Economics, Volume 1: Economic Principles – Frank A. Fetter
Professor Fetter’s ‘Economic Principles’ is the first half of a two-volume treatise on economics. The second half ‘Modem Economic Problems’ deals with the applications of principles. In general Professor Fetter’s theory may be described as mechanistic and Austrian. To call it mechanistic signifies that, like the usual type of economic theory, it treats the industrial and business system as being somewhat analogous to a mechanism, in that the operations of this system are explained in terms of practically contemporaneous causes and effects without reference to the changes in its structure which take place with the passage of time. Here ” mechanistic ” is substituted for the less appropriate “deductive” as a description of the classical type of theory. Mechanistic explanation contrasts especially with ” genetical ” explanation, though it seems doubtful if a precise line can in the last analysis be drawn between the two. Fetter’s book shows a pride in its own novelties, but as far as methodology is concerned it is as mechanistic as the work of Ricardo, or the theory of interest of Irving Fisher, or the theory of distribution of John Bates Clark. And this is as it should be. For economics is best described as the study of the structure and action of the industrial system, with an object in view, namely, that of making us good judges of questions of the policy of the state (or of any body of persons, such as organized labor or capital) toward the industrial system. That is, the touchstone of importance and relevancy in economics is applicability to questions of public policy. It is on the strength of this test of relevancy that Fetter’s methodology is pronounced the right one. It is also merely the dominant methodology of all the leading general texts past and present.
Economics, Volume 1: Economic Principles.
Excerpt from the text:
§ 1. Definition of economics. Economics may be defined, briefly, as the study of men earning a living; or, more fully, as the study of the material world and of the activities and mutual relations of men so far as all these are the objective conditions to the gratification and to the welfare of men. The ideas of most persons on this subject are vague, yet it would be very desirable if the student could approach this study with an exact understanding of the nature of the questions with which it deals. Until a subject has been studied, however, a definition in mere words but slightly aids in marking it off clearly in our thought. The student must first try to see the general field of facts and of human interests that economics covers.
§ 2. Economics contrasted with the natural sciences. Economics may be contrasted with the natural sciences, which deal with material things and their mutual relations. A definition that suggests clear and familiar thoughts to the student seems at first much more difficult to get in economics than in the natural sciences. These deal with concrete, material things which we are accustomed to see, handle, and measure. If a child is told that botany is a study in which he may learn about flowers, trees, and plants, the answer is fairly satisfying, for he at once thinks of many things of that kind. When, in like manner, zoölogy is defined as the study of animals, or geology as the study of rocks and the earth, the words call up memories of many familiar objects. Even so difficult and foreign-looking a word as ichthyology seems to be made clear by the statement that it is the name of the study in which one learns about fish. It is true that there may be some misunderstanding as to the way in which these subjects are studied, for botany is not in the main to teach how to cultivate plants in the garden, nor ichthyology how to catch fish or to propagate them in a pond. But the main purpose of these studies is easily made clear at the outset; it is to know about the natural objects themselves. It is true that as each science is pursued, and knowledge widens to take in the manifold and various forms of life, the boundaries of the special sciences become not more but less sharp and definite.
In contrast with these, economics is one of the social sciences which deal with the inner nature of men and with men’s relations in society. These are less tangible facts—we are tempted to say that they are less familiar—than are the materials with which the natural sciences deal. But the truth may be that social acts and relations are more familiar to our thought than is the subject matter of the physical sciences. Every hour in the streets and stores one may witness thousands of acts, such as bargains, labor, and payments, that are the data of economic science. Their very familiarity causes us to overlook their deeper meaning.
§ 3. Science as abstraction. A science by its very nature as science is concerned primarily with abstractions rather than with concrete objects. To think scientifically is to think abstractly. Abstraction is a certain way of looking at things; it is looking at their qualities. It is more difficult to think abstractly than it is to think of concrete things. It implies an analysis, a taking-apart of things to get at their components, and a grouping of these parts into some general idea—not an easy task for most minds. Economics singles out for study those aspects of the world which have to do with man’s desire for the things about him and the use that he makes of them.
