of our nature against those of our lower: he does not balance the love for virtue against the desire for agreeable food. He estimates the incentives to action by their effects just in the same way as people do in common life. He follows the course of ordinary conversation, differing from it only in taking more precautions to make clear the limits of his knowledge as he goes. He reaches his provisional conclusions by observations of men in general under given conditions without attempting to fathom the mental and spiritual characteristics of individuals. But he does not ignore the mental and spiritual side of life. On the contrary, even for the narrower uses of economic studies, it is important to know whether the desires which prevail are such as will help to build up a strong and righteous character. And in the broader uses of those studies, when they are being applied to practical problems, the economist, like every one else, must concern himself with the ultimate aims of man, and take account of differences in real value between gratifications that are equally powerful incentives to action and have therefore equal economic measures. A study of these measures is only the starting-point of economics: but it is the starting-point.(2*)
2. There are several other limitations of the measurement of motive by money to be discussed. The first of these arises from the necessity of taking account of the variations in the amount of pleasure, or other satisfaction, represented by the same sum of money to different persons and under different circumstances.
A shilling may measure a greater pleasure (or other satisfaction) at one time than at another even for the same person; because money may be more plentiful with him, or because his sensibility may vary.(3*) And persons whose antecedents are similar, and who are outwardly like one another, are often affected in very different ways by similar events. When, for instance, a band of city school children are sent out for a day's holiday in the country, it is probable that no two of them derive from it enjoyment exactly the same in kind, or equal in intensity. The same surgical operation causes different amounts of pain to different people. Of two parents who are, so far as we can tell, equally affectionate, one will suffer much more than the other from the loss of a favourite son. Some who are not very sensitive generally are yet specially susceptible to particular kinds of pleasure and pain; while differences in nature and education make one man's total capacity for pleasure or pain much greater than another's.
It would therefore not be safe to say that any two men with the same income derive equal benefit from its use; or that they would suffer equal pain from the same diminution of it. Although when a tax of £1 is taken from each of two persons having an income of £300 a year, each will give up that £1 worth of pleasure (or other satisfaction) which he can most easily part with, i.e. each will give up what is measured to him by just £1; yet the intensities of the satisfaction given up may not be nearly equal.
Nevertheless, if we take averages sufficiently broad to cause the personal peculiarities of individuals to counterbalance one another, the money which people of equal incomes will give to obtain a benefit or avoid an injury is a good measure of the benefit or injury. If there are a thousand persons living in Sheffield, and another thousand in Leeds, each with about £100 a-year, and a tax of £1 is levied on all of them; we may be sure that the loss of pleasure or other injury which the tax will cause in Sheffield is of about equal importance with that which it will cause in Leeds: and anything that increased all the incomes by £1 would give command over equivalent pleasures and other benefits in the two towns. This probability becomes greater still if all of them are adult males engaged in the same trade; and therefore presumably somewhat similar in sensibility and temperament, in taste and education. Nor is the probability much diminished, if we take the family as our unit, and compare the loss of pleasure that results from diminishing by £1 the income of each of a thousand families with incomes of £100 a-year in the two places.
Next we must take account of the fact that a stronger incentive will be required to induce a person to pay a given price for anything if he is poor than if he is rich. A shilling is the measure of less pleasure, or satisfaction of any kind, to a rich man than to a poor one. A rich man in doubt whether to spend a shilling on a single cigar, is weighing against one another smaller pleasures than a poor man, who is doubting whether to spend a shilling on a supply of tobacco that will last him for a month. The clerk with £100 a-year will walk to business in a much heavier rain than the clerk with £300 a-year; for the cost of a ride by tram or omnibus measures a greater benefit to the poorer man than to the richer. If the poorer man spends the money, he will suffer more from the want of it afterwards than the richer would. The benefit that is measured in the poorer man's mind by the cost is greater than that measured by it in the richer man's mind.
But this source of error also is lessened when we are able to consider the actions and the motives of large groups of people. If we know, for instance, that a bank failure has taken £200,000 from the people of Leeds and £100,000 from those of Sheffield, we may fairly assume that the suffering caused in Leeds has been about twice as great as in Sheffield; unless indeed we have some special reason for believing that the shareholders of the bank in the one town were a richer class than those in the other; or that the loss of employment caused by it pressed in uneven proportions on the working classes in the two towns.
By far the greater number of the events with which economics deals affect in about equal proportions all the different classes of society; so that if the money measures of the happiness caused by two events are equal, it is reasonable and in accordance with common usage to regard the amounts of the happiness in the two cases as equivalent. And, further, as money is likely to be turned to the higher uses of life in about equal proportions, by any two large groups of people taken without special bias from any two parts of the western world, there is even some prima facie probability that equal additions to their material resources will make about equal additions to the fulness of life, and true progress of the human race.
3. To pass to another point. When we speak of the measurement of desire by the action to which it forms the incentive, it is not to be supposed that we assume every action to be deliberate, and the outcome of calculation. For in this, as in every other respect, economics takes man just as he is in ordinary life: and in ordinary life people do not weigh beforehand the results of every action, whether the impulses to it come from their higher nature or their lower.(4*)
Now the side of life with which economics is specially concerned is that in which man's conduct is most deliberate, and in which he most often reckons up the advantages and disadvantages of any particular action before he enters on it. And further it is that side of his life in which, when he does follow habit and custom, and proceeds for the moment without calculation, the habits and customs themselves are most nearly sure to have arisen from a close and careful watching the advantages and disadvantages of different courses of conduct. There will not in general have been any formal reckoning up of two sides of a balance-sheet: but men going home from their day's work, or in their social meetings, will have said to one another, "It did not answer to do this, it would have been better to do that," and so on. What makes one course answer better than another, will not necessarily be a selfish gain, nor any material gain; and it will often have been argued that." though this or that plan saved a little trouble or a little money, yet it was not fair to others," and "it made one look mean," or "it made one feel mean." It is true that when a habit or a custom, which has grown up under one set of conditions, influences action under other conditions, there is so far no exact relation between the effort and the end which is attained by it. In backward countries there are still many habits and customs similar to those that lead a beaver in confinement to build himself a dam; they are full of suggestiveness to the historian, and must be reckoned with by the legislator. But in business matters in the modern world such habits quickly die away.
