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LECTURE IV.: THAT POLITICAL ECONOMY IS A POSITIVE, NOT AN HYPOTHETICAL SCIENCE.—DEFINITION OF WEALTH. - Nassau William Senior, Four Introductory Lectures on Political Economy 
Four Introductory Lectures on Political Economy (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1852).
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THAT POLITICAL ECONOMY IS A POSITIVE, NOT AN HYPOTHETICAL SCIENCE.—DEFINITION OF WEALTH.
In the present Lecture I shall consider whether the science of Political Economy may be more conveniently based on positive or on hypothetical principles, and shall afterwards explain, more fully than I have as yet done, the sense in which I use the word wealth. Mr. John Mill, who has contributed much to Political Economy, as he has, indeed, to every science which he has touched, maintains that it is based on hypothesis. As it is impossible to change Mr. Mill’s language for the better, I shall extract the material parts of the passage in which he states and supports this opinion.
“Political Economy,”* he says, “is concerned with man solely as a being who desires to possess wealth, and who is capable of judging of the comparative efficacy of means for obtaining that end. It predicts only such of the phenomena of the social state as take place in consequence of the pursuit of wealth. It makes entire abstraction of every other human passion or motive, except those which may be regarded as perpetually antagonising principles to the desire of wealth; namely, aversion to labour, and desire of the present enjoyment of costly indulgences. These it takes, to a certain extent, into its calculations, because these do not merely, like other desires, occasionally conflict with the pursuit of wealth, but accompany it always as a drag or impediment, and are therefore inseparably mixed up in the consideration of it. Political Economy considers mankind as occupied solely in acquiring and consuming wealth, and aims at showing what is the course of action into which mankind, living in a state of society, would be impelled, if that motive, except in the degree in which it is checked by the two perpetual counter-motives above adverted to, were absolutely ruler of all their actions. Under the influence of this desire, it shows mankind accumulating wealth, and employing wealth in the production of other wealth; sanctioning by mutual agreement the institution of property; establishing laws to prevent individuals from encroaching upon the property of others by force or fraud; adopting various contrivances for increasing the productiveness of their labour; settling the division of the produce by agreement, under the influence of competition (competition itself being governed by certain laws, which laws are therefore the ultimate regulators of the division of the produce), and employing certain expedients, as money, credit, &c., to facilitate the distribution. All these operations, though many of them are really the result of a plurality of motives, are considered by Political Economy as flowing solely from the desire of wealth. The science then proceeds to investigate the laws which govern these several operations, under the supposition that man is a being who is determined, by the necessity of his nature, to prefer a greater proportion of wealth to a smaller in all cases, without any other exception than that constituted by the two counter-motives already specified. Not that any political economist was ever so absurd as to suppose that mankind are really thus constituted, but because this is the mode in which science must necessarily proceed. When an effect depends upon a concurrence of causes, those causes must be studied one at a time, and their laws separately investigated, if we wish, through the causes, to obtain the power of either predicting or controlling the effect; since the law of the effect is compounded of the laws of all the causes which determine it. The law of the centripetal and that of the tangential force must have been known, before the motions of the earth and planets could be explained, or many of them predicted. The same is the case with the conduct of man in society. In order to judge how he will act under the variety of desires and aversions which are concurrently operating upon him, we must know how he would act under the exclusive influence of each one in particular. There is, perhaps, no action of a man’s life in which he is neither under the immediate nor under the remote influence of any impulse but the mere desire of wealth. With respect to those parts of human conduct of which wealth is not even the principal object, to these Political Economy does not pretend that its conclusions are applicable. But there are also certain departments of human affairs, in which the acquisition of wealth is the main and acknowledged end. It is only of these that Political Economy takes notice. The manner in which it necessarily proceeds is that of treating the main and acknowledged end as if it were the sole end; which, of all hypotheses equally simple, is the nearest to the truth. The political economist inquires, what are the actions which would be produced by this desire, if, within the departments in question, it were unimpeded by any other?