Economics “as the study of the material world” also has to do with all of those things which are the subject-matter of the natural sciences; but only in a secondary way. It studies them only as they are related to man’s welfare, or as they affect his valuation of things; only in so far as they are related to the central subject of economic interest, the earning of a living.
§ 4. Science and art. Like every other field of study, economics has two aspects, one of science, the other of art; the one of knowledge, the other of action; the one of principles, the other of their application. Each science seeks to study and to understand the world in some aspect, to reduce the multitude of facts to order, and to understand their relations. Thus, astronomy has succeeded in counting a large number of heavenly bodies, classifying them as stars, planets, comets, etc., has come to understand their relations in space, distances, direction, and speed of movement, etc. On this science is based such practical arts as navigation, regulation of the calendar, determination of the exact time, prediction of eclipses, etc. Thus, likewise, physics, chemistry, the various branches of biology, psychology, etc., are concerned first, and merely as science, with the truth regardless of its application. Then, however, whatever truth is discovered may be found to be capable of some uses or applications, either in the hands of the scientists themselves or in the hands of another body of men, variously named practical workers, technicians, and inventors, who develop the art side of the subject. The history of civilization abounds with evidence showing that the work of the group of scientific workers continually pursuing truth for its own sake (work little esteemed by the world in general), is indispensable for the continued progress in the practical arts. Just outside the circle of attained scientific knowledge is a fringe of possible practical applications. But unless other and still other discoveries were made, practical progress in the arts would lose its source of inspiration.
§ 5. Place of economics among the sciences. Economics seeks the reason, connection, and relations in the great multitude of acts arising out of the dependence of men on the world of things and of other men. Economics has to study men in two sets of relations, as is indicated in the definition: the relation on the one hand of man to material (non-human) things about him, and on the other hand to other men with whom he has “economic” dealings. In so far as economics is concerned with the former, the relation of man to his material environment, economics borders on some phases of each of the engineering sciences, and of the natural sciences, as geology, botany, zoölogy, and (in considering how these things affect man) physiology and psychology.
In so far as economics is concerned with the mutual relations of men in business, it becomes one of the group of social sciences. The word “social” comes from the Latin socius, meaning a fellow, comrade, companion, associate. The social sciences deal with men and their relations with each other. As men living together have to do with each other in a great many different ways, and enter into a great many different relations, there arise many different social problems, and the several social sciences of politics, law, ethics, and economics. Each of these attempts to study social relations in some one important aspect, that is, to view them from some one standpoint. Politics treats of the form and working of government, and is mainly concerned with the question of power or control of the individual’s actions and liberty. Law treats of the rules of the sovereign state controlling the actions of men (criminal jurisprudence), and of the principles guiding the interpreting of the contracts into which men see fit to enter in their economic affairs (civil jurisprudence). Ethics treats the question of right and wrong, and the moral aspects of men’s acts and relations with each other. As compared with these, economics is a much less purely social science; it has to do almost constantly with the material environment as well as with the social environment in which men live.
The attempt to distinguish between the fields occupied by the various social sciences discloses at once a fundamental unity existing among them. The acts of men are closely related in their lives, but they may be looked at from different sides. The central thought in economics in its social aspect is the business relation, the relation of men in working together, or in exchanging their services and material goods. In pursuing economic inquiries we come into contact with political, legal, and ethical considerations, all of which must be recognized before a final, practical answer can be given to any question. Nevertheless, the province of economics is limited. It is because of the feebleness of our mental power that we divide and subdivide these complex questions and try to answer certain parts before we seek to answer the whole. Whoever attempts this final and more difficult task should rise to the standpoint of the social philosopher.