Thus then the most systematic part of people's lives is generally that by which they earn their living. The work of all those engaged in any one occupation can be carefully observed; general statements can be made about it, and tested by comparison with the results of other observations; and numerical estimates can be framed as to the amount of money or general purchasing power that is required to supply a sufficient motive for them.
The unwillingness to postpone enjoyment, and thus to save for future use, is measured by the interest on accumulated wealth which just affords a sufficient incentive to save for the future. This measurement presents however some special difficulties, the study of which must be postponed.
4. Here, as elsewhere, we must bear in mind that the desire to make money does not itself necessarily proceed from motives of a low order, even when it is to be spent on oneself. Money is a means towards ends, and if the ends are noble, the desire for the means is not ignoble. The lad who works hard and saves all he can, in order to be able to pay his way afterwards at a University, is eager for money; but his eagerness is not ignoble. In short, money is general purchasing power, and is sought as a means to all kinds of ends, high as well as low, spiritual as well as material.(5*)
Thus though it is true that "money" or "general purchasing power" or "command over material wealth", is the centre around which economic science clusters; this is so, not because money or material wealth is regarded as the main aim of human effort, nor even as affording the main subject-matter for the study of the economist, but because in this world of ours it is the one convenient means of measuring human motive on a large scale. If the older economists had made this clear, they would have escaped many grievous misrepresentations; and the splendid teachings of Carlyle and Ruskin as to the right aims of human endeavour and the right uses of wealth, would not then have been marred by bitter attacks on economics, based on the mistaken belief that that science had no concern with any motive except the selfish desire for wealth, or even that it inculcated a policy of sordid selfishness.(6*)
Again, when the motive to a man's action is spoken of as supplied by the money which he will earn, it is not meant that his mind is closed to all other considerations save those of gain. For even the most purely business relations of life assume honesty and good faith; while many of them take for granted, if not generosity, yet at least the absence of meanness, and the pride which every honest man takes in acquitting himself well. Again, much of the work by which people earn their living is pleasurable in itself; and there is truth in the contention of socialists that more of it might be made so. Indeed even business work, that seems at first sight unattractive, often yields a great pleasure by offering scope for the exercise of men's faculties, and for their instincts of emulation and of power. For just as a racehorse or an athlete strains every nerve to get in advance of his competitors, and delights in the strain; so a manufacturer or a trader is often stimulated much more by the hope of victory over his rivals than by the desire to add something to his fortune.(7*)
5. It has indeed always been the practice of economists to take careful account of all the advantages which attract people generally towards an occupation, whether they appear in a money form or not. Other things being equal, people will prefer an occupation in which they do not need to soil their hands, in which they enjoy a good social position, and so on; and since these advantages affect, not indeed every one exactly in the same way, but most people in nearly the same way, their attractive force can be estimated and measured by the money wages to which they are regarded as equivalent.
Again, the desire to earn the approval, to avoid the contempt of those around one is a stimulus to action which often works with some sort of uniformity in any class of persons at a given time and place; though local and temporary conditions influence greatly not only the intensity of the desire for approval, but also the range of persons whose approval is desired. A professional man, for instance, or an artisan will be very sensitive to the approval or disapproval of those in the same occupation, and care little for that of other people; and there are many economic problems, the discussion of which would be altogether unreal, if care were not taken to watch the direction and to estimate pretty closely the force of motives such as these.
As there may be a taint of selfishness in a man's desire to do what seems likely to benefit his fellow-workers, so there may be an element of personal pride in his desire that his family should prosper during his life and after it. But still the family affections generally are so pure a form of altruism, that their action might have shown little semblance of regularity, had it not been for the uniformity in the family relations themselves. As it is, their action is fairly regular; and it has always been fully reckoned with by economists, especially in relation to the distribution of the family income between its various members, the expenses of preparing children for their future career, and the accumulation of wealth to be enjoyed after the death of him by whom it has been earned.
It is then not the want of will but the want of power, that prevents economists from reckoning in the action of motives such as these; and they welcome the fact that some kinds of philanthropic action can be described in statistical returns, and can to a certain extent be reduced to law, if sufficiently broad averages are taken. For indeed there is scarcely any motive so fitful and irregular, but that some law with regard to it can be detected by the aid of wide and patient observation. It would perhaps be possible even now to predict with tolerable closeness the subscriptions that a population of a hundred thousand Englishmen of average wealth will give to support hospitals and chapels and missions; and, in so far as this can be done, there is a basis for an economic discussion of supply and demand with reference to the services of hospital nurses, missionaries and other religious ministers. It will however probably be always true that the greater part of those actions, which are due to a feeling of duty and love of one's neighbour, cannot be classed, reduced to law and measured; and it is for this reason, and not because they are not based on self-interest, that the machinery of economics cannot be brought to bear on them.
6. Perhaps the earlier English economists confined their attention too much to the motives of individual action. But in fact economists, like all other students of social science, are concerned with individuals chiefly as members of the social organism. As a cathedral is something more than the stones of which it is made, as a person is something more than a series of thoughts and feelings, so the life of society is something more than the sum of the lives of its individual members. It is true that the action of the whole is made up of that of its constituent parts; and that in most economic problems the best starting-point is to be found in the motives that affect the individual, regarded not indeed as an isolated atom, but as a member of some particular trade or industrial group; but it is also true, as German writers have well urged, that economics has a great and an increasing concern in motives connected with the collective ownership of property, and the collective pursuit of important aims. The growing earnestness of the age, the growing intelligence of the mass of the people, and the growing power of the telegraph, the press, and other means of communication are ever widening the scope of collective action for the public good; and these changes, together with the spread of the co-operative movement, and other kinds of voluntary association are growing up under the influence of various motives besides that of pecuniary gain: they are ever opening to the economist new opportunities of measuring motives whose action it had seemed impossible to reduce to any sort of law. But in fact the variety of motives, the difficulties of measuring them, and the manner of overcoming those difficulties are among the chief subjects with which we shall be occupied in this treatise. Almost every point touched in the present chapter will need to be discussed in fuller detail with reference to some one or more of the leading problems of economics.
