Εικόνες σελίδας
PDF
Ηλεκτρ. έκδοση

itants. The supply of provisions for an army or garrison is comparatively uniform in kind; but here, the greatest possible variety is required, suitable to the wants of the various classes of consumers. Again, this immense population is extremely fluctuating in numbers; and the increase or diminution depends on causes of which some may, others cannot, be distinctly foreseen. Again, and above all, the daily supplies of each article must be so nicely adjusted to the stock from which it is drawn, to the scanty or abundant harvest, importation, or other source of supply, to the interval which must elapse before a fresh stock can be furnished, and to the probable abundance of the new supply, that as little distress as possible may be felt; — that, on the one hand, the population may not unnecessarily be put on short allowance of any article, and, on the other, may be preserved from the more dreadful risk of famine, which must happen if they continued to consume freely when the stock was insufficient to hold out.

"Now let any one consider this problem in all its bearings, and then reflect on the anxious toil which such a task would impose on a board of the most experienced and intelligent commissaries, - who, after all, could discharge their office but very inadequately. Yet this object is accomplished, far better than it could be by any effort of human wisdom, through the agency of men who think each of nothing beyond his own immediate interest, — who, with that object in view, perform their respective parts with cheerful zeal, and combine unconsciously to employ the wisest means for effecting an object, the vastness of which it would bewilder them even to contemplate.

“ It is really wonderful to consider with what ease and regularity this important end is accomplished, day after day, and year after year, through the sagacity and vigilance of private interest operating on the numerous class of wholesale, and more especially retail, dealers. Each of these watches attentively the demands of his neighborhood, or of the market he frequents, for such commodities as he deals in. The apprehension, on the one hand, of not realizing all the profit he might, and, on the other, of having his goods left on his hands, - these antagonist muscles, regulate the extent of his dealings and the prices at which he buys and sells. An abundant supply causes him to lower his prices, and thus enables the public to enjoy that abundance; while he is guided only by the apprehension of being undersold. On the other hand, an actual or apprehended scarcity causes him to demand a higher price, or to keep back his goods in expectation of a rise. Thus he coöperates, unknowingly, in conducting a system which no human wisdom directed to that end could have conducted so well, — the system by which this enormous population is fed from day to day.

“ I say, 'no human wisdom'; for wisdom there surely is, in this adaptation of the means to the result actually produced. In this instance, there are the same marks of benevolent design which we are accustomed to admire in the anatomical structure of the human body. I know not whether it does not even still more excite our admiration of the beneficent wisdom of Providence, to contemplate, not corporeal particles, but rational free agents, coöperating in systems not less manifestly indicating design, but no design of theirs ; and though acted on, not by gravitation and impulse, like inert matter, but by motives addressed to the will, yet accomplishing as regularly and as effectually an object they never contemplated, as if they were merely the passive wheels of a machine. The heavens do indeed declare the glory of God, and the human body is fearfully and wonderfully made; but man, considered not merely as an organized being, but as a rational agent and as a member of society, is perhaps the most wonderfully contrived product of Divine wisdom that we have any knowledge of.” *

It is on a large induction from such cases as this, that political economists rest their most comprehensive and most noted maxim, — the laissez-faire, or “ let-alone” principle, — the doctrine of non-interference by the government with the economical interests of society. True, these interests are in the hands of individuals, who look only to their own immediate profit, and not to the public advantage, or to the distant future. They are not only selfish; they are often ignorant, shortsighted, and unconscious of much of the work that they do. But society is a complex and delicate machine, the real Author and Governor of which is divine. Men are often his agents, who do his work, and know it not. He turneth their selfish

Whately's Lectures on Political Economy, pp. 103 - 110.

ness to good; and ends which could not be accomplished by the greatest sagacity, the most enlightened and disinterested public spirit, and the most strenuous exertions of human legislators and governors, are effected directly and incessantly, even through the ignorance, the wilfulness, and the avarice of men. Man cannot interfere with His work without marring it. The attempts of legislators to turn the industry of society in one direction or another, out of its natural and self-chosen channels, - here to encourage it by bounties, and there to load it with penalties, to increase or diminish the supply of the market, to establish a macimum of price, to keep specie in the country, are almost invariably productive of harm. Laissez-faire; “these things regulate themselves,” in common phrase; which means, of course, that God regulates them by his general laws, which always, in the long run, work to good. In these modern days, the ruler or governor who is most to be dreaded is, not the tyrant, but the busybody. Let the course of trade and the condition of society alone, is the best advice which can be given to the legislator, the projector, and the reformer. Busy yourselves, if you must be busy, with individual cases of wrong, hardship, or suffering; but do not meddle with the general laws of the universe.

