Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE PRELIMINARIES OF POLITICAL ECONOMY. 1 - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 7 (Economic Studies and Essays)
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THE PRELIMINARIES OF POLITICAL ECONOMY. 1 - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 7 (Economic Studies and Essays) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 7.
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THE PRELIMINARIES OF POLITICAL ECONOMY.1
Adam Smith began the Wealth of Nations about 1773, and finished it in 1776; and as our modern Political Economy really begins from that time, we may fairly say that it is now a hundred years old.2 In that century, especially in England, its career has been most remarkable. No form of philosophical speculation (some theologies excepted, which are not comparable) has ever had half or a thousandth part of the influence upon life and practice; no abstract doctrine was ever half as much quoted or half as much acted on. The whole legislation of England as to trade has been changed by the philosophy of trade, and the life of almost every one in England is, in consequence, different and better. Other countries, it is true, have not equally followed this teaching, but they have continually, if not equally, discussed it. The highest class of cultivated intellects is in every civilised country more or less affected by it. When a little while ago M. Thiers began to talk and act in thorough opposition to the whole science, a shiver of wonder ran through Europe; it seemed an anachronism to find so able a mind in the pre-economic period, and a strange survival of extinct error, to hear him expounding the good of all which Political Economy showed to be bad, and the evil of all which Political Economy proved to be good. No kind of political teaching has ever won half as many triumphs, or produced half the effects.
But, nevertheless, the reputation of Political Economy is not altogether satisfactory to the minds of those who most value and prize it. There is not quite the same interest felt for it, or quite the same confidence reposed in it, which there was formerly. A small knot of persons deny its value; a good many people, though sure they are wrong, are puzzled by them, and do not see how to answer them. Many young men, even studious men, especially those educated abroad, have not studied its best writers, and have but vague views about it. Though victorious, it wants part of the prestige of victory; though rich in results, its credit is not quite as good as on that account it ought to be.
The truth is that the story of Political Economy, if I may so call it, is a curious one in itself; the science is to some extent a new sort of one in the world, and has come to be what it is in a rather strange way. That story could only be fully explained by an exposition of all the science, and an account of all who contributed to it. But I think the main and most valuable part of the truth may be set before those who will read a short description of the science as it now stands, and a rough account of the labours of four great men,1 who more than any others have made the science what it is, and placed it where it is. The knowledge so given will after all be most imperfect.
Political Economy in its complete form, and as we now have it, is an abstract science, just as statics or dynamics are deductive sciences. And, in consequence, it deals with an unreal and imaginary subject. Just as statics and dynamics—the sciences of theoretical mechanics—deal with perfectly rigid bodies, which nothing will bend or strain, with perfectly elastic planes, from which the rebound is equal to the impact; with a world destitute of friction; with physical materials in short which no one ever expects to find in reality—so Political Economy deals with an immaterial subject, which in the existing world cannot be found either. Political Economy deals not with the entire real man as we know him in fact, but with a simpler, imaginary man—a man answering to a pure definition from which all impairing and conflicting elements have been fined away. The abstract man of this science is engrossed with one desire only—the desire of possessing wealth, not of course that there ever was a being who always acted as that desire would dictate, any more than anyone thinks there is in nature a world without friction or entirely elastic planes, but because it is found convenient to isolate the effects of this force from all others. The effect of the abstract hypothesis, made on the necessary basis of statics and dynamics, is to enable us to see the effect of the single agent, “pressure,” in a simple way and free from the repressing and obscuring conditions which exist in actual nature. And in the same way the use of the primitive assumptions of Political Economy is to show how the greatest of industrial desires—the desire to obtain wealth—would operate, if we consider it as operating, as far as we possibly can, by itself. The maxim of science is simply that of common-sense—simple cases first; begin with seeing how the main force acts when there is as little as possible to impede it, and when you thoroughly comprehend that, add to it in succession the separate effects of each of the encumbering and interfering agencies.