7. To conclude provisionally: economists study the actions of individuals, but study them in relation to social rather than individual life; and therefore concern themselves but little with personal peculiarities of temper and character. They watch carefully the conduct of a whole class of people, sometimes the whole of a nation, sometimes only those living in a certain district, more often those engaged in some particular trade at some time and place: and by the aid of statistics, or in other ways, they ascertain how much money on the average the members of the particular group, they are watching, are just willing to pay as the price of a certain thing which they desire, or how much must be offered to them to induce them to undergo a certain effort or abstinence that they dislike. The measurement of motive thus obtained is not indeed perfectly accurate; for if it were, economics would rank with the most advanced of the physical sciences; and not, as it actually does, with the least advanced.
But yet the measurement is accurate enough to enable experienced persons to forecast fairly well the extent of the results that will follow from changes in which motives of this kind are chiefly concerned. Thus, for instance, they can estimate very closely the payment that will be required to produce an adequate supply of labour of any grade, from the lowest to the highest, for a new trade which it is proposed to start in any place. When they visit a factory of a kind that they have never seen before, they can tell within a shilling or two a week what any particular worker is earning, by merely observing how far his is a skilled occupation and what strain it involves on his physical, mental and moral faculties. And they can predict with tolerable certainty what rise of price will result from a given diminution of the supply of a certain thing, and how that increased price will react on the supply.
And, starting from simple considerations of this kind, is economists go on to analyse the causes which govern the local distribution of different kinds of industry, the terms on which people living in distant places exchange their goods with one another, and so on: and they can explain and predict the ways in which fluctuations of credit will affect foreign trade; or again the extent to which the burden of a tax will be shifted from those on whom it is levied, on to those for whose wants they cater; and so on.
In all this they deal with man as he is: not with an abstract or "economic" man; but a man of flesh and blood. They deal with a man who is largely influenced by egoistic motives in his business life to a great extent with reference to them; but who is also neither above vanity and recklessness, nor below delight in doing his work well for its own sake, or in sacrificing himself for the good of his family, his neighbours, or his country; a man who is not below the love of a virtuous life for its own sake. They deal with man as he is: but being concerned chiefly with those aspects of life in which the action of motive is so regular that it can be predicted, and the estimate of the motor-forces can be verified by results, they have established their work on a scientific basis.
For in the first place, they deal with facts which can be observed, and quantities which can be measured and recorded; so that when differences of opinion arise with regard to them, the differences can be brought to the test of public and well-established records; and thus science obtains a solid basis on which to work. In the second place, the problems, which are grouped as economic, because they relate specially to man's conduct under the influence of motives that are measurable by a money price, are found to make a fairly homogeneous group. Of course they have a great deal of subject-matter in common: that is obvious from the nature of the case. But, though not so obvious a priori, it will also be found to be true that there is a fundamental unity of form underlying all the chief of them; and that in consequence, by studying them together, the same kind of economy is gained, as by sending a single postman to deliver all the letters in a certain street, instead of each one entrusting his letters to a separate messenger. For the analyses and organized processes of reasoning that are wanted for any one group of them, will be found generally useful for other groups.
The less then we trouble ourselves with scholastic inquiries as to whether a certain consideration comes within the scope of economics, the better. If the matter is important let us take account of it as far as we can. If it is one as to which there exist divergent opinions, such as cannot be brought to the test of exact and well-ascertained knowledge; if it is one on which the general machinery of economic analysis and reasoning cannot get any grip, then let us leave it aside in our purely economic studies. But let us do so simply because the attempt to include it would lessen the certainty and the exactness of our economic knowledge without any commensurate gain; and remembering always that some sort of account of it must be taken by our ethical instincts and our common sense, when they as ultimate arbiters come to apply to practical issues the knowledge obtained and arranged by economics and other sciences.
1. Some remarks on the relation of economics to the sum total of social science will be found in Appendix C, sections 1, 2.
2. The objections raised by some philosophers to speaking of two pleasures as equal, under any circumstances, seem to apply only to uses of the phrase other than those with which the economist is concerned. It has however unfortunately happened that the customary uses of economic terms have sometimes suggested the belief that economists are adherents of the philosophical system of Hedonism or of Utilitarianism. For, while they have generally taken for granted that the greatest pleasures are those which come with the endeavour to do one's duty, they have spoken of "pleasures" and "pains" as supplying the motives to all action; and they have thus brought themselves under the censure of those philosophers, with whom it is a matter of principle to insist that the desire to do one's duty is a different thing from a desire for the pleasure which, if one happens to think of the matter at all, one may expect from doing it; though perhaps it may be not incorrectly described as a desire for "self-satisfaction" or "the satisfaction of the permanent self." (See for instance T.H. Green, Prolegomena to Ethics, pp. 165-6)
It is clearly not the part of economics to appear to take a side in ethical controversy: and since there is a general agreement that all incentives to action, in so far as they are conscious desires at all, may without impropriety be spoken of shortly as desires for "satisfaction," it may perhaps be well to use this word instead of "pleasure," when occasion arises for referring to the aims of all desires, whether appertaining to man's higher or lower nature. The simple antithesis to satisfaction is "dissatisfaction": but perhaps it may be well to use the shorter and equally colourless word "detriment". in its place.
It may however be noted that some followers of Bentham (though perhaps not Bentham himself) made this large use of "pain and pleasure" serve as a bridge by which to pass from individualistic Hedonism to a complete ethical creed, without recognizing the necessity for the introduction of an independent major premiss; and for such a premiss the necessity would appear to be absolute, although opinions will perhaps always differ as to its form. Some will regard it as the Categorical Imperative; while others will regard it as a simple belief that, whatever be the origin of our moral instincts, their indications are borne out by a Verdict of the experience of mankind to the effect that true happiness is not to be had without self-respect, and that self-respect is to be had only on the condition of endeavouring so to live as to promote the progress of the human race.
3. Compare Edgeworth's Mathematical Psychics.
4. This is specially true of that group of gratifications, which is sometimes named "the pleasures of the chase." They include not only the light-hearted emulation of games and pastimes, of hunts and steeplechases, but the more serious contests of professional and business life: and they will occupy a good deal of our attention in discussions of the causes that govern wages and profits, and forms of industrial organization.