The limitations of this “let-alone” principle are nearly as obvious as the principle itself. The office of the legislator is not, by his own superior wisdom, to chalk out a path for society to move in, but to remove all casual and unnatural impediments from that path which society instinctively chooses for itself. It is to give wider scope and more facile action to the principle we have just been considering, rather than to hedge and narrow it by artificial limits or petty restrictions. Human laws, if wisely framed, are seldom mandatory, or such as require an active obedience; they are mostly prohibitive, or designed to prevent such action on the part of the few as would impede or limit the healthful action of the many. Vice and crime, for instance, are stumbling-blocks in the path of the community; they obstruct the working of the natural laws, the ordinances of Divine Providence, by which society is held together, and all well-meaning members of it are made to coöperate, though unconsciously, for each other's good. To remove such stumbling-blocks, then, is not to create, but to prevent,

ces do not square with the theory, call in question the science® itself, instead of attributing the error to the faulty application of it. Hence arises an unhappy dissension between theory and practice, to the lasting detriment of both.

The Political Economists themselves are somewhat to blame for this result, by pressing too eagerly for the reduction of their favorite doctrines to practice, without regard to the particular circumstances of each case. The general doctrine of Free Trade, for instance, which may be correct when applied to two nations which are similarly situated in every respect, which have grown up under the same institutions and the same laws, and in which the profits of capital, the wages of labor, and the ratio of population to territory are nearly on a level, is extended by a hasty generalization to two countries that are contrasted with each other in all these respects, and in its application to which, to say the least, the correctness of the principle is very doubtful. We have in this country the largest extension of the system of free trade which the world has ever witnessed; we have free trade between Maine and Louisiana, between California and Massachusetts; and no one doubts that the system is equally beneficial to all these States, But before the system is carried out between England and the l'nited States, we may reasonably inquire whether it will not necessarily tend to an equalization of profits and wages in the two countries, and whether it is desirable here to hasten the operation of the causes which are rapidly reducing the rates of both to the English standard. This subject will be considered hereafter ; but I may say here, that the question does not relate to the correctness of the general principle in economical science, but only to its applicability under particular circumstances. That all terrestrial bodies gravitate to the centre of the earth, is a general law, which is not disproved by the floating of a cork in a basin of water.

Another prejudice against Political Economy has arisen from an error of an opposite character; — from too strict a limitation of it to the causes affecting the increase of national wealth, the other interests of a people being undervalued or left out of sight. The English Economists of Ricardo's school have most frequently fallen into this error ; looking merely to the creation of material values, they have tacitly assumed that

[ocr errors]

this was the only interest of society, the only end which legislation should have in view. The proposition on which they act, though they seldom directly enunciate it, is, that the augmentation of national wealth is at once the sign and the measure of national prosperity. We may admit that it is so, if the wealth be distributed with some approach to equality among the people. But if the vast majority of the nation is beggared, while enormous fortunes are accumulated by a few, - if pauperism increases at one end of the social scale as rapidly as wealth is heaped up at the other, — then, even though the ratio of the aggregate wealth to the aggregate population is constantly growing larger, the tendency of things is downward, and, sooner or later, if a remedy be not applied, society will rush into degradation and ruin.

In order to obtain a broader field of inquiry, the subject to be discussed in this volume will be, the general well-being of society, so far as this is affected by the moral causes regulating the production, distribution, and consumption of wealth. It may be doubted whether the whole of this theme is included within the limits of Political Economy, properly so called ; - and therefore I propose to consider not only the science itself, but its application to a particular case, - the circumstances and institutions of the American people. Thus is opened a wide scope for investigation. The fluctuations of national prosperity; the various social condition of different communities at the same period, and of the same community at different periods; the nature, and effect upon the wealth, happiness, and numbers of the people, of the various institutions, laws, and customs which have obtained in different countries and at different times, — might all pass in review before the subject would be exhausted. Hitherto, history has been in the main a political record, - a narrative of wars, conquests, and changes in the form of government. But the social economy of different states has now become the chief object of interest even to the historian. Statesmen have been obliged to make the study of politics second to that of political economy. Monarchs now strive to guard their thrones, not so much by the number and efficiency of their standing armies, as by the prudent management of their finances, and by their successful development of the agricultural, commercial, and manufacturing resources of

« ΠροηγούμενηΣυνέχεια »