If such a simplification is necessary in physical science where the forces are obvious and few, it must much more be necessary in dealing with the science of society, where the forces are, in comparison, very various and difficult to perceive. In this very science of Political Economy, the first writers endeavoured to deal in a single science with all the causes which produced or impaired wealth—which, as they would have said, “made nations rich or poor”. And this was the most natural way of beginning. Almost all science seems to have begun similarly. In each case there was some large palpable fact to be explained—some great pressing problem to be solved. And so here, if you look over the nations of the world, you see at once that one of the greatest contrasts between them is that of comparative wealth or comparative poverty; the palpable fact at the beginning of Political Economy is that the Dutch are rich, and others (the Tyrolese, suppose), poor—that England is a very rich country, and Ireland a very poor country; how then was this difference to be accounted for, and the practical problem—money being an admitted good—to be solved, how far can we make the poor nations rich, and how are we to begin so to do? But considered in this simple and practical way, the science of Political Economy becomes useless, because of its immense extent. The whole of a man’s nature, and the whole of his circumstances, must be reckoned up and reasoned upon before you can explain his comparative wealth or poverty. To explain the difference of industrial conditions between the Tyrol and Holland, you will have, first, to state all the points of difference in religion, in morality, and in inherited character between a Dutchman and a Tyrolese—then state the diversities of their physical condition, and work out, as best you can, the effects of all the contrasts. And still further, if you try to give a universal reason why nations are poor and why nations are rich, you will not be able to arrive at any useful answer. Some will be poor because they have a bad Government; some because they are cooped up on a poor soil; some because they have a religion which disinclines them to make money; some because they have ancient rules, which helped them to make a beginning, but now retard them; some because they have never been able to make that beginning; and many other causes might be given. The problem taken up in that form is indeterminate; why nations are rich or poor depends on the whole intrinsic nature, and all the outward circumstances, of such nations. There is no simpler formula to be discovered, and a science which attempted to find one would of necessity have to deal with the whole of physical science; it would be an account of all “men” and all the earth.
It is on account of its abstract character that Political Economy is often, and justly described, as a science of “tendencies” only; that is, the object of it is to work out and ascertain the result of certain great forces, as if these alone operated, and as if nothing else had any effect in the matter. But as in matter of fact many other forces have an effect, the computed results of the larger isolated forces will never exactly happen; they will only, as it is said, tend more or less to happen; that is, they happen more and more nearly in proportion as the resisting and perturbing causes in each case happen to be less and less.
The very refined nature of the modern science of Political Economy has naturally led to many mistakes about it. The mere idea of such a science has evidently never crossed the minds of many able writers, and persons who have given but slight consideration to the matter are much puzzled. Analogous sciences of physical subjects are, as has been said, easy to find, but illustrations from them do not tell much where effectual description of Political Economy is most wanted. A science occupied with human things, and professedly with a part of human things profoundly interesting, awakens a great curiosity among multitudes of little cultivation. They begin to think about it, and to read about it, and the better the books they read, the more likely are they to be puzzled by what they find. They know that they are reading words which are constantly used in common life, and about things resembling, at least, those of that life, but nevertheless the reasonings and the conclusions do not seem to belong to real life at all. Such persons know nothing about statics or dynamics; and any attempt to explain the nature of Political Economy by an account of the nature of statics or dynamics, is only explaining obscurum per obscurius. As might be expected, the worst offenders are the uncultured moralists. They see all manner of reasonings framed, and of conclusions drawn, apparently about subjects with which morality itself is concerned deeply—about (say) industry and wealth, population and poverty, and they never dream that there is anything peculiar about these conclusions. They apply the “rules of morality” to them at once; they ask: “Is argument B true of good persons? Would not conclusion C augment wickedness?” whereas, in fact, the economic writers under consideration did not mean (and rightly did not mean) to deal with ethics at all. They only evolved a hypothesis; they did not intend that their arguments should be thought to be taken from real life, or that their conclusions should be roughly, and as they stood, applied to real life. They considered not the whole of actual human nature, but only a part of it. They dealt not with man, the moral being, but with man, the money-making animal.
Naturally, too, the cultivators of the abstract science itself (even those who fully understood its peculiar nature) did not always in practice remember the remoteness to practice of that nature. On the contrary, they rushed forth into the world with hasty recommendations to instant action: whereas the very justification of their reasonings, and the very ground of their axioms, was the necessity of beginning the investigation of the subject in a simple theory, and far away from the complexities of practice and action. But so much are the practical impulses of man stronger than his theoretical tastes, that the cultivators of an abstract science are always in great danger of forgetting its abstract nature; they rush and act on it at once. In the abstract physical sciences there is an effectual penalty. A person who acted on abstract dynamics would soon break his head, but in mental and physical sciences unhappily there are no instant tests of failure. Whatever happens, a man can always argue that he was right; and thus an abstract science of human things is more delicate to handle, and more likely to be misused, than a similar science of external nature.