Some people are of wayward temperament, and could give no good account even to themselves of the motives of their action. But if a man is steadfast and thoughtful, even his impulses are the products of habits which he has adopted more or less deliberately. And, whether these impulses are an expression of his higher nature or not; whether they spring from mandates of his conscience, the pressure of social connection, or the claims of his bodily wants, he yields a certain relative precedence to them without reflection now, because on previous occasions he has decided deliberately to yield that relative precedence. The predominant attractiveness of one course of action over others, even when not the result of calculation at the time, is the product of more or less deliberate decisions made by him before in somewhat similar cases.
5. See an admirable essay by Cliffe Leslie on The Love of Money. We do indeed hear of people who pursue money for its own sake without caring for what it will purchase, especially at the end of a long life spent in business: but in this as in other cases the habit of doing a thing is kept up after the purpose for which it was originally done has ceased to exist. The possession of wealth gives such people a feeling of power over their fellow-creatures, and insures them a sort of envious respect in which they find a bitter but strong pleasure.
6. In fact a world can be conceived in which there is a science of economics very much like our own, but in it there is no money of any sort. See Appendices B, sec. 8 and D, sec. 2.
7. Some remarks on the large scope of economics as conceived in Germany will be found in Appendix D, sec. 3.
Back to Top
Chapter 3, Economic Generalization or Laws
1. It is the business of economics, as of almost every other science, to collect facts, to arrange and interpret them, and to draw inferences from them. "Observation and description, definition and classification are the preparatory activities. But what we desire to reach thereby is a knowledge of the interdependence of economic phenomena.... Induction and deduction are both needed for scientific thought as the right and left foot are both needed for walking."(1*) The methods required for this twofold work are not peculiar to economics; they are the common property of all sciences. All the devices for the discovery of the relations between cause and effect, which are described in treatises on scientific method, have to be used in their turn by the economist: there is not any one method of investigation which can properly be called the method of economics; but every method must be made serviceable in its proper place, either singly or in combination with others. And as the number of combinations that can be made on the chess-board, is so great that probably no two games exactly alike were ever played; so no two games which the student plays with nature to wrest from her her hidden truths, which were worth playing at all, ever made use of quite the same methods in quite the same way.
But in some branches of economic inquiry and for some purposes, it is more urgent to ascertain new facts, than to trouble ourselves with the mutual relations and explanations of those which we already have. While in other branches there is still so much uncertainty as to whether those causes of any event which lie on the surface and suggest themselves at first are both true causes of it and the only causes of it, that it is even more urgently needed to scrutinize our reasoning about facts which we already know, than to seek for more facts.
For this and other reasons, there always has been and there probably always will be a need for the existence side by side of workers with different aptitudes and different aims, some of whom give their chief attention to the ascertainment of facts, while others give their chief attention to scientific analysis; that is taking to pieces complex facts, and studying the relations of the several parts to one another and to cognate facts. It is to be hoped that these two schools will always exist; each doing its own work thoroughly, and each making use of the work of the other. Thus best may we obtain sound generalizations as to the past and trustworthy guidance from it for the future.
2. Those physical sciences, which have progressed most beyond the points to which they were brought by the brilliant genius of the Greeks, are not all of them strictly speaking "exact sciences." But they all aim at exactness. That is they all aim at precipitating the result of a multitude of observations into provisional statements, which are sufficiently definite to be brought under test by other observations of nature. These statements, when first put forth, seldom claim a high authority. But after they have been tested by many independent observations, and especially after they have been applied successfully in the prediction of coming events, or of the results of new experiments, they graduate as laws. A science progresses by increasing the number and exactness of its laws; by submitting them to tests of ever increasing severity; and by enlarging their scope till a single broad law contains and supersedes a number of narrower laws, which have been shown to be special instances of it.
In so far as this is done by any science, a student of it can in certain cases say with authority greater than his own (greater perhaps than that of any thinker, however able, who relies on his own resources and neglects the results obtained by previous workers), what results are to be expected from certain conditions, or what are the true causes of a certain known event.
Although the subject-matter of some progressive physical sciences is not, at present at least, capable of perfectly exact measurement; yet their progress depends on the multitudinous co-operation of armies of workers. They measure their facts and define their statements as closely as they can: so that each investigator may start as nearly as possible where those before him left off. Economics aspires to a place in this group of sciences: because though its measurements are seldom exact, and are never final; yet it is ever working to make them more exact, and thus to enlarge the range of matters on which the individual student may speak with the authority of his science.
3. Let us then consider more closely the nature of economic laws, and their limitations. Every cause has a tendency to produce some definite result if nothing occurs to hinder it. Thus gravitation tends to make things fall to the ground: but when a balloon is full of gas lighter than air, the pressure of the air will make it rise in spite of the tendency of gravitation to make it fall. The law of gravitation states how any two things attract one another. how they tend to move towards one another, and will 'move towards one another if nothing interferes to prevent them. The law of gravitation is therefore a statement of tendencies.
It is a very exact statement - so exact that mathematicians can calculate a Nautical Almanac, which will show the moments at which each satellite of Jupiter will hide itself behind Jupiter. They make this calculation for many years beforehand; and navigators take it to sea, and use it in finding out where they are. Now there are no economic tendencies which act as steadily and can be measured as exactly as gravitation can: and consequently there are no laws of economics which can be compared for precision with the law of gravitation.
But let us look at a science less exact than astronomy. The science of the tides explains how the tide rises and falls twice a day under the action of the sun and the moon: how there are strong tides at new and full moon, and weak tides at the moon's first and third quarter; and how the tide running up into a closed channel, like that of the Severn, will be very high; and so on. Thus, having studied the lie of the land and the water all round the British isles, people can calculate beforehand when the tide will probably be at its highest on any day at London Bridge or at Gloucester; and how high it will be there. They have to use the word probably, which the astronomers do not need to use when talking about the eclipses of Jupiter's satellites. For, though many forces act upon Jupiter and his satellites, each one of them acts in a definite manner which can be predicted beforehand: but no one knows enough about the weather to be able to say beforehand how it will act. A heavy downpour of rain in the upper Thames valley, or a strong north-east wind in the German Ocean, may make the tides at London Bridge differ a good deal from what had been expected.
