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Philip Wicksteed’s positive vision of the “cash nexus” (1910)

The English economist and theologian Philip H. Wicksteed (1844-1927) turns Marx’s idea of the evils of the “cash nexus” on its head in his discussion of how the “economic nexus” brings together two groups who would not normally associate with each other very easily, if at all:

There is surely nothing degrading or revolting to our higher sense in this fact of our mutually furthering each other’s purposes because we are interested in our own. There is no taint or presumption of selfishness in the matter at all. The economic nexus indefinitely expands our freedom of combination and movement; for it enables us to form one set of groups linked by cohesion of faculties and resources, and another set of groups linked by community of purpose, without having to find the “double coincidence” which would otherwise be necessary. This economy and liberty will be equally valued by altruistic and by egoistic groups or individuals, and it would be just as true, and just as false, to say that the business motive ignores egoistic as to say that it ignores altruistic impulses.

The proposal to exclude “benevolent” or “altruistic” motives from consideration in the study of Economics is therefore wholly irrelevant and beside the mark. A man’s purposes may, of course, be selfish, but however unselfish they are he requires the co-operation of others who are not interested, or who are inadequately interested in them, in order to accomplish them. We enter into business relations with others, not because our purposes are selfish, but because those with whom we deal are relatively indifferent to them, but are (like us) keenly interested in purposes of their own, to which we in our turn are relatively indifferent. “Business,” then, is primarily a vast network of organisations by which any person or combination of persons can direct their resources and their powers to the accomplishment of their purposes, without the necessity of a direct relation, hard and often impossible to secure, between the objects sought and the faculties and materials directly at command.

There is surely nothing degrading or revolting to our higher sense in this fact of our mutually furthering each other’s purposes because we are interested in our own. There is no taint or presumption of selfishness in the matter at all. The economic nexus indefinitely expands our freedom of combination and movement; for it enables us to form one set of groups linked by cohesion of faculties and resources, and another set of groups linked by community of purpose, without having to find the “double coincidence” which would otherwise be necessary. This economy and liberty will be equally valued by altruistic and by egoistic groups or individuals, and it would be just as true, and just as false, to say that the business motive ignores egoistic as to say that it ignores altruistic impulses. The specific characteristic of an economic relation is not its “egoism,” but its “non-tuism.”

It may be urged, however, that since, as a rule, “ego” and “tu” fill the whole canvas, not only to the spectator, but to the actors also; that is to say, since a man, when he is doing business, is generally only thinking of his own bargain, and how to deal with his correspondent, and not of any one else at all, the exclusion of “tu” is tantamount to the solitary survival of “ego.” So that, after all, “altruism” has no place in business, and “non-tuism” is equivalent to “egoism.” And, indeed, it may be true enough that, as a rule, the average man of business is not likely to be thinking of any “others” at all in the act of bargaining, but even so the term “egoism” is misapplied, for neither is he thinking of himself! He is thinking of the matter in hand, the bargain or the transaction, much as a man thinks of the next move in a game of chess or of how to unravel the construction of a sentence in the Greek text he is reading. He wants to make a good bargain or do a good piece of business, and he is directly thinking of nothing else. All manner of considerations of loyalty, of humanity, of reputation, and so forth, are no doubt present to his mind in solution, so to speak, as restraining influences; and they may easily be precipitated and emerge into consciousness at any moment of vacillation or reflection; but in making his bargain the business man is not usually thinking of these things, and when he thinks of them they act chiefly as restraints. Neither is he thinking of the ultimate purposes to which he will apply the resources that he gains.

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In the vocabulary of Marx the impersonal relationship which existed between the capitalist and his workers was derogatively referred to as the “cash nexus.” Wicksteed on the other hand thought the cash nexus, or what he called the “economic nexus,” was a very positive thing as it brought together in a social as well as economic relationship two groups who might otherwise not come together, those who have certain technical skills and resources to create things (such as the manufacturers of building supplies), and those social groups who have a shared “community of purpose” (such as a congregation who wish to build a new church). In order for economic activity to occur individuals from a variety of groups and backgrounds must be brought together in order to cooperate to achieve certain common interests in spite of the fact that they might have very different personal goals and ideological viewpoints.

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