A sort of uncertainty likewise seems, even in the better-informed minds, to creep over the subject. If it is so remote from practice, they say, how can you test it, and how can you tell that it is true? But this is exactly so also in the corresponding physical sciences. One of the shrewdest observers of intellectual matters of the generation, the late Sir. G. C. Lewis, used to say: “My experience in this office” (he was then Secretary of State for War) “has convinced me that when you come to practice, physics are just as uncertain as metaphysics. The abstract theory of physics is unquestionably much more complete, but if you want to deal with an instance in life, you will always find that there is a ‘tension,’ or a ‘friction,’ or some other cause, which is not accurately measured, and does not figure in the abstract theory. And this is the reason why, on all such questions, scientific evidence is so conflicting. You can always obtain an eminent engineer on any side to set against an eminent engineer on the other side, because the scientific and certain part of the subject is not the whole, and there still remains an imperfectly explored residuum on which there may be different opinions.” All this is as true of Political Economy as of any physical science; its deductions may be incontrovertible, and its results precisely true, whenever its assumptions are true, but these results will be very imperfect guides, wherever those assumptions are impaired by contradictory matter.
On the other side, however, it should also be said that “abstract” Political Economy is not by any means the unnatural thing which, from the account of it on paper, and the description of its difficulties, it would seem to be. Many people on the matter have “talked prose all their lives without knowing it”; many people have given admirable arguments on Political Economy, and have been more or less precisely aware of the difference of their assumptions from those of the real world, though they have never studied the specially abstract science, and could have given no sufficient delineation of it. The notion of investigating how much money persons would make, who simply wished to make it, and how they would best do so, is a very simple idea. The desire for wealth—using wealth in the largest sense, so as to include not only the means of luxury, but the means of subsistence—is so preponderant in very many minds, that it is very easy, if necessary, to regard it as the sole object. As far as people are what we now always call men of business, money, the thing they look for and the thing they want, is their sole object, and in that sense of the phrase, Political Economy may be fairly called the science of “business”.
On that account, in some very large scenes of our present English life, Political Economy is exactly true. The primary assumption on which it rests is precisely realised. On the Stock Exchange everybody does act from a love of money; men come there to make it, and they try to make as much of it as they can. Of Lombard Street the same may be said; the pecuniary phenomena of Lombard Street may be investigated with quite sufficient accuracy, on the assumption that bankers come there only to make money, and when there, make as much of it as they can. All markets are scenes nearly similar; so long as they are at the market all dealers try to make the best bargain they can. As the principal nations of the world at present are nations of business—commercial nations—and as the mass of men in such nations are mainly occupied in business, it follows that with respect to those nations a simple analysis of the unchecked consequences of the “business motive” will be a near approximation to a large part of their life, though it will not be a perfect account of their complete career, for there is very much also in every nation besides business and besides money—but it will be a useful hint to a predominant characteristic of that career. Having investigated the effects of this principal motive, we may when we please, and as far as it is necessary, investigate the effects of the almost infinite number of the secondary and interfering motives.
As, too, it is at present necessary for all nations to be rich in order to be influential in the world, it follows further, that an account of the commercial motive of action, taken by itself, is, as the world now stands, an analysis of the results of a principal ingredient in the days that are gone by, when poor barbarians, if warlike, were more powerful than rich civilised people. The times are gone by when civilisation enervated energy, or when wealth impeded valour. At present, courage without money is courage without guns; and courage without guns is useless. Political Economy traces, in an abstract way, the effects of the desire to be rich, and nations must nowadays abound in that passion if they are to have much power or much respect in the world.
On the other hand, no intellectual attempt can be more absurd than the attempt to apply the conclusions of our Political Economy to the lives of nations at a non-commercial stage of their existence. A great military nation, based on slavery, like the Romans; a nation bound by fixed customs like so many Oriental nations; tribes in a state of barbarism,—are not guided principally by the commercial spirit. The money-getting element is a most subordinate one in their minds; its effects are very subordinate ones in their lives. As the commercial element is all but necessary to considerable combinations of men, that element will almost always have effects, and usually important effects, in the destiny of these combinations. But only in communities where the commercial element is the greatest element, will these effects be the greatest. In so far as nations are occupied in “buying and selling,” in so far will Political Economy, the exclusive theory of men buying and selling, come out right, and be true of them.