§ 6. Subdivisions of economics. Economics in its most general sense includes various subdivisions. First is domestic economics (household economics), the modern equivalent of oiko-nomos, first used by Xenophon as the name for a set of rules to help the housekeeper or steward of an estate. The typical Greek household, however, was a large estate with slaves, almost a little state in itself, carrying on nearly all the arts and crafts. The term political economy (as économie politique) was first used in France in the eighteenth century to express the set of rules or principles to guide the king and his counselors in the control of his country, which was thought of much as if it were the king’s private estate. Of late the term “economics,” as expressing better a broadening conception of the subject, and at the same time as less likely to be confused with politics, has been gradually displacing the term political economy. It is used with various adjectives indicating the field covered; for example, domestic economics, household economics, corporation economics, national economics, political economy, world-economy, etc.
§ 7. Economy in the sense of the subject studied. We have chosen for our purpose to define economics as a “study,” a body of knowledge, a science. But as in the case of various other sciences, its name is used also to indicate the body of facts and group of persons which are studied. One person (like Robinson Crusoe, on his desert island) constitutes an individual economy. There are, in such a case, no personal relations to study, but only the relations of man to his environment. A group of persons thought of together with all their material environment and in their relations with each other, forming something of an economic unity, constitute a social economy. The economic affairs of a family constitute a family or domestic economy, and those of a nation a political, or a national, economy.
§ 8. Economy not parsimony. It should hardly be necessary to warn against giving to the word “economy” the meaning of (the act or the quality of) parsimony. Economy implies good management, making the best of whatever means one has, and this is not stinginess, tho the thriftless and the self-seeking are always prone to impute it as such to others. Economy as a mode of action is parallel to economics as the science that seeks to arrive at such general rules and principles as will lead to the best results in the use of the resources and services of individuals, families, and nations.
It is true that there are different standards by which to judge what is “best”; sometimes a merely pecuniary standard of business profit to the individual is taken, and this may come close to mere avarice. Again, a standard of true welfare for the nation or for the race may be taken. These two views may be, and often are, in conflict, and it is a part of the task in this study to keep before the mind as clearly as possible the difference between these standards. The one standard is that of individual—pecuniary, acquisitive economics; the other that of public—industrial, productive economics. Ref. 002
§ 9. Social aims of economics. Economics is often defined as the science of wealth. Partly because of this, and partly because of the unfortunate confusion of the individual and of the social points of view, it has been characterized as a “gospel of Mammon.” But, in the main, economics must be understood as a social study for social ends, not a selfish study for individual advantage. The individual interest must be recognized, but treated as within, and subordinate to, the larger social interests. Certainly some of the lessons of economics may be of practical value to men in active business, and training in economics is increasingly deemed a helpful preparation for many special callings. Many economic “principles” are but the general statement of those ideas that have been approved by the experience of business men, of statesmen, and of the masses of men. Economics is not dreamed out by the closest philosopher, but more and more it is the attempt to describe and comprehend the interests and the action of the practical world in which men must live. Many men are working together to develop this study—those who collect statistics and facts bearing on all kinds of practical affairs, and those who search through the records of the past for illustrations of experiments and experiences that may help us in our life to-day.
§ 10. Economics in a democracy. With the growth of the modern state, with the increasing importance of business, and of industrial and commercial interests, as compared with changes of dynasty or the personal rivalries of rulers, economic questions have grown in relative importance. In our own country, particularly since the subjects of slavery and of states’ rights ceased to absorb the attention of our people, economic questions have pushed rapidly into the foreground. Indeed, it has of late been more clearly seen that many of the older political questions, such as the American Revolution and slavery, formerly discussed almost entirely in their political and constitutional aspects, were at bottom largely questions of economic rivalry and of economic welfare. The remarkable increase in the attention given to this study in colleges and universities since the beginning of the last quarter of the nineteenth century is but the index of the greatly increased interest and attention given to it by citizens generally.
The conception of political economy as the term was first used, has been modified wherever unlimited monarchy has given way to the rule of the people. In a democracy there is need for a general diffusion of knowledge, if the economic policy and legislation of the State is to be intelligent. The power now rests not with the king and a few counselors, but in the last resort with the people, and therefore the people must be acquainted with the experiences of the past, must so far as possible have economic knowledge to enlighten them in their choice of men and of measures.