Front Page Titles (by Subject) CONCLUSION. - Popular Political Economy. Four lectures delivered at the London Mechanics Institution
Return to Title Page for Popular Political Economy. Four lectures delivered at the London Mechanics Institution
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CONCLUSION. - Thomas Hodgskin, Popular Political Economy. Four lectures delivered at the London Mechanics Institution 
Popular Political Economy. Four lectures delivered at the London Mechanics Institution (London: Charles and William Tait, 1827).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
That I have, by the foregoing remarks, exhausted the vast subject of the natural science of the production of wealth, or even glanced at numberless natural circumstances which influence production, I cannot suppose; yet I have set before the reader all those usually noticed in treatises of Political Economy. Moreover, I have included the influence of knowledge, and have endeavoured to ascertain the natural source of its progressive increase. Justly to appreciate the effects of natural principles, which always operate by creating motives in us, we must carefully separate them from social regulations, which are also intended to create motives, and which seem to have almost as powerful an influence on our destiny, though in an opposite direction, as the laws of Nature. Of all social regulations, the peculiar right of property, which exists in each country, has perhaps the greatest influence on production. I have not examined this right and its effects. Other writers have been equally timid, or equally prudent. Several other circumstances, to some of which I have already alluded, have been in like manner totally neglected. I consider the science, therefore, as extremely imperfect. If all the natural laws regulating our welfare were known; if we could always ascertain how much of our misery or happiness springs from them, or from social institutions; if, the instant any new problem arose, it could be satisfactorily solved, there would be no longer any disputes among the most distinguished professors of Political Economy, as to its first principles; and the science would, I should hope, be taught at school like common arithmetic; and, like it, would no longer stir up the fierce passions of contending parties. But it would then have no charms for the rising generation, which must be ambitious of adding to the stock of knowledge, and will never be contented with the humble drudgery of merely learning what others have discovered and known.
My principal object has been to satisfy the reader, by setting before him, in the first instance, the basis of the science, and by subsequently selecting only such phenomena as are uniform and almost universal, that the progress of mankind, in all that vast branch of civilization which relates to the production of wealth, is always determined and regulated by natural circumstances operating on the mind of man. Whether the impetus given by them to our race has been checked or accelerated by the regulations of the lawgiver, is a very wide question, which it would be prudent in us all to examine, but which I do not pretend to decide. As far, certainly, as the production of wealth is concerned, it does seem that those regulations are in all cases only burdens of unequal weight, retarding the progress of all nations, but of some much more than others. Whether the chief cause of the increase of knowledge be, as I suppose, the natural principle of population, is another question which deserves, undoubtedly, a more careful and minute investigation. On the ground of universality and uniformity, we are also compelled to believe, that the division of labour springs from a natural principle, which continually extends and perpetually regulates it; whether or not my explanation of the origin of that practice, and of the natural causes of its extension, be successful, the reader must decide. Over it legislators, though in fact their regulations check it to a very considerable extent, do not in general pretend to exercise any influence; and it forms, and is acknowledged to form, with all its vast and dependent phenomena, a great branch of the natural history of our species.
In the chapters on trade and on money, I have only endeavoured to trace some of these dependent phenomena; and I should hope I have been successful in satisfying the reader, that both arise naturally in the progress of society, and are always, and in every particular, as at their origin, controlled and regulated by natural laws, although both have also been controlled and regulated, to the great injury of mankind, by the human legislator. As the will of man is the medium through which these natural laws operate, we have, in the comparative invariability of the value of the precious metals, in the great changes which have taken place in their value, at certain periods all over the globe, and in the comparative variableness in the value of other commodities, which may, in all cases, be traced to general principles, a proof,—corroborating the proofs that have been drawn from numberless other phenomena, that the will and conduct of man, capricious as the will of individuals may seem, form a part of the universe, controlled, like every other part, by general and determinate laws.