But it will be good as far as it goes, and, though it is not my business to say it, I think it will be the fault of the writer if the curious interest of the facts does not lead many readers to a further study of the subject.
And, though what has been explained is the principal difference between the hypothetical science of Political Economy and the real world, it is by no means the only difference. Just as this science takes an abstract and one-sided view of man, who is one of its subjects, so it also takes an abstract and onesided view of wealth, which is its other subject. Wealth is infinitely various; as the wants of human nature are almost innumerable, so the kinds of wealth are various. Why men want so many things is a great subject fit for inquiry. Which of them it would be wise for men to want more of, and which of them it would be wise to want less of—are also great subjects equally fit. But with these subjects Political Economy does not deal at all; it leaves the first to the metaphysician, who has to explain, if he can, the origin and the order of human wants; and the second to the moralist, who is to decide, to the best of his ability, which of these tastes are to be encouraged, and when—which to be discouraged, and when. The only peculiarity of wealth with which the economist is concerned is its differentia specifica—that which makes it wealth. To do so it must gratify some want of man, or it would not be desirable, or it would not be wealth. But whence that want comes, whether from a low part of man, or from a high, is to the economist immaterial; whether it is a desirable want for man to gratify he cares as little, so long as that gratification does not hurt man as a wealth-producing machine. He regards a pot of beer and a picture, a book of religion and a pack of cards, as all equally “wealth,” and therefore, for his purpose, equally worthy of regard. The only division of wealth in his mind is, if I may use the words, the division between sterile and not sterile. Some things will help men to make new things; some things will induce men to work and make new things; both these classes of things are in the eyes of the economist capital or reproductive. On the other hand, other things have no similar reproductive power; if they were taken out of the world all work would go on with equal efficiency, and as many new things would be produced. And these last are, in the eyes of the economist, unproductive opulence, just as the first were productive capital.
Further, Political Economy makes not only these assumptions, as to the nature of its principal force and as to that of its object, it also makes two as to the physical conditions under which this force acts, and in which this object is supposed to exist. For its own purposes it simplifies, as we have seen, the nature of the actors, and the end of the action; we have now to see that it simplifies also the stage.
Political Economy assumes that land is “limited in quantity and variable in quality”. And, taking the whole of human states, this assumption has almost always been true. There has been, in almost all countries, a difficulty in obtaining land; there has scarcely ever been a surplus of it. Still, though this assumption accurately coincides with the usual phenomena of most countries, it does not agree with all the phenomena of them all. On the contrary, in all “new” countries, as they are called, land is exceedingly plentiful. There is practically no difficulty in procuring it; in the valley of the Mississippi as much of the best land as any one wants can, without serious impediment, be obtained. No doubt such land is farther off from the best markets than most occupied land of a like kind. But in the present state of the arts such a difference in distance presents no serious difficulty. The construction even of a short railway will open up an entire district, and make its produce as available in the market as that of much land long before cultivated. In new countries it can hardly be said that this assumption of Political Economy is at all the truth; it is rather the opposite of the truth. And accordingly the doctrines of abstract Political Economy must not be applied to such countries roughly, and without previous re-examination. One of the primitive assumptions not being true, we must be careful to reinvestigate and see whether any particular deduction which we wish to use, is, or is not, impaired—is, or is not, in consequence, untrue.
At first sight it would seem that this limitation of abstract Political Economy would exclude it from much of the real world. New countries, one would imagine, would be among the most common of countries; the human race has always been wandering, and must have been always reaching new countries. But, in truth, this limitation scarcely makes any new exclusion. The nature of the “man” who first occupied new countries did not “conform” to the standard of economic man; the being of reality was not the being of the hypothesis. The first men, all researches justify us in assuming, nearly approached in nature to the present savage man. They had not probably as many curious customs or so many debasing superstitions; they had not so many ingrained vices. But they had as little intellectual development, and as little knowledge of material things; they were ignorant of the “calendar”; they could with difficulty count more than five; they could just make a few weapons of war; they could just construct some sort of shed that would serve for a dwelling; but they could not make any of the articles which we now call “wealth”; and they would not have appreciated such things. The desire, so strong in civilised man, for wealth, has been excited in him by the experience of ages, and has been transmitted to him by inheritance. If you take a present savage, even of a high type, he will find the life of cities, the life of wealth, par excellence, scarcely tolerable. There is a well-known story of one savage, who, after living some forty or fifty years in a cultivated world, in his old age returned to die as a barbarian, saying “that civilisation was so much trouble he could bear it no longer”. The first occupiers of most countries were not men eager for complex wealth; they cared only for a bare subsistence—and then to kill and eat one another.