“It reasons, and, as we contend, must necessarily reason, from assumptions, not from facts. It is built upon hypotheses strictly analogous to those which, under the name of definitions, are the foundation of the other abstract sciences. Geometry presupposes an arbitrary definition of a line, ‘that which has length but not breadth.’ Just in the same manner does Political Economy presuppose an arbitrary definition of man, as a being who invariably does that by which he may obtain the greatest amount of necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries, with the smallest quantity of labour and physical self-denial with which they can be obtained in the existing state of knowledge. It is true that this definition of man is not formally prefixed to any work on Political Economy, as the definition of a line is prefixed to Euclid’s Elements; and in proportion as, by being so prefixed, it would be less in danger of being forgotten, we may see ground for regret that it is not done. It is proper that what is assumed in every particular case, should once for all be brought before the mind in its full extent, by being somewhere formally stated as a general maxim. Now, no one who is conversant with systematic treatises on Political Economy will question, that whenever a political economist has shown that, by acting in a particular manner, a labourer may obviously obtain higher wages, a capitalist larger profits, or a landlord higher rent, he concludes, as a matter of course, that they will certainly act in that manner. Political Economy, therefore, reasons from assumed premises—from premises which might be totally without foundation in fact, and which are not pretended to be universally in accordance with it. The conclusions of Political Economy, consequently, like those of geometry, are only true, as the common phrase is, in the abstract; that is, they are only true under certain suppositions, in which none but general causes—causes common to the whole class of cases under consideration—are taken into account.”
I have extracted this long passage because it is a clear statement of an original view of the science of Political Economy,—a view so plausible, indeed so philosophical, that I feel bound either to adopt it, or to state fully my reasons for rejecting it. I am not aware of any writer, except, perhaps, Mr. Merivale, who has expressed a formal concurrence in Mr. Mill’s doctrine; but Mr. Ricardo has practically assented to it.
His treatment of the science, indeed, is still more abstract than that proposed by Mr. Mill. He adds to Mr. Mill’s hypothesis other assumptions equally arbitrary; and he draws all his illustrations, not from real life, but from hypothetical cases. Out of these materials he has framed a theory, as to the distribution of wealth, possessing almost mathematical precision.
But neither the reasoning of Mr. Mill, nor the example of Mr. Ricardo, induce me to treat Political Economy as an hypothetical science. I do not think it necessary, and, if unnecessary, I do not think it desirable.
It appears to me, that if we substitute for Mr. Mill’s hypothesis, that wealth and costly enjoyment are the only objects of human desire, the statement that they are universal and constant objects of desire, that they are desired by all men and at all times, we shall have laid an equally firm foundation for our subsequent reasonings, and have put a truth in the place of an arbitrary assumption. We shall not, it is true, from the fact that by acting in a particular manner a labourer may obtain higher wages, a capitalist larger profits, or a landlord higher rent, be able to infer the further fact that they will certainly act in that manner, but we shall be able to infer that they will do so in the absence of disturbing causes. And if we are able, as will frequently be the case, to state the cases in which these causes may be expected to exist, and the force with which they are likely to operate, we shall have removed all objection to the positive as opposed to the hypothetical treatment of the science.
I have said that the hypothetical treatment of the science, if unnecessary, is undesirable. It appears to me to be open to three great objections. In the first place it is obviously unattractive. No one listens to an exposition of what might be the state of things under given but unreal conditions, with the interest with which he hears a statement of what is actually taking place.
In the second place, a writer who starts from arbitrarily assumed premises, is in danger of forgetting, from time to time, their unsubstantial foundation, and of arguing as if they were true. This has been the source of much error in Ricardo. He assumed the land of every country to be of different degrees of fertility, and rent to be the value of the difference between the fertility of the best and of the worst land in cultivation. The remainder of the produce he divided into profit and wages. He assumed that wages naturally amount to neither more nor less than the amount of commodities which nature or habit has rendered necessary to maintain the labourer and his family in health and strength. He assumed that, in the progress of population and wealth, worse and worse soils are constantly resorted to, and that agricultural labour, therefore, becomes less and less proportionately productive; and he inferred that the share of the produce of land taken by the landlord and by the labourer must constantly increase, and the share taken by the capitalist constantly diminish.
This was a logical inference, and would consequently have been true in fact, if the assumed premises had been true. The fact is, however, that almost every one of them is false. It is not true that rent depends on the difference in fertility of the different portions of land in cultivation. It might exist if the whole territory of a country were of uniform quality. It is not true that the labourer always receives precisely the necessaries, or even what custom leads him to consider the necessaries, of life. In civilised countries he almost always receives much more; in barbarous countries he from time to time obtains less. It is not true that as wealth and population advance, agricultural labour becomes less and less proportionately productive. The corn now raised with the greatest labour in England is raised with less labour than that which was raised with the least labour three hundred years ago, or than that which is now raised with the least labour in Poland. It is not true that the share of the produce taken by the capitalist is least in the richest countries. Those are the countries in which it generally is the greatest. Mr. Ricardo was certainly justified in assuming his premises, provided that he was always aware, and always kept in mind, that they were merely assumed. This, however, he seems sometimes not to know, and sometimes he forgets. Thus he states, as an actual fact, that in an improving country, the difficulty of obtaining raw produce constantly increases. He states as a real fact, that a tax on wages falls not on the labourer but on the capitalist.