We can never suppose, or believe, that a drop of water trickles to the ground, that a feather floats in the atmosphere, or that the blood circulates in our veins, under the influence of a law which extends beyond the orbits of the planets, regulating their motions—and at the same time suppose that the thoughts and will of men, the proximate causes of their weal or their woe, are released from the control of general laws; we can never believe that the inventions of aspiring genius, and the success which follows close and continued industry,—that the ambition which, when men consent to be its instruments, devastates the world, and which, finding no subservient menials, improves and adorns it,—or that the desire for enjoyment, which under one government prompts only to industry, and under another is the parent of endless cupidity,—in short, we can never believe that our passions and affections, or the mighty power we call in one comprehensive word, the mind of man, is less controlled by general laws than a trickling drop of water, a floating feather, or than the red globules on the circulation of which his life and intellect depend. The whole system of social production must be considered, like the solar system, as a part of the universe, which man may observe and know, but cannot regulate. He may thwart for a time the benevolent views of his Creator, but is invariably admonished, by the misery which ensues, of his having done wrong. To him, indeed, is given the high faculty of noting, weighing, and admiring the complicated and harmonious whole, which is the result of the instincts and self-interest of individuals; but that whole, like the co-operating communities of bees and ants, which have ever been the admiration of the naturalist, springs from a higher source than the foreplanning wisdom of man. Like other animals, he acts from unerring instincts; but his boasted reason, and his glimmerings of knowledge, also influence his conduct, and more often misdirect than guide it. To what those instincts may ultimately lead,—to what social perfection they will train mankind,—into what vast and benevolent system they are ultimately to develope themselves,—is as impossible for any man to foresee or imagine, though his intellect be as comprehensive and searching as that of Bacon and Newton combined, as it was for the savage to predict, in the infancy of the world, that the present system of co-operative production, embracing both hemispheres, would spring from the circumstance that he and his wife, under the influence of physical differences of organization, and in order to provide for themselves and their offspring, selected different employments. As it will undoubtedly be regulated and controlled in every minute part, and at all times, by the same hand that placed man on the earth, and gave to the embryo of the forest tree a living power to shoot upward, overcoming the ruling principle of all matter, there is reason to believe that it will be perfect, like the Master Power from which it emanates. The principles we have already traced are not limited by time nor space; and we may therefore hope also, that this perfect system is intended to embrace the whole community of man, and to extend over the whole globe; to every part of which, whether it be land or sea, mountain or plain, whether it be a burning climate, as under the equator, or a freezing one as at the Poles, he alone, of all animals, seems physically adapted. As a part, therefore, of the great system of the universe, though perhaps doubly interesting because their effects are not yet completely developed, the natural laws which regulate the progress of population and wealth ought to be, like the instincts of bees and ants, or like the motions of the planets, objects of rational curiosity; but when we know, in addition, that on them the welfare of mankind depends, it is impossible to conceive any study more deserving of our undivided attention.
That there is as yet a great diversity of opinion even as to the principles and foundation of political economy, cannot be denied. But this circumstance, which is sometimes made an argument for despising the science, seems to me a strong reason why it should be studied. It involves the domestic and dearest interests of all classes, coming home to the business and bosoms of all men; its doctrines now exercise also considerable influence over legislation, affecting all the relations of life, and therefore they require to be illuminated by the concentrated rays of the national intellect. Political economy is a natural, not a political science, and must not be left exclusively to statesmen. It originated among practical men, and it does not end in barren speculation. We are called on daily to give an active assent to its principles, and make them the rule of our obedience, or the guide to our remonstrances. By them legislators now propose to frame their institutions, and on them is founded the only reasonable justification of the present order of society. We cannot acknowledge, therefore, that we are incapable of ascertaining and understanding the natural laws which regulate the progress of society, without giving into the hands of one class of men the power of interpreting them according to their own views and interests. If we will not inquire into these laws, preferring a blind submission to some of our fellow-creatures, we surrender unto them the disposal of all that is valuable in existence; and we know from all experience, that such a power has never been possessed but to be abused. If I had any merit in the undertaking which led to the publication of this work, it was only in supposing that the members of a mechanics' institution were as capable as other men, constituted like themselves, and having no patent monopoly of genius or knowledge,—of comprehending whatever doctrines relative to the general welfare philosophers may put forth, or whatever truths they may discover. That supposition was not deceived: the lectures were heard with unexampled attention; and I shall have great reason to congratulate myself if that undertaking, or this book, shall excite in any one person a desire to examine into the natural laws which regulate the progress of national wealth.
To connect more distinctly these laws and the doctrines of political economy with individual welfare, let me remind the reader of the wide-spread poverty and distress which at present bear down to the earth all the industrious classes of this country. The peasant, who produces so much corn, that his master is ruined by its reduced price, has not wherewithal to eat and cover himself. The weaver, who supplies the world with clothing, whose master undertakes perilous adventures to tempt savages to use his productions, is perishing with hunger and nakedness in the midst of an inclement season. In Parliament and out of Parliament the poverty of the labourer is said to be the cause of numerous crimes. The established right of property,—that right which denies bread and raiment to the labourer, in order to pamper those who do not labour with luscious viands and clothe them in purple and fine linen, is daily violated to an alarming extent, and its total subversion by violence seems near at hand. Even those who cannot feel for the sufferings of others, are alarmed for the continuance of their own prosperity. There is not a man, perhaps, in the country, however exalted his situation, and however punctually hitherto his income may have been paid, who does not feel that the security of his property, the happiness of his family and friends, as well as the preservation of our national institutions, are closely connected with the condition, as to want or plenty, of the great mass of the people. Such a feeling arises from no theory, and is more frequently acted on than stated. The legislature, the government, the administrators of justice, the owners of land, the guardians of the poor, the great capitalists, live as it were in a perpetual struggle to repress or relieve poverty, or to punish the crimes to which it leads. On the other hand, those who labour for their subsistence, are called on to toil through the greater part of the day, and many of them find that excessive toil can scarcely procure them food. Their hearts are filled with discontent and repining at what some persons are prompt, without inquiry, to enforce on them, as the dispensations of Providence. The hopeless destitution which now characterises our industrious and skilful people, combined too with incessant calls on their industry, leads by no circuitous road to a regardlessness of the rights of other men, and even to scoffing at the justice of Providence—uprooting from their hearts the principles of honesty and virtue. All classes are deeply interested, therefore, in the inquiry into the causes of general poverty. This is the agitating topic for the present generation, before which, from its greater urgency, it seems likely, that the brawlings of party politicians and the ravings of selfish and intolerant fanatics will die away unheard and unnoticed.