Many ages, indeed, have always intervened between the first settlement of any country, and the rise of a strong and independent mercantile element, before the time at which the first assumption of Political Economy was at all satisfied in it. During that time such countries commenced a kind of civilisation, but it was a very different kind of civilisation from the predominantly commercial; it was in general ruled by fixed customs, as most of the East is now; it did not allow its members to choose their own ends and fix their own existence for themselves; on the contrary, it chose itself those ends and prescribed that existence. And the life so selected gave but little scope to the production of wealth. It was occupied either with an incessant military service, or, in peace, with an equally incessant but semi-religious ritual; the labour for, and the accumulation of, the means of physical comfort were very secondary aims in most of the periods described by history, as they still are in by far the greater part of the present world. For ages after their first colonisation, there was no such absorbing and self-selecting life of trade as Political Economy assumes and requires.
Accordingly, in all the old world—the world as known to the “ancients”—the land has long been occupied, and more or less usefully, more or less fully, by ancient and ineradicable races. In practice they cannot be dispossessed. In all that large part of the world, therefore, land is very scarce; no new-comers can, in fact, obtain much of it. But of late there have been immense territories—“new worlds,” to use the usual word—of which this is not true, but where the very reverse is true. Long voyages, impossible to the ancient navigator, have been made possible by modern inventions; and these voyages have discovered large regions inhabited only by men who fade away before the presence of civilised men. In these distant regions man seems to have been a protected, and, therefore, a feeble animal; he had not to submit to the incessant competition which has in the “old world” hardened his frame and seasoned his mind. The diseases which the European can bear, the stimulants in which he delights, the labour for which he lives, are so many poisons to the Australian or American savage. He dies of one or all of them soon after the coming of the European, and he leaves his land vacant. He has never been able to cultivate the land which he calls his, and now he drops away from it. As a singular result of this strange history, land of the best quality is now procurable in large quantities and with great ease by civilised man. There are now countries not only called “new,” because newly discovered, but new, really, because the land in them can now be used, but has never been used before.
As a matter of fact, therefore, the primitive assumption of hypothetical Political Economy, that land is always limited in quantity, as well as variable in quality, coincides well enough with the usual facts of the world. But as the modern exception is one of great present importance to economic nations, as a matter of convenience it has become desirable (though I do not think the desirability has been usually recognised) to annex to Political Economy a full discussion of the nature and the effects of that exception. What has hitherto been the rule, and what has hitherto been the deviation from it, both become clearer when considered side by side.
It may be asked, what is the use of laying down such a rule, if you admit it, and discuss exceptions to it? Why invent a hypothetical hedge when you know that it does not include all you want and that, therefore, you will be unable to keep within it? The answer is, that the rule was not arbitrarily invented by inward fancy, but suggested by outward facts long predominant. The nearest way to the whole truth is by pursuing the clue which the partial truth first gave.
Political Economy also assumes, as another axiomatic fact as to land, that land throughout the world is for the most part of such fertility that the labour of a cultivator, if he has but a very moderate degree of knowledge and skill, will produce not only a subsistence for himself, but also many other persons. This is so true that it perhaps scarcely needs to be said, but it is of cardinal importance. If it had not been true, the truths of Political Economy and the lives of men would have been altogether different from what they now are. And there is no a priori reason—in physics, at least—why the whole earth should not be as a bit of bleak moor, where agriculturists have nothing over, and can but just raise a bare subsistence for themselves. But for the most part there is a surplus, and this surplus is, of course, increased day by day. By the continual improvement in the arts of agriculture more is produced, and, therefore, there is more over. In old countries the increasing productiveness retards the need of a resort to new soils, and diminishes the evil of it; and in new countries this additional surplus is an extra fund for exportation, and a new means for supplying the wants of those who have stayed at home in the old world.