The laws of economics are to be compared with the laws of the tides, rather than with the simple and exact law of gravitation. For the actions of men are so various and uncertain, that the best statement of tendencies, which we can make in a science of human conduct, must needs be inexact and faulty. This might be urged as a reason against making any statements at all on the subject; but that would be almost to abandon life. Life is human conduct, and the thoughts and emotions that grow up around it. By the fundamental impulses of our nature we all-high and low, learned and unlearned-are in our several degrees constantly striving to understand the courses of human action, and to shape them for our purposes, whether selfish or unselfish, whether noble or ignoble. And since we must form to ourselves some notions of the tendencies of human action, our choice is between forming those notions carelessly and forming them carefully. The harder the task, the greater the need for steady patient inquiry; for turning to account the experience, that has been reaped by the more advanced physical sciences; and for framing as best we can well thought-out estimates, or provisional laws, of the tendencies of human action.
4. The term "law" means then nothing more than a general proposition or statement of tendencies, more or less certain, more or less definite. Many such statements are made in every science: but we do not, indeed we can not, give to all of them a formal character and name them as laws. We must select; and the selection is directed less by purely scientific considerations than by practical convenience. If there is any general statement which we want to bring to bear so often, that the trouble of quoting it at length, when needed, is greater than that of burdening the discussion with an additional formal statement and an additional technical name, then it receives a special name, otherwise not.(2*)
Thus a law of social science, or a Social Law, is a statement of social tendencies; that is, a statement that a certain course of action may be expected under certain conditions from the members of a social group.
Economic laws, or statements of economic tendencies, are those social laws which relate to branches of conduct in which the strength of the motives chiefly concerned can be measured by a money price.
There is thus no hard and sharp line of division between those social laws which are, and those which are not, to be regarded also as economic laws. For there is a continuous gradation from social laws concerned almost exclusively with motives that can be measured by price, to social laws in which such motives have little place; and which are therefore generally as much less precise and exact than economic laws, as those are than the laws of the more exact physical sciences.
Corresponding to the substantive "law" is the adjective "legal". But this term is used only in connection with "law" in the sense of an ordinance of government; not in connection with "law" the sense of a statement of relation between cause and effect. The adjective used for this purpose is derived from "norma", a term which is nearly equivalent to "law", and might perhaps with advantage be substituted for it in scientific discussions. And following our definition of an economic law, we may say that the course of action which may be expected under certain conditions from the members of an industrial group is the normal action of the members of that group relatively to those conditions.
This use of the term Normal has been misunderstood; and it may be well to say something as to the unity in difference which underlies various uses of the term. When we talk of a Good man or a Strong man, we refer to excellence or strength of those particular physical mental or moral qualities which are indicated in the context. A strong judge has seldom the same qualities as a strong rower; a good jockey is not always of exceptional virtue. In the same way every use of the term normal implies the predominance of certain tendencies which appear likely to be more or less steadfast and persistent in their action over those which are relatively exceptional and intermittent. Illness is an abnormal condition of man: but a long life passed without any illness is abnormal. During the melting of the snows, the Rhine rises above its normal level: but in a cold dry spring when it is less than usual above that normal level, it may be said to be abnormally low (for that time of year). In all these cases normal results are those which may be expected as the outcome of those tendencies which the context suggests; or, in other words, which are in accordance with those "statements of tendency", those Laws or Norms, which are appropriate to the context.
This is the point of view from which it is said that normal economic action is that which may be expected in the long run under certain conditions (provided those conditions are persistent) from the members of an industrial group. It is normal that bricklayers in most parts of England are willing to work for 10d. an hour, but refuse to work for 7 d. In Johannesburg it may be normal that a bricklayer should refuse work at much less than £1 a day. The normal price of bona fide fresh laid eggs may be taken to be a penny when nothing is said as to the time of the year: and yet threepence may be the normal price in town during January; and twopence may be an abnormally low price then, caused by "unseasonable" warmth.
Another misunderstanding to be guarded against arises from the notion that only those economic results are normal, which are due to the undisturbed action of free competition. But the term has often to be applied to conditions in which perfectly free competition does not exist, and can hardly even be supposed to exist; and even where free competition is most dominant, the normal conditions of every facet and tendency will include vital elements that are not a part of competition nor even akin to it. Thus, for instance, the normal arrangement of many transactions in retail and wholesale trade, and on Stock and Cotton Exchanges, rests on the assumption that verbal contracts, made without witnesses, will be honourably discharged; and in countries in which this assumption cannot legitimately be made, some parts of the Western doctrine of normal value are inapplicable. Again, the prices of various Stock Exchange securities are affected "normally" by the patriotic feelings not only of the ordinary purchasers, but of the brokers themselves: and so on.
Lastly it is sometimes erroneously supposed that normal action in economics is that which is right morally. But that is to be understood only when the context implies that the action is being judged from the ethical point of view. When we are considering the facts of the world, as they are, and not as they ought to be, we shall have to regard as "normal" to the circumstances in view, much action which we should use our utmost efforts to stop. For instance, the normal condition of many of the very poorest inhabitants of a large town is to be devoid of enterprise, and unwilling to avail themselves of the opportunities that may offer for a healthier and less squalid life elsewhere; they have not the strength, physical, mental and moral, required for working their way out of their miserable surroundings. The existence of a considerable supply of labour ready to make match-boxes at a very low rate is normal in the same way that a contortion of the limbs is a normal result of taking strychnine. It is one result, a deplorable result, of those tendencies the laws of which we have to study. This illustrates one peculiarity which economics shares with a few other sciences, the nature of the material of which can be modified by human effort. Science may suggest a moral or practical precept to modify that nature and thus modify the action of laws of nature. For instance, economics may suggest practical means of substituting capable workers for those who can only do such work as match-box making; as physiology may suggest measures for so modifying the breeds of cattle that they mature early, and carry much flesh on light frames. The laws of the fluctuation of credit and prices have been much altered by increased powers of prediction.
Again when "normal" prices are contrasted with temporary or market prices, the term refers to the dominance in the long run of certain tendencies under given conditions. But this raises some difficult questions which may be postponed.(3*)
5. It is sometimes said that the laws of economics are "hypothetical". Of course, like every other science, it undertakes to study the effects which will be produced by certain causes, not absolutely, but subject to the condition that other things are equal, and that the causes are able to work out their effects undisturbed. Almost every scientific doctrine, when carefully and formally stated, will be found to contain some proviso to the effect that other things are equal: the action of the causes in question is supposed to be isolated; certain effects are attributed to them, but only on the hypothesis that no cause is permitted to enter except those distinctly allowed for. It is true however that the condition that time must be allowed for causes to produce their effects is a source of great difficulty in economics. For meanwhile the material on which they work, and perhaps even the causes themselves, may have changed; and the tendencies which are being described will not have a sufficiently "long run" in which to work themselves out fully. This difficulty will occupy our attention later on.
