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MISS MARTINEAU’S SUMMARY OF POLITICAL ECONOMY 1834 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume IV - Essays on Economics and Society Part I 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume IV - Essays on Economics and Society Part I, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by Lord Robbins (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967).
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MISS MARTINEAU’S SUMMARY OF POLITICAL ECONOMY
Monthly Repository, VIII (May, 1834), 318-22. Signed A; not republished. Original heading as above, with footnote: “Illustrations of Political Economy, No. XXV. ‘The Moral of many Fables,’ by Harriet Martineau” (London: Fox, 1834. Gathered, without repagination, in Vol. IX of Illustrations of Political Economy, also Fox, 1834). Identified in JSM’s bibliography as “A review of Miss Martineau’s Summary of Political Economy in the Monthly Repository for May 1834” (MacMinn, 39). The one correction indicated in the Somerville College copy will be found at 226a-a below.
Miss Martineau’s Summary of Political Economy
besides subjoining to each of her Political Economy Tales a brief summary of the doctrines which it was intended to illustrate, Miss Martineau has concluded the Series by a similar compendium of the whole science. We should rather say, not of the Science, but of its leading doctrines and most important applications, as taught by the highest contemporary authorities. For a science is a connected body of truth; the entire philosophy of some distinctly definable portion of the field of nature: and when it is taught as Science, that is, with a view to the perfection of speculative knowledge rather than to the readiness of practical application, the teacher aims at making such a selection of its truths, and at presenting them in such an order, as will best exhibit the connectedness of the whole, and the completeness with which it solves all the questions which a contemplation of the subject-matter suggests to the speculative inquirer. But this was not the task which Miss Martineau set before herself, nor had it been left for her to perform. Her object was, not to exhibit the science as a whole, but to illustrate such parts of it as lead directly to important practical results. Having accomplished this, she has now brought together in one series, the principles which she had separately exemplified, and by hanging them each in its place, upon a logical framework originally constructed for the entire science, has given to the “Moral” of her “many Fables,” some semblance of an elementary treatise. It would be unjust to weigh this little work in a balance in which most of the elaborate treatises on the subject would be found wanting. To all of them, perhaps, it may be objected, that they attempt to construct a permanent fabric out of transitory materials; that they take for granted the immutability of arrangements of society, many of which are in their nature fluctuating or progressive; and enunciate with as little qualification as if they were universal and absolute truths, propositions which are perhaps applicable to no state of society except the particular one in which the writer happened to live. Thus, for instance, English political economists presuppose, in every one of their speculations, that the produce of industry is shared among three classes, altogether distinct from one another—namely, labourers, capitalists, and landlords; and that all these are free agents, permitted in law and fact to set upon their labour, their capital, and their land, whatever price they are able to get for it. The conclusions of the science being all adapted to a society thus constituted, require to be revised whenever they are applied to any other. They are inapplicable where the only capitalists are the landlords, and the labourers are their property; as in the West Indies. They are inapplicable where the universal landlord is the State; as in India. They are inapplicable where the agricultural labourer is generally the owner both of the land itself and of the capital; as in France; or of the capital only, as in Ireland. We might greatly prolong this enumeration. It must not, however, be supposed that the science is so incomplete and unsatisfactory as this might seem to prove. Though many of its conclusions are only locally true, its method of investigation is applicable universally; and as he who has solved a certain number of algebraic equations, can without difficulty solve all others, so he who knows the political economy of England, or even of Yorkshire, knows that of all nations actual or possible: provided he have sense enough not to expect the same conclusion to issue from varying premises.
But it is, when not duly guarded against, an almost irresistible tendency of the human mind to become the slave of its own hypotheses; and when it has once habituated itself to reason, feel, and conceive, under certain arbitrary conditions, at length to mistake these conditions for laws of nature. Let us but be accustomed whenever we think aofa certain things, to figure them to ourselves as existing in one particular way, never in any other way, and we at last learn to think, or to feel as if we thought, that way the natural and the only possible way: and we feel the same sort of incapability of adapting our associations to any change in the hypothesis, which a rustic feels in conceiving that it is the earth which moves and the sun which stands still. (And this, we may observe, en passant, is one of the reasons why a literal understanding cannot be a good understanding, and why the greatest powers of reasoning, when connected with a sluggish imagination, are no safeguard against the poorest intellectual slavery—that of subjection to mere accidental habits of thought.) It is in this manner that in all countries the lawyer, from the habit of making the existing system his standard of comparison, and asking himself in each case as it occurs no question but this, how the case is provided for by the law as it is, becomes usually a sworn foe to all reform, merely because he cannot, for the life of him, realize the conception of any other system, or fancy what it could be like. And we think there is some danger of a similar result in the case of the English political economists. They revolve in their eternal circle of landlords, capitalists, and labourers, until they seem to think of the distinction of society into those three classes, as if it were one of God’s ordinances, not man’s, and as little under human control as the division of day and night. Scarcely any one of them seems to have proposed to himself as a subject of inquiry, what changes the relations of those classes to one another are likely to undergo in the progress of society; to what extent the distinction itself admits of being beneficially modified, and if it does not even, in a certain sense, tend gradually to disappear.