And, lastly, Political Economy declines to investigate all the causes which determine the rate of increase of man, and assumes an avowedly incomplete and approximate formula as to it. From the very nature of the case, Political Economy must do this. The causes which regulate the increase of mankind are little less than all the causes outward and inward which determine human action. Climate, social customs, political government, inherited race-nature, and other things beside, affect, as we all know, the rate at which population grows. Political Economy would have to discuss half physiology, half the science of government, and half several other sciences too, if it attempted to investigate the real laws which regulate the multiplication of mankind; it has necessarily to make an assumption, to assume as a dictum some approximation to the complex truth, which is at once simple enough to be manageable, and true enough to be useful. Political Economy, therefore, assumes that in any particular society the power of parents to produce children exceeds the power to provide for them in what those parents think sufficient comfort; whence it comes that either parents must not produce all the children that they can, or that, if they do, the standard of comfort in the population must deteriorate, and if the multiplication continue, and the deterioration augment, that the population must die off. There is no difficulty in showing that this assumption embodies accurately enough the ordinary experience of mankind as history records it, and as present facts evince it. An immense “reserve power” of multiplication is certainly to be found in most countries, which is kept down by one obstacle or other, but which is ready to start forward when that obstacle is removed. No two countries can differ more in every respect important for this purpose than Great Britain and British India. Yet both of them seem to prove the same result. At home, the people of Great Britain increase only at the rate of 1·01 per cent. per annum, and double in fifty-eight years; but it you take the very same population to the Colonies or the United States, it is believed to increase at a much more rapid rate, and to double itself more rapidly, though the relative increase is not nearly so great as is sometimes assumed when no sufficient account is taken of the continual immigration into those countries. The lesson of Hindostan is still more remarkable. The population of the Peninsula is ordinarily supposed not to have augmented since the time of Alexander; there is conclusive evidence that for centuries preceding the English conquest it augmented very slowly, if at all. But now, under the influence of long peace, and long good government, the population is beginning to augment very rapidly. In the North-West Provinces, where the data are the best, it is said to be augmenting almost as rapidly as the population of Great Britain. Here, as before, there is an immense acceleration of the rate of multiplication, because a repressive force has, as before, been withdrawn. No one can doubt that the same experiment would have a like result in other cases.
It may be said that out of Europe there is very much unoccupied land, and that even if Europe produced all the people it could, those people might be sent thither. But emigration on such a scale, though imaginable in speculation, is not possible in practice. To create very rapidly new colonies, or to extend very rapidly old ones, requires the migration not only of persons but of capital. You must send thither the means of subsistence if the emigrants are to be subsisted, and the means of employment if they are to be employed, and capital will not go unless you pay it. It must have its regular percentage; and as yet no capital employed in founding colonies—no capital, that is, of a founding company, or of founders as such—has ever paid a farthing. The capital so expended has been a great benefit to the emigrants and to the colony, but it has never paid a dividend; on the contrary, the whole capital has commonly been lost. There are no means by which owners at home can be sure of their interest, nor will very many owners of capital go themselves to the colonies, only because it would much help the poor there if they did so. Capital must be propelled by self-interest; it cannot be enticed by benevolence. The sudden foundation of a colony so huge as to contain all the possible children—all those that might be in excess of those which are—is impossible; the bare idea of it is ridiculous.
Nor, if such a colony could be founded, would it attain the end desired. Cultivated persons in Europe do not produce all the children they might, because they know that if they did, those children could not lead any such life as they themselves lead. They wish their children to have refined habits, and to live by their talents and their mind as they do themselves. But in a colony this is simply impossible. Rude plenty and rough prosperity are common, but a nice refinement is all but impossible. The life of a lady, as we see it in Europe, is in colonies impossible. As sufficient servants cannot be obtained, the mother of the family has in person to see to the manual slavery of the housework as well as look after her children, and this leaves her little opportunity for refined culture. The men are a little better off, but not much. The demand for educated labour in the colonies is exceedingly small; the business of the place is to produce corn or wool—food or raw material; neither skilled labour nor cultured labour is much wanted for that. Almost all our colonies have warned our artisans not to come thither, because there was no room; and as for the legal or other long-trained and costly mental labour of the old world, there is very little opportunity for it. Not only, therefore, is a colony impossible which should be huge enough for all the possible people of the old world, but such a colony, even if possible, would be inadequate; it would only provide for the children of rude people in the manner rude people wish; it would not provide for those of refined people in the least, as refined people wish.