He affirms that tithes occasion a proportionate increase in the price of corn, and a proportionate increase of wages, and therefore are a tax on the capitalist, not on the landlord. Positions both of which depend on an assumed fixed amount of wages.
A third objection to reasoning on hypothesis is its liability to error, either from illogical inference, or from the omission of some element necessarily incident to the supposed case. When a writer takes his premises from observation and consciousness, and infers from them what he supposes to be real facts, if he have committed any grave error, it generally leads him to some startling conclusion. He is thus warned of the probable existence of an unfounded premise, or of an illogical inference, and if he be wise, tries back until he has detected his mistake. But the strangeness of the results of an hypothesis, gives no warning. We expect them to differ from what we observe, and lose, therefore, this incidental means of testing the correctness of our reasoning.
An illustration of this may be found in the eminently ingenious and eminently erroneous work of Colonel Torrens, called “The Budget.” Colonel Torrens supposes the commercial world to consist of only two countries, equal in wealth and civilisation, which he calls England and Cuba. He supposes that England has peculiar advantages for the production of woollens, and Cuba for that of sugar, and that the cloth of the one, and the sugar of the other, are freely exchanged in proportion to the labour which each has cost. He then supposes Cuba to impose a duty on English cloth, which would of course, to a certain extent, prevent its importation; and he states that the consequence would be, that England would have to send money to Cuba for sugar, until the exportation of money had impoverished England, and its importation had enriched Cuba.
Now if Colonel Torrens, instead of hypothetical, had taken real cases, if he had inquired, for instance, into the results of the prohibitive system of France, and had come to the conclusion that that system increases her wealth, the strangeness of such a result would have led him to suspect an error in his facts or in his reasoning. But the strangeness of the result of an imaginary case did not rouse his suspicion. The fact is, that his hypothetical argument is erroneous; and the error consists in his not having taken into account an element essentially incident to his supposed case, namely, the influence of commercial restrictions on the efficiency of labour. If he had taken this element into account, he would have found that Cuba, by her prohibitive system, would diminish the productive power of her labour, and consequently would find it her interest to import from England commodities which she previously produced at home; so that the ultimate result would probably be, rather an export of gold from Cuba than from England.
Colonel Torrens’s book always reminds me of the suit of clothes which the Laputa tailor cut on hypothetical data. Unfortunately, however, for the credit of the Laputa artist, Gulliver tried them on, and the error which had slipped into the calculation showed itself in every form of misfit. Happily for Colonel Torrens, and happily for ourselves, we have not tried on his theory.
But though the objections against founding the science on hypothesis seem to me decisive, I do not give up hypothetical illustrations. Such illustrations not only make abstract reasonings more easily intelligible, they often expose their errors. Conclusions which appeared to be correct, when the vague terms of capital and labour, profit and wages, were used, are often found to be erroneous, when an hypothetical example embodies these abstractions, and endeavours to show the moral and physical processes by which the supposed result would be obtained. The absence of such illustrations is one of the great defects of Adam Smith. Perhaps this very defect contributed to the popularity of his work. Such illustrations, however useful, always give an appearance of stiffness and pedantry. The careless reader or hearer neglects them, and the real student is annoyed at having to learn the dramatis personæ of an imaginary case. But if Smith had used them, he would probably have avoided some errors, and have preserved his successors from many more. His example in this and in some other respects, introduced a loose, popular mode of treating Political Economy, which has mainly retarded its progress.
It may be remarked, that I have as yet used the word wealth, without defining it. I have done so, because I employ it in its popular sense, and because the ideas usually attached to that word appear to me to be sufficiently precise, to prevent any danger of my hearers misunderstanding it. Having now, however, completed the introduction to the science of Political Economy, having marked out its province, and stated the mode in which I intend to treat it, I think it advisable formally to define the term which expresses its subject matter. And this for two reasons. First, because, in a scientific work, every technical term ought to be defined; and, secondly, because that term has been employed by many of those who have preceded me, in senses differing from that which I adopt.