The conditioning clauses implied in a law are not continually repeated, but the common sense of the reader supplies them for himself. In economics it is necessary to repeat them oftener than elsewhere, because its doctrines are more apt than those of any other science to be quoted by persons who have had no scientific training, and who perhaps have heard them only at second hand, and without their context. One reason why ordinary conversation is simpler in form than a scientific treatise, is that in conversation we can safely omit conditioning clauses; because, if the hearer does not supply them for himself, we quickly detect the misunderstanding, and set it right. Adam Smith and many of the earlier writers on economics attained seeming simplicity by following the usages of conversation, and omitting conditioning clauses. But this has caused them to be constantly misunderstood, and has led to much waste of time and trouble in profitless controversy; they purchased apparent ease at too great a cost even for that gain.(4*)
Though economic analysis and general reasoning are of wide application, yet every age and every country has its own problems; and every change in social conditions is likely to require a new development of economic doctrines.(5*)
1. Schmoller in the article on Folkswirschaft in Conrad's Handworterbuch.
2. The relation of "natural and economic laws", is exhaustively discussed by Neumann (Zeitschrift fur die gesamte Staatswissenschaft, 1892) who concludes (p. 464) that there is no other word than Law (Gesetz) to express those statements of tendency, which play so important a part in natural as well as economic science. See also Wagner (Grundlegung, 86-91).
3. They are discussed in Book V, especially chapters III and V.
4. Compare Book II, chapter I.
5. Some parts of economics are relatively abstract or pure, because they are concerned mainly with broad general propositions: for, in order that a proposition may be of broad application it must necessarily contain few details: it cannot adapt itself to particular cases; and if it points to any prediction, that must be governed by a strong conditioning clause in which a very large meaning is given to the phrase "other things being equal." Other parts are relatively applied, because they deal with narrower questions more in detail; they take more account of local and temporary elements; and they consider economic conditions in fuller and closer relation to other conditions of life. Thus there is but a short step from the applied science of banking in its more general sense, to broad rules or precepts of the general Art of banking: while the step from a particular local problem of the applied science of banking to the corresponding rule of practice or precept of Art may be shorter still.
Back to Top
Chapter 4, The Order and Aims of Economic Studies
1. We have seen that the economist must be greedy of facts; but that facts by themselves teach nothing. History tells of sequences and coincidences; but reason alone can interpret and draw lessons from them. The work to be done is so various that much of it must be left to be dealt with by trained common sense, which is the ultimate arbiter in every practical problem. Economic science is but the working of common sense aided by appliances of organized analysis and general reasoning, which facilitate the task of collecting, arranging, and drawing inferences from particular facts. Though its scope is always limited, though its work without the aid of common sense is vain, yet it enables common sense to go further in difficult problems than would otherwise be possible.
Economic laws are statements with regard to the tendencies of man's action under certain conditions. They are hypothetical only in the same sense as are the laws of the physical sciences: for those laws also contain or imply conditions. But there is more difficulty in making the conditions clear, and more danger in any failure to do so, in economics than in physics. The laws of human action are not indeed as simple, as definite or as clearly ascertainable as the law of gravitation; but many of them may rank with the laws of those natural sciences which deal with complex subject-matter.
The raison d'etre of economics as a separate science is that it deals chiefly with that part of man's action which is most under the control of measurable motives; and which therefore lends itself better than any other to systematic reasoning and analysis. We cannot indeed measure motives of any kind, whether high or low, as they are in themselves: we can measure only their moving force. Money is never a perfect measure of that force; and it is not even a tolerably good measure unless careful account is taken of the general conditions under which it works, and especially of the riches or poverty of those whose action is under discussion. But with careful precautions money affords a fairly good measure of the moving force of a great part of the motives by which men's lives are fashioned.
The study of theory must go hand in hand with that of facts: and for dealing with most modern problems it is modern facts that are of the greatest use. For the economic records of the distant past are in some respects slight and untrustworthy; and the economic conditions of early times are wholly unlike those of the modern age of free enterprise, of general education, of true democracy, of steam, of the cheap press and the telegraph.
2. Economics has then as its purpose firstly to acquire knowledge for its own sake, and secondly to throw light on practical issues. But though we are bound, before entering on any study, to consider carefully what are its uses, we should not plan out our work with direct reference to them. For by so doing we are tempted to break off each line of thought as soon as it ceases to have an immediate bearing on that particular aim which we have in view at the time: the direct pursuit of practical aims leads us to group together bits of all sorts of knowledge, which have no connection with one another except for the immediate purposes of the moment; and which throw but little light on one another. Our mental energy is spent in going from one to another; nothing is thoroughly thought out; no real progress is made.
The best grouping, therefore, for the purposes of science is that which collects together all those facts and reasonings which are similar to one another in nature: so that the study of each may throw light on its neighbour. By working thus for a long time at one set of considerations, we get gradually nearer to those fundamental unities which are called nature's laws: we trace their action first singly, and then in combination; and thus make progress slowly but surely. The practical uses of economic studies should never be out of the mind of the economist, but his special business is to study and interpret facts and to find out what are the effects of different causes acting singly and in combination.
3. This may be illustrated by enumerating some of the chief questions to which the economist addresses himself. He inquires:
What are the causes which, especially in the modern world, affect the consumption and production, the distribution and exchange of wealth; the organization of industry and trade; the money market; wholesale and retail dealing; foreign trade, and the relations between employers and employed? How do all these movements act and react upon one another? How do their ultimate differ from their immediate tendencies?
Subject to what limitations is the price of anything a measure of its desirability? What increase of wellbeing is prima facie likely to result from a given increase in the wealth of any class of society? How far is the industrial efficiency of any class impaired by the insufficiency of its income? How far would an increase of the income of any class, if once effected, be likely to sustain itself through its effects in increasing their efficiency and earning power?