The measured use of the multiplying power which is now practised by all decent people in the existing society of the old world is, therefore, more or less essential to the continuance of such a society. A use of the power without measure would certainly overcrowd such societies with high aims that could not be satisfied; and, perhaps, also with mouths which could not be fed.
And it is quite consistent with this to believe that such restraint has not at all been uniformly practised in the world, that it has been rather the rare exception, not the common rule. Such restraint has not been practised because it has not been wanted. We have been let into the secret of the matter by the experience of India. The number of the people in British India, as we have seen, was stationary for ages, but now they have begun to augment quickly. And we know the reason why.
And it is, too, quite consistent with this doctrine to believe, as has been lately urged with singular force, that we have as yet much to learn as to the theory of population,—that the numbers of all nations do not augment alike (even under seemingly similar conditions),—that there is the same difference in different families,—that there are a variety of “laws,” some that can be clearly indicated, others that can be only suspected, which diminish, or seem to diminish, the multiplying capacity of mankind.
One of these is the increase of intellectual action. Physiologists say, on a priori ground, that if you spend nervous force in one direction, you will not have as much to spend in another. The ultimate identity of seemingly different forces is one of the most remarkable discoveries of recent science, and there is every reason to think that it applies here. An incessant action of the brain often seems to diminish the multiplying power. It can hardly be an accident that Shakespeare, Lord Bacon, Milton, Newton, and Locke—perhaps our five greatest Englishmen—had only six children between them.1 Locke and Newton, it is true, did not marry, but it is not irrational to suspect that the coolness of temperament which kept them single was but another phase of the same fundamental fact. But the doctrine of abstract physiology must be applied with caution; it only says that of any particular total of nervous force, what is expended in one way will not remain to be expended in another; in any given case, to use the well-known phrase, “what is gained in children will be lost in mind”; but all cases are not alike. The nervous power of A may be fifty times that of C, and, therefore, he may do five times more brain-work than C, and also have five times his children. And, in fact, Mr. Galton finds that English judges—a strongly intellectual race as a whole—have as many children as other people. And there are some other limiting observations which might be made on the subject. Still, on the whole there seems to be a tendency in the absorbing action of intellectual power to have this particular effect, and abstract science teaches that we should expect it.
The same remark, with some limitations, is probably also applicable to women. Hardly any one who observes can doubt that women of much mind and fine nerves, as a rule, seem not so likely to have children, or, at least, not to have so many children as others. Here, too, as with men, the whole vital force in one case often may be, and often will be, different from that force in another, and, therefore, particular women may be up to the average, or even be remarkable in both ways. But still, on the whole, the existence of the tendency seems clear. And it is curiously like a similar force at the other end of the social scale. Mr. Wallace, one of the most competent of living observers, says that the increase of the population in savage tribes is much retarded by the exhausting labour of their women. And it will be a curious cycle if, as is likely in the latest civilisation, the same preventive check should again become a powerful one.
Another force which may be strongly suspected, if it cannot be quite proved, is the tendency of disheartened races and of dispirited families to die out and disappear. This force would seem to be much the same as that which operates on all wild animals when in confinement. The richest food may be given to such animals, the greatest care taken of them, and their apparent health may seem to be as good as possible, and yet they will not breed. Now all such animals are dispirited for want of the excitement of a wild life, and this may be the reason of the change in their multiplying power; at any rate, in the case of men, close observers of the dying savage races seem to think that often the mind has something to do with it. The New Zealander says that “as the English rat has supplanted the Maori rat, so the English ‘man’ will supplant the Maori ‘man’ ”. He looks on the extinction of his race as a fixed fate, and, in consequence, his spirits fall, his mind loses some of its tone, and his constitution some of its vigour. In civilised life particular families sometimes seem to droop and die away, though it is not possible to set down the cases exactly in figures. This is analogous to what Dr. Maudsley tells us he has observed of anxiety.