By one party of reasoners, general poverty is attributed to natural and unalterable laws; by another it is said to be altogether the result of social institutions. To effect either good or ill, the latter have no power but what they derive from our assent; and it is therefore incumbent on us to distinguish between the effects of both, and not to call those evils the dispensations of Providence which we cause by our reverence for the decrees of men; and by our obedience to those who make the general welfare the mere stalking horse to their own ambition. Human society is not like a regiment of dragoons or a cotton manufactory, an instrument made and regulated by man. If the general welfare be not willed by Him who created and governs the world, legislators cannot achieve it; if it be, their interference is useless. The welfare of nations, or of mankind at large, is plainly no object attainable by human will; no purpose within human power to accomplish,—the means even by which it is to be accomplished being unknown to us; and no ambition is at once so monstrously absurd in principle and so injurious in its consequences, as that which aspires to regulate, not only the present, but the future condition of society.
Political Economists in our time, far from imitating the wise conduct of their master, have all participated in this infatuated ambition, and have all aspired to be legislators. They have also brought the science into disrepute by siding with those who call themselves the ministers of Providence, and who loudly proclaim the doctrine, that the poverty of the labourer is one of its dispensations. They have thus thrown doubts on the benevolence of the Author of Nature, and have weakened that conviction of his goodness and justice which is essential to our tranquillity, and which every other part of the universe seems to enforce. I have taken a different view from theirs, and cannot help believing that we shall always find in the increase of knowledge and extended division of labour,—the natural and necessary consequences of an increase of people,—a compensation, or even more than a compensation, for that decreasing fertility in soils, which is said by Political Economists and Statesmen, to add to the difficulty of procuring subsistence as mankind multiply. On an assumption of this kind the latter class found the necessity for their interference; and the former describe as a natural phenomenon the present distribution of wealth; though it is in all its parts a palpable violation of that natural law which gives wealth to labour and to labour only; and though it is only maintained by an armed force, and by a system of cruel and bloody laws. I have taken a different view, which is, I think, confirmed by the condition of this country. Never were its people so numerous, and never were their productive powers so great as at present. Ever since our industry was released from the impediments of war, the complaint has been, that we possessed too much productive power. The markets here and abroad have been glutted with produce. Wheat has been rotting in Poland and other parts of the world, and the ground there has remained untilled because the Polish labourers could find no consumers for their produce; while the power of producing those commodities, for which the owners of wheat would gladly have exchanged it, has here been so great that its operation has very frequently been limited or wholly suspended; and those in whose hands this power lies have perished for want of that wheat which has rotted abroad. The distress our people suffer, therefore, and the poverty we all complain of, is not caused by nature, but by some social institutions, which either will not allow the labourer to exert his productive power, or which rob him of its fruits. I can never, therefore, join with those Political Economists, who seem even to be fond of calumniating Nature in order to uphold our reverence for the institutions of man. All the arguments they have urged in justification of their views, seem to be founded on the effects of some social institutions, which they assume to be natural laws. They stop short of first principles, and draw conclusions when they are acquainted with only half the circumstances on which a correct opinion can be founded. The laws regulating the production of wealth are a part of the creation, in which generally we trace only benevolence in the design and harmony in the execution; and I willingly therefore, adopt the language of Mr. Stewart, to express my belief, "that in the moral as in the material world, the farther we push our observations and the longer they are continued, the more we shall perceive of order and design in the universe;"—and I therefore can have no doubt that the science of Political Economy, which, from being imperfectly known, has thrown doubt, dismay, and terror over the minds of men, will be found when perfectly known, if I may apply to it the language of our most sublime poet, to—
"Justify the ways of God to man."
END OF BOOK FIRST.