How far does, as a matter of fact, the influence of economic freedom reach (or how far has it reached at any particular time) in any place, in any rank of society, or in any particular branch of industry? What other influences are most powerful there; and how is the action of all these influences combined? In particular, how far does economic freedom tend of its own action to build up combinations and monopolies, and what are their effects? How are the various classes of society likely to be affected by its action in the long run; what will be the intermediate effects while its ultimate results are being worked out; and, account being taken of the time over which they will spread, what is the relative importance of these two classes of ultimate and intermediate effects? What will be the incidence of any system of taxes? What burdens will it impose on the community, and what revenue will it afford to the State?
4. The above are the main questions with which economic science has to deal directly, and with reference to which its main work of collecting facts, of analysing them and reasoning about them should be arranged. The practical issues which, though lying for the greater part outside the range of economic science, yet supply a chief motive in the background to the work of the economist, vary from time to time, and from place to place, even more than do the economic facts and conditions which form the material of his studies. The following problems seem to be of special urgency now in our own country. --
How should we act so as to increase the good and diminish the evil influences of economic freedom, both in its ultimate results and in the course of its progress? If the first are good and the latter evil, but those who suffer the evil, do not reap the good; how far is it right that they should suffer for the benefit of others?
Taking it for granted that a more equal distribution of wealth is to be desired, how far would this justify changes in the institutions of property, or limitations of free enterprise even when they would be likely to diminish the aggregate of wealth? In other words, how far should an increase in the income of the poorer classes and a diminution of their work be aimed at, even if it involved some lessening of national material wealth? How far could this be done without injustice, and without slackening the energies of the leaders of progress? How ought the burdens of taxation to be distributed among the different classes of society?
Ought we to rest content with the existing forms of division of labour? Is it necessary that large numbers of the people should be exclusively occupied with work that has no elevating character? Is it possible to educate gradually among the great mass of workers a new capacity for the higher kinds of work; and in particular for undertaking co-operatively the management of the business in which they are themselves employed?
What are the proper relations of individual and collective action in a stage of civilization such as ours? How far ought voluntary association in its various forms, old and new, to be left to supply collective action for those purposes for which such action has special advantages? What business affairs should be undertaken by society itself acting through its government, imperial or local? Have we, for instance, carried as far as we should the plan of collective ownership and use of open spaces, of works of art, of the means of instruction and amusement, as well as of those material requisites of a civilized life, the supply of which requires united action, such as gas and water, and railways?
When government does not itself directly intervene, how far should it allow individuals and corporations to conduct their own affairs as they please? How far should it regulate the management of railways and other concerns which are to some extent in a position of monopoly, and again of land and other things the quantity of which cannot be increased by man? Is it necessary to retain in their full force all the existing rights of property; or have the original necessities for which they were meant to provide, in some measure passed away?
Are the prevailing methods of using wealth entirely justifiable? What scope is there for the moral pressure of social opinion in constraining and directing individual action in those economic relations in which the rigidity and violence of government interference would be likely to do more harm than good? In what respect do the duties of one nation to another in economic matters differ from those of members of the same nation to one another?
Economics is thus taken to mean a study of the economic aspects and conditions of man's political, social and private life; but more especially of his social life. The aims of the study are to gain knowledge for its own sake, and to obtain guidance in the practical conduct of life, and especially of social life. The need for such guidance was never so urgent as now; a later generation may have more abundant leisure than we for researches that throw light on obscure points in abstract speculation, or in the history of past times, but do not afford immediate aid in present difficulties.
But though thus largely directed by practical needs, economics avoids as far as possible the discussion of those exigencies of party organization, and those diplomacies of home and foreign politics of which the statesman is bound to take account in deciding what measures that he can propose will bring him nearest to the end that he desires to secure for his country. It aims indeed at helping him to determine not only what that end should be, but also what are the best methods of a broad policy devoted to that end. But it shuns many political issues, which the practical man cannot ignore: and it is therefore a science, pure and applied, rather than a science and an art. And it is better described by the broad term " Economics ', than by the narrower term " Political Economy ".
5. The economist needs the three great intellectual faculties, perception, imaginAtion and reason: and most of all he needs imagination, to put him on the track of those causes of visible events which are remote or lie below the surface, and of those effects of visible causes which are remote or lie below the surface.
The natural sciences and especially the physical group of them have this great advantage as a discipline over all studies of man's action, that in them the investigator is called on for exact conclusions which can be verified by subsequent observation or experiment. His fault is soon detected if he contents himself with such causes and such effects as lie on the surface; or again if he ignores the mutual interaction of the forces of nature, wherein every movement modifies and is modified by all that surround it. Nor does the thorough student of physics rest satisfied with a mere general analysis; he is ever striving to make it quantitative; and to assign its proper proportion to each element in his problem.
In sciences that relate to man exactness is less attainable. The path of least resistance is sometimes the only one open: it is always alluring; and though it is also always treacherous, the temptation is great to follow it even when a more through way can be fought out by resolute work. The scientific student of history is hampered by his inability to experiment and even more by the absence of any objective standard to which his estimates of relative proportion can be referred. Such estimates are latent in almost every stage of his argument: he cannot conclude that one cause or group of causes has been overridden by another without making some implicit estimate of their relative weights. And yet it is only by a great effort that he perceives how dependent he is on his own subjective impressions. The economist also is hampered by this difficulty, but in a less degree than other students of man's action; for indeed he has some share in those advantages which give precision and objectivity to the work of the physicist. So long, at all events, as he is concerned with current and recent events, many of his facts group themselves under classes as to which statements can be made that are definite, and often were approximately accurate numerically: and thus he is at some advantage in seeking for causes and for results which lie below the surface, and are not easily seen; and in analyzing complex conditions into their elements and in reconstructing a whole out of many elements.