We are unable at present to enter into the extensive field of speculation which these topics open to us. There is much acknowledged evil to be got rid of, before these ulterior inquiries come into immediate contact with practice: society has many incumbrances to throw off, before it can start fair on that new journey. We have to abolish all monopolies, and restrictions on trade or production for the benefit of particular classes; to pay off our debt by an impost on all kinds of property; to new-model our whole fiscal system, with a view to raise no more revenue than is necessary, to raise it in the least costly manner, and to avoid favouring any class of contributors at the expense of another; and finally, we have to lessen the pressure on the labour-market, by systematic colonization adapted specially to that end, by ceasing to give, through the maladministration of the poor laws, artificial inducements to the increase of population, and on the contrary, giving all the force we can to the natural checks. The political economists of the last and present age have taught us all this, and through their exertions it has all been put into a train of more or less speedy accomplishment. We only ask of those to whom we are indebted for so much, that they will not require of us to believe that this is all, nor, by fixing bounds to the possible reach of improvement in human affairs, set limits also to that ardour in its pursuit, which may be excited for an object at an indefinite distance, but only if it be also of indefinite magnitude.
Miss Martineau’s little work is not more subject to the above criticism than works of far greater pretension; but on the contrary, less. And as an exposition of the leading principles of what now constitutes the science, it possesses considerable merit.
There is but one point of importance on which we are obliged to differ from her. We cannot concur in her unqualified condemnation of the principle of the poor-laws. In this she is decidedly behind the present state of the science; political economists having mostly abandoned this among other exaggerated conclusions to which naturally enough they had pushed the principle of population, when they first became acquainted with it. The recent investigations of the poor-law commission,[*] with which Miss Martineau is familiar, seem to us as conclusive in support of the principle of a poor-rate, as they are in condemnation of the existing practice.
We had marked for criticism, several instances of obscurity, or insufficient explanation, and some of inaccuracy, either of thought or of expression. But they are mostly of too little importance to require notice. We shall merely note one or two; which, it will be at once seen, arise from mere inadvertency. Thus, in page 120, she says, that when from an increase in the cost of procuring food, wages rise, without benefit to the labourers, “capitalists must either sell their productions dearer than is necessary where food is cheaper, or submit to a diminution of their profits. Under the first alternative, the capitalist is incapacitated for competition with the capitalists of countries where food is cheaper: under the second, the capital of the country tends, through perpetual diminution, to extinction.” Now, a moment’s reconsideration will easily show, that in the case supposed there would be no tendency to a diminution of capital, but only to the stoppage of any further increase. As well might it be said, that if you fill a vessel till it overflows, the water will continue to flow out until the vessel is empty.
Again, in page 3, are these words: “Productive labour being a beneficial power, whatever stimulates and directs this power is beneficial also. Many kinds of unproductive labour do this; many kinds of unproductive labour are therefore beneficial. All labour for which there is a fair demand is equally respectable.” We are sure Miss Martineau does not mean the last assertion to be taken literally; there may be a fair demand for labour which is positively infamous. What does she think of the labour of a quack doctor? or a conjurer? or the professional assassins who once drove so thriving a trade in Italy? But she probably means, that unproductive labour may be as deserving of respect as productive labour. It is quite out of keeping too, with Miss Martineau’s tone of thought and feeling, to assert that unproductive labour, for the purpose of immediate enjoyment, or of mental culture, is only beneficial because it may collaterally “stimulate and direct” productive labour. This cannot possibly be her meaning; but as such sentiments are often imputed to political economists, we regret that she did not more carefully avoid giving any colour to the imputation.
But even these small blemishes are rare, and do not materially impair the value of the work: for which we may safely venture to bespeak numerous readers and a favourable reception.
[a-a]34 to [corrected by JSM in Somerville College copy]
[[*] ]See “Report from his Majesty’s Commissioners into the Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Laws,” Parliamentary Papers, 1834, XXVII-XXXIX.