The Science Of Political Economy

The Science Of Political Economy – Henry George

Henry George died fighting one of the most corrupt political organizations of the civilized world – a sufficient epitaph for any worthy man. But he has larger claims to respect and consideration. He made a creditable attempt to solve the root-problem of material life – poverty, – and his just-published posthumous book, ” The Science of Political Economy,” excites that pathetic interest which attaches to the memory of one who tried to aid his fellowman. He was eloquent, but he was free from the hysteria of demagogy. His sympathies, born of bitter vicissitude, were acute, but they were tempered with reason. He believed in the equality of opportunity ; but he believed also (as an American and an individualist) in the natural inequality of capacity. When he saw the industrial evils of the Old World reappear in one of the richest and fairest parts of the New – commercial depression, involuntary idleness, wasting capital, pecuniary distress, want, suffering, anxiety, – he was startled, and he set about to discover the cause. We value him for what he tried to do. “Progress and Poverty ” was an immensely interesting and attractive book on a seemingly sapless science. It struck fire from flint, and lifted the author from obscurity to world-wide celebrity. Emerson says that every man is eloquent in that which he understands. It would be, perhaps, truer to say that every man is eloquent in that in which he fervently believes, and George believed that he had given a message. To quote his own words: ” On the night on which I finished the final chapter of ‘Progress and Poverty,’ I felt that the talent entrusted to me had been accounted for – was more fully satisfied, more deeply grateful, than if all the Kingdoms of the earth had been laid at my feet.” No one doubts his sincerity, his intellectual integrity, the cleanliness of his soul. His expectations were infinite, his faith simple. The poverty of the world lay not in Nature but in a vicious economic system ; and he thought that he had found a “sovereign remedy” which would “raise wages, increase the earnings of capital, extirpate pauperism, abolish poverty, give remunerative employment to whoever wishes it, afford free scope to human powers, lessen crime, elevate morals and taste and intelligence, purify government, and carry civilization to yet nobler heights.”

The Science Of Political Economy

The Science Of Political Economy.

Format: eBook.

The Science Of Political Economy.

ISBN: 9783849658069.


Excerpt from the text:


Of all the sciences, political economy is that which to civilized men of to-day is of most practical importance. For it is the science which treats of the nature of wealth and the laws of its production and distribution; that is to say, of matters which absorb the larger part of the thought and effort of the vast majority of us—the getting of a living. It includes in its domain the greater part of those vexed questions which lie at the bottom of our politics and legislation, of our social and governmental theories, and even, in larger measure than may at first be supposed, of our philosophies and religions. It is the science to which must belong the solving of problems that at the close of a century of the greatest material and scientific development the world has yet seen, are in all civilized countries clouding the horizon of the future—the only science that can enable our civilization to escape already threatening catastrophe.

Yet, surpassing in its practical importance as political economy is, he who to-day would form clear and sure ideas of what it really teaches must form them for himself. For there is no body of accepted truth, no consensus of recognized authority, that he may without question accept. In all other branches of knowledge properly called science the inquirer may find certain fundamentals recognized by all and disputed by none who profess it, which he may safely take to embody the information and experience of his time. But, despite its long cultivation and the multitude of its professors, he cannot yet find this in political economy. If he accepts the teaching of one writer or one school, it will be to find it denied by other writers and other schools. This is not merely true of the more complex and delicate questions, but of primary questions. Even on matters such as in other sciences have long since been settled, he who to-day looks for the guidance of general acceptance in political economy will find a chaos of discordant opinions. So far indeed are first principles from being agreed on, that it is still a matter of hot dispute whether protection or free trade is most conducive to prosperity—a question that in political economy ought to be capable of as certain an answer as in hydrodynamics the question whether a ship ought to be broader than she is long, or longer than she is broad.

This is not for want of what passes for systematic study. Not only are no subjects so widely and frequently discussed as those that come within the province of political economy, but every university and college has now its professor of the science, whose special business it is to study and to teach it. But nowhere are inadequacy and confusion more apparent than in the writings of these men; nor is anything so likely to give the impression that there is not and cannot be a real science of political economy.

But while this discordance shows that he who would really acquaint himself with political economy cannot rely upon authority, there is in it nothing to discourage the hope that he who will use his own reason in the honest search for truth may attain firm and clear conclusions.

For in the supreme practical importance of political economy we may see the reason that has kept and still keeps it in dispute, and that has prevented the growth of any body of accepted and assured opinion.