In smaller matters, indeed, simple experience will suggest the unseen. It will, for instance, put people in the way of looking for the harm to strength of character and to family life that comes from ill-considered aid to the thriftless; even though what is seen on the surface is almost sheer gain. But greater effort, a larger range of view, a more powerful exercise of the imagination are needed in tracking the true results of, for instance, many plausible schemes for increasing steadiness of employment. For that purpose it is necessary to have learnt how closely connected are changes in credit, in domestic trade, in foreign trade competition, in harvests, in prices; and how all of these affect steadiness of employment for good and for evil. It is necessary to watch how almost every considerable economic event in any part of the Western world affects employment in some trades at least in almost every other part. If we deal only with those causes of unemployment which are near at hand, we are likely to make no good cure of the evils we see; and we are likely to cause evils, that we do not see. And if we are to look for those which are far off and weigh them in the balance, then the work before us is a high discipline for the mind.
Again, when by a "standard rule" or any other device wages are kept specially high in any trade, imagination set a-going will try to track the lives of those who are prevented by the standard rule from doing work, of which they are capable, at a price that people are willing to pay for it. Are they pushed up, or are they pushed down? If some are pushed up and some pushed down, as commonly happens, is it the many that are pushed up and the few that are pushed down, or the other way about? If we look at surface results, we may suppose that it is the many who are pushed up. But if, by the scientific use of the imagination, we think out all the ways in which prohibitions, whether on Trade Union authority or any other, prevent people from doing their best and earning their best, we shall often conclude that it is the many who have been pushed down, and the few who have been pushed up. Partly under English influence, some Australasian colonies are making bold ventures, which hold out specious promise of greater immediate comfort and ease to the workers. Australasia has indeed a great reserve of borrowing power in her vast landed property: and should the proposed short cuts issue in some industrial decadence, the fall may be slight and temporary. But it is already being urged that England should move on similar lines: and a fall for her would be more serious. What is needed, and what we may hope is coming in the near future, is a larger study of such schemes of the same kind and by the same order of minds as are applied to judging a new design for a battleship with reference to her stability in bad weather.
In such problems as this it is the purely intellectual, and sometimes even the critical faculties, which are most in demand. But economic studies call for and develop the faculty of sympathy, and especially that rare sympathy which enables people to put themselves in the place, not only of their comrades, but also of other classes. This class sympathy is, for instance, strongly developed by inquiries, which are becoming every day more urgent, of the reciprocal influences which character and earnings, methods of employment and habits of expenditure exert on one another; of the ways in which the efficiency of a nation is strengthened by and strengthens the confidences and affections which hold together the members of each economic group - the family, employers and employees in the same business, citizens of the same country; of the good and evil that are mingled in the individual unselfishness and the class selfishness of professional etiquette and of trade union customs; and of movements by which our growing wealth and opportunities may best be turned to account for the wellbeing of the present and coming generations.(1*)
6. The economist needs imagination especially in order that he may develop his ideals. But most of all he needs caution and reserve in order that his advocacy of ideals may not outrun his grasp of the future.
After many more generations have passed, our present ideals and methods may seem to belong to the infancy, rather than to the maturity of man. One definite advance has already been made. We have learnt that every one until proved to be hopelessly weak or base is worthy of full economic freedom: but we are not in a position to guess confidently to what goal the advance thus begun will ultimately lead. In the later Middle Ages a rough beginning was made of the study of the industrial organism, regarded as embracing all humanity. Each successive generation has seen further growths of that organism; but none has seen so large a growth as our own. The eagerness with which it has been studied has grown with its growth; and no parallel can be found in earlier times to the breadth and variety of the efforts that have been made to comprehend it. But the chief outcome of recent studies is to make us recognize more fully, than could be done by any previous generation, how little we know of the causes by which progress is being fashioned, and how little we can forecast the ultimate destiny of the industrial organism.
Some harsh employers and politicians, defending exclusive class privileges early in last century, found it convenient to claim the authority of political economy on their side; and they often spoke of themselves as "economists." And even in our own time, that title has been assumed by opponents of generous expenditure on the education of the masses of the people, in spite of the fact that living economists with one consent maintain that such expenditure is a true economy, and that to refuse it is both wrong and bad business from a national point of view. But Carlyle and Ruskin, followed by many other writers who had no part in their brilliant and ennobling poetical visions, have without examination held the great economists responsible for sayings and deeds to which they were really averse; and in consequence there has grown up a popular misconception of their thoughts and character.
The fact is that nearly all the founders of modern economics were men of gentle and sympathetic temper, touched with the enthusiasm of humanity. They cared little for wealth for themselves; they cared much for its wide diffusion among the masses of the people. They opposed antisocial monopolies however powerful. In their several generations they supported the movement against the class legislation which denied to trade unions privileges that were open to associations of employers; or they worked for a remedy against the poison which the old Poor Law was instilling into the hearts and homes of the agricultural and other labourers; or they supported the factory acts, in spite of the strenuous opposition of some politicians and employers who claimed to speak in their name. They were without exception devoted to the doctrine that the wellbeing of the whole people should be the ultimate goal of all private effort and all public policy. But they were strong in courage and caution; they appeared cold, because they would not assume the responsibility of advocating rapid advances on untried paths, for the safety of which the only guarantees offered were the confident hopes of men whose imaginations were eager, but not steadied by knowledge nor disciplined by hard thought.
Their caution was perhaps a little greater than necessary: for the range of vision even of the great seers of that age was in some respects narrower than is that of most educated men in the present time; when, partly through the suggestions of biological study, the influence of circumstances in fashioning character is generally recognized as the dominant fact in social science. Economists have accordingly now learnt to take a larger and more hopeful view of the possibilities of human progress. They have learnt to trust that the human will, guided by careful thought, can so modify circumstances as largely to modify character; and thus to bring about new conditions of life still more favourable to character; and therefore to the economic, as well as the moral, wellbeing of the masses of the people. Now as ever it is their duty to oppose all plausible short cuts to that great end, which would sap the springs of energy and initiative.
The rights of property, as such, have not been venerated by those master minds who have built up economic science; but the authority of the science has been wrongly assumed: by some who have pushed the claims of vested rights to extreme and antisocial uses. It may be well therefore to note that the tendency of careful economic study is to base the rights of private property not on any abstract principle, but on the observation that in the past they have been inseparable from solid progress; and that therefore it is the part of responsible men to proceed cautiously and tentatively in abrogating or modifying even such rights as may seem to be inappropriate to the ideal conditions of social life.
1. This Section is reproduced from a Plea for the creation of a curriculum in economics and associated branches of political science addressed to the University of Cambridge in 1902, and conceded in the following year.
Back to Top