In ordinary use, and I think it is the most convenient use, wealth comprehends all those things, and those things only, which, directly or indirectly, are made the subjects of purchase and sale, of letting and hiring. For this purpose, they must, in the first place, possess utility, or, in other words, be capable of affording pleasure or preventing pain, since no one would purchase or hire anything absolutely useless. In the second place, they must be limited in supply, since no one would buy anything of which he might acquire as much as he pleased by merely taking possession of it. The water in the open sea is practically unlimited in supply; any one who chooses to go for it, may have as much of it as he pleases. The portion of it which has been brought to London to supply salt water baths is limited, and cannot be obtained, therefore, without payment. In the third place, nothing is wealth that is not capable of appropriation. Fine weather is useful, and is limited in supply, but it is not wealth, since it cannot be appropriated. Some things are capable of appropriation only under peculiar circumstances. In an extensive, thinly inhabited plain, light and air are incapable of appropriation, every inhabitant may enjoy them equally; but in a town, one house intercepts them from another. A town house, surrounded by an open space, has more of them than one in a street. The possessor of such a house, and of the ground which surrounds it, has practically appropriated its peculiar advantages of light and air; they add to its value, and form, therefore, part of his wealth. He even may sell them without parting with his house, by selling the privilege of erecting buildings which will intercept them. Fourthly, as is implied by the definition, nothing can be wealth which is not directly or indirectly transferable. High birth is agreeable and rare, it may add to the happiness of its possessor, but, as it is absolutely incapable of transfer, it is not part of his wealth. Most of our personal qualities are only indirectly transferable; they are transferable, not in themselves, but embodied in the commodities which their possessor can produce, or in the services which he can render. The skill of a painter is transferable in the form of a commodity, his pictures; the skill of a surgeon in that of a service, the dexterity with which he performs an operation. Such qualities perish by the death of the possessor, or may be impaired or destroyed by disease, or rendered valueless by changes in the customs of the country, which put an end to the demand for their products. Even to the same person, and under the same circumstances in all other respects, they may become wealth, or cease to be wealth, merely in consequence of a change in the social position of their possessor. When Miss Linley became Mrs. Sheridan, her powers of action and song ceased to be wealth; they remained the delight of private societies, but were no longer objects of sale. If Sheridan had condescended to accept an income on such terms, his wife’s accomplishments would have enriched him. Subject, however, to these contingencies, personal qualities are wealth, and wealth of the most valuable kind. The amount of the revenue derived from their exercise in England, far exceeds the rental of all its land.
The words wealth and value differ as substance and attribute. All those things, and those things only, which constitute wealth, are valuable. As the meaning of the term value has been the subject of long and eager controversy, I shall, at a future period, consider at some length the different significations which have been given to it. It is enough to say at present that I use it in its popular acceptation, as signifying in anything the quality which fits it to be given and received in exchange, or, in other words, to be let or sold, hired or purchased.
It follows, from this definition of wealth, that in a community enjoying perfect abundance, there would be no wealth. If every object of desire could be procured by a wish, nothing would have value, and nothing would be exchanged. It follows, also, that it is possible to conceive at least a temporary diminution of the wealth of a community occasioned by an increase of their means of enjoyment. This would be the immediate consequence of any cause which should occasion the supply of any useful article to change from limited to unlimited. Thus, if the climate of England could suddenly be changed to that of Bogota, and the warmth which we extract imperfectly and expensively from fuel were supplied by the sun, fuel would cease to be useful, except as one of the productive instruments employed by art. We should want no more grates or chimney-pieces in our sitting-rooms. What had previously been a considerable amount of property in the fixtures of houses, in stock in trade, and materials, would become valueless. Coals would sink in price; the most expensive mines would be abandoned; those which were retained would afford smaller rents. The proprietors and tradesmen specially affected by the change would lose not only in wealth, but in the means of enjoyment. The owner of a mine whose rent fell from 20,000l. a year to 10,000l., would not be compensated by being saved the expense of fuel in every room except his kitchen. On the other hand, persons without fire-places or coal-cellars of their own, would lose nothing, and the rest of the world would lose only in the value of their grates, chimney-pieces, and stocks of coal; and all would gain in enjoyment by being able to devote to other purposes the money which they previously paid for artificial warmth. Still for a time there would be less wealth. That time, indeed, would be short; the cpaital and the labour previously devoted to warming our apartments, would be diverted to the production of new commodities. The cheapness of coal would increase the supply of manufactured articles, and there would then be as much wealth as there was before the change; probably more, and certainly much more enjoyment. It is probable that salt forms a smaller part of the wealth of England than of Hindostan, though every Englishman has twenty times as much of it as every Hindoo. The Englishman is allowed to use freely the abundant supply offered by nature. In Hindostan there is a natural scarcity, aggravated tenfold by the Government.