All these seem to be traces of new laws which already diminish, and in future times may still more limit, the multiplying power of mankind; but the fullest acknowledgment of them does not contradict the primary assumption made by abstract Political Economy. It will still remain true, at present, that if all people had as many children as they could, they could not provide for them as they think they ought—perhaps could not provide for them at all. Nor is it easy to imagine a future time when causes such as these should have so exceedingly diminished the sexual feelings as to make voluntary restraint of them needless. Those feelings certainly are incredibly strong now, in comparison with the forces which it is thought will hereafter supplant them. It is easy to believe that the necessity for voluntary restraint should be diminished, but it is not easy even to imagine that this necessity should be extinguished.
In the same way this primary axiom would not be impaired if it could be proved that aristocracies, as such, tend to have fewer children than other classes. Aristocracies are so small a fraction of mankind that the particular rate of their increase is not important enough to alter much the rate of increase of mankind, or even of a nation as a whole. But though this tendency of aristocracies has often been imagined, it has never been proved, and, indeed, it never will be, for it can be easily disproved. The most obvious and conclusive fact against it is that the English aristocracy have more children than the average of Englishmen. A common observer of society would, indeed, expect to find this. He would remember that the peers now differ very little from the rest of the English gentry; that the English gentry are, as a rule, healthy and not dissipated men; that peers in general are married early. All these characteristics make them likely to have more children than other people, and, in fact, they have more. The theory that aristocracies of necessity diminish in number fails in this case even ludicrously, for that theory attributes to the persons it selects a deficiency in the very particulars in which they were likely to excel, and do excel.
But though this assumption as to the multiplying power of the people is true of by far the greater part of the world, and of most ages, it is not true of all the world or of all ages. Like the other primitive axiom of Political Economy as to land, it fails where “new” countries are occupied by old races. I have already spoken of the strange chance which has unpeopled so great a part of the world just when civilised people wanted to go there. It is strange to think how different would have been the fate of this and of coming generations, if America and Australia had possessed imperfect but thickly populated civilisations, like those of China and of India. In climate, and in all external circumstances, America seems as fit for an early civilisation as India. Happily, however, it did not possess one, nor did Australia. There is nothing there now left to cumber the ground. A race rich in the arts of civilisation is thus placed in a country rich in unowned but fertile land. And in these countries there is no check on population. Those who can live there—who are the kind of people that can bear the necessary rudeness and can live there—can multiply as fast as they like; they will be able to support their children in the rough comfort of such countries; those children will not be in the least likely to die off from want or from disease; on the contrary, they will be as likely to live as any children of the human race. The possible maximum of multiplication is there reached, and yet none of the multipliers are deteriorated in the scale of the life, or in any of their circumstances.
And it is necessary to take most careful account of this exceptional case, because it vitally affects the present life of present commercial nations, to which Political Economy is meant to be an approximation. The existence of those nations is vitally affected by the results of this exception, and therefore those results must not be neglected. It follows from those results that Political Economy is not the “dismal science” which it was thought to be years ago, and which many people still imagine it to be. It does not teach that of necessity there will be, as time goes on, a greater and greater difficulty in providing for the increase of mankind. It assumes as an indisputable fact, a present difficulty, but it does not assume, or say, that this difficulty will increase. That augmentation of difficulty will not arise first, because some of the inhabitants of old countries, can emigrate to new countries, where people may increase as fast as they can; secondly, because those emigrants produce more than they want in bare subsistence, and can send home a surplus to those who remain behind; thirdly, because even in the old countries the growing improvement in the arts of production is likely, at least, to counterbalance the inevitable difficulty of a gradual resort to less favoured and fertile soils.
This short explanation will, I think, be enough to give a rude idea of the science of Political Economy in its present form. If I were writing a professed book on the science, there would be much more to be said on the subject. But I hope what has been said will be enough to make plain the rest of this book. I am to speak of the creators of Political Economy, and to criticise them, and, unless as much as this had been said, the necessary considerations could scarcely have been lucidly explained.
[1 ] It will be obvious that some of the leading ideas of the previous essays are repeated in this. There is, however, so much that is fresh in it, and so much danger of bungling in any attempt to disentangle the fresh matter from what was embodied in the two previous essays, that it has been thought better to run some little risk of repetition rather than to attempt any separation of the old and new by any other hand than the author’s.
[2 ] Written in 1876 or earlier.
[1 ] The essay on J. S. Mill was not written and that on Adam Smith is incomplete.
[1 ] There may be some doubt as to Newton and Shakespeare, but this is the number as far as it can be authenticated.