We may conceive a case in which unlimited abundance would destroy not only the value, but the utility of a whole class of commodities; would prevent them not merely from being objects of exchange, but even from being objects of desire. This would be the case as to all the commodities whose only utility is to be a means of displaying wealth. If emeralds were suddenly to become as abundant as pebbles, they could be no longer used as ornaments; and if no other use could be made of them, and I am not aware of any, they would be valueless. All their possessors, at the time of the change, would find themselves poorer, and neither they nor any one else would be compensated by any increased means of enjoyment. It would be a mere destruction of wealth.
It may be as well to remark, that things may be wealth to individuals without forming part of the wealth of the community to which those individuals belong. This is the case with respect to almost all the wealth created by an artificial limitation of supply. The monopolies with which Elizabeth rewarded her favourites were wealth to them, but diminished the wealth of the rest of the community. The same may be said of a patent right, or of the secrecy of a manufacturing process. The process itself, which is protected by the patent or by the secrecy, is part of the wealth of the community, since it enables them to have more or better commodities; but the monopoly granted by the patent, or guarded by the secrecy, is wealth only to its owner. As soon as the patent terminates, or the secret is divulged, the wealth of the community is increased by the increased abundance of the commodities to the production of which every one may now apply the process.
Again, the national debt is wealth to the proprietors of stock, but as the sum received in dividends is paid in taxes, it cannot form a part of the wealth of the nation. If, indeed, those two sums precisely coincided, if there were no expenses of collection, and if taxes did not interfere with the production of wealth, the national debt would not diminish the national wealth, though it could not augment it. It would be a mere matter of distribution. But the expense of collecting the national revenue, and the interference of taxation with production, are so much pure loss; and by the amount of these two sources of expense and loss, we should be richer if the national debt were repudiated.
The wealth which consists merely of a right or credit on the part of A. with a corresponding duty or debt on the part of B., is not considered by the political economist. He deals with the things which are the subjects of the right or of the credit, not with the cliams or the liabilities which may affect them. In fact, the credit amounts merely to this, that B. has in his hands a part of the property of A.
I have said that my definition of wealth differs from that which has been adopted by many of my predecessors. Some political economists extend the term to all the objects of human desire; others restrict it to what they have called material products; and others to the things which cannot be acquired or produced without labour. The objections to the first definition are obvious. If wealth be the subject of Political Economy, and wealth include all that man desires, Political Economy, whether a science or an art, is the science or the art which treats of human happiness—a subject, as I have already remarked, too extensive to be included in a single treatise. The second, that which confines wealth to material objects, is more plausible. It includes all visible wealth, it includes all wealth which is capable of direct and complete sale. The things which it excludes are mere objects of the intellect. They may be shared, but cannot be completely transferred, since the proprietor, though he may impart them, cannot divest himself of them; they may produce permanent effects, but perish themselves with the individual mind of which they are qualities. But as they obey, in other respects, the same laws as material wealth, are obtained by the same means, and owe their value to the same causes, I think their exclusion a fatal objection to a definition of wealth. The definition which confines wealth to the things which cannot be acquired or produced without labour, differs little from mine, which confines it to things limited in supply. Whatever must be obtained by labour is necessarily limited in supply, the supply of labour itself being limited; and, on the other hand, there are, in fact, scarcely any, if there be any, commodities limited in supply and capable of transfer, which can be obtained without some labour. So that wealth is always found subject to both these incidents. Nor does value appear to depend on either incident exclusively. A quarter of corn from the best, and one from the worst land, of equal goodness, sell in the same market at the same price, though one may have cost three times as much labour as the other. The pictures of Hans Hemling are far more limited in supply than those of Raffaelle, and yet they sell for much less.
We can separate, however, the two qualities in our minds. We can suppose a commodity useful and transferable to be limited in supply, but that supply to be gratuitously afforded by nature. About 1,980,000 lbs. weight of silver is supposed to be now annually supplied. Now, if precisely the same quantity of pure silver as is now produced daily in each refining house, were every day to be supernaturally deposited on a table in the refining house, and all other sources of supply were to cease, silver would continue to be limited in supply just as it is now, but would no longer be procured by labour. Is there any reason for supposing that its value would alter? If its value would remain the same, it follows that it depends on limitation of supply, and that limitation of supply, not the necessity of labour, is the differentia which constitutes wealth. An uncut copy of an early printed book is worth, perhaps, ten times as much as a copy which has been fitted to be read by cutting open its leaves. Because it has cost more labour? No: it has cost rather less. Because it is more readable? No: it is useless for the purpose of reading. Simply because such copies are more limited in supply.
Spottiswoodes and Shaw, New-street-Square.
[* ] Essays on some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy, pp. 137, 138, 139, 140, 144, 145.