Under existing conditions in the civilized world, the great struggle among men is for the possession of wealth. Would it not then be irrational to expect that the science which treats of the production and distribution of wealth should be exempt from the influence of that struggle? Macaulay has well said that if any large pecuniary interest were concerned in disputing the attraction of gravitation, that most obvious of all facts would not yet be accepted. What, then, can we look for in the teaching of a science which directly concerns the most powerful of “vested rights”—which deals with rent and wages and interest, with taxes and tariffs, with privileges and franchises and subsidies, with currencies and land-tenures and public debts, with the ideas on which trade-unions are based and the pleas by which combinations of capitalists are defended? Economic truth, under existing conditions, has not merely to overcome the inertia of indolence or habit; it is in its very nature subject to suppressions and distortions from the influence of the most powerful and vigilant interests. It has not merely to make its way; it must constantly stand on guard. It cannot safely be trusted to any selected body of men, for the same reasons that the power of making laws and administering public affairs cannot be so trusted.

It is especially true to-day that all large political questions are at bottom economic questions. There is thus introduced into the study of political economy the same disturbing element that setting men by the ears over the study of theology has written in blood a long page in the world’s history, and that at one time, at least, so affected even the study of astronomy as to prevent the authoritative recognition of the earth’s movement around the sun long after its demonstration. The organization of political parties, the pride of place and power that they arouse and the strong prejudices they kindle, are always inimical to the search for truth and to the acceptance of truth.

And while colleges and universities and similar institutions, though ostensibly organized for careful investigation and the honest promulgation of truth, are not and cannot be exempt from the influences that disturb the study of political economy, they are especially precluded under present conditions from faithful and adequate treatment of that science. For in the present social conditions of the civilized world nothing is clearer than that there is some deep and wide-spread wrong in the distribution, if not in the production, of wealth. This it is the office of political economy to disclose, and a really faithful and honest explication of the science must disclose it.

But no matter what that injustice may be, colleges and universities, as at present constituted, are by the very law of their being precluded from discovering or revealing it. For no matter what be the nature of this injustice, the wealthy class must, relatively at least, profit by it, and this is the class whose views and wishes dominate in colleges and universities. As, while slavery was yet strong, we might have looked in vain to the colleges and universities and accredited organs of education and opinion in our Southern States, and indeed for that matter in the North, for any admission of its injustice, so under present conditions must we look in vain to such sources for any faithful treatment of political economy. Whoever accepts from them a chair of political economy must do so under the implied stipulation that he shall not really find what it is his professional business to look for.

In these extraneous difficulties, and not in any difficulty inherent in political economy itself, lies the reason why, to-day, after all the effort that since Adam Smith wrote has been devoted to its investigation, or presumed investigation, he who would really know what it teaches can find no consistent body of undisputed doctrine that he may safely accept; and can turn to the colleges and universities only with the certainty that, wherever else he may find the truth, he cannot find it there.

1 et, if political economy be the one science that cannot safely be left to specialists, the one science of which it is needful for all to know something, it is also the science which the ordinary man may most easily study. It requires no tools, no apparatus, no special learning. The phenomena which it investigates need not be sought for in laboratories or libraries; they lie about us, and are constantly thrust upon us. The principles on which it builds are truths of which we all are conscious, and on which in every-day matters we constantly base our reasoning and our actions. And its processes, which consist mainly in analysis, require only care in distinguishing what is essential from what is merely accidental.

In proposing to my readers to go with me in an attempt to work out the main principles of political economy, I am not asking them to think of matters they have never thought of before, but merely to think of them in a careful and systematic way. For we all have some sort of political economy. Men may honestly confess an ignorance of astronomy, of chemistry, of geology, of philology, and really feel their ignorance. But few men honestly confess an ignorance of political economy. Though they may admit or even proclaim ignorance, they do not really feel it. There are many who say that they know nothing of political economy—many indeed who do not know what the term means. Yet these very men hold at the same time and with the utmost confidence opinions upon matters that belong to political economy, such as the causes which affect wages and prices and profits, the effects of tariffs, the influence of labor-saving machinery, the function and proper substance of money, the reason of “ hard times ” or “ good times,” and so on. For men living in society, which is the natural way for men to live, must have some sort of politico-economic theories—good or bad, right or wrong. The way to make sure that these theories are correct, or if they are not correct, to supplant them by true theories, is by such systematic and careful investigation as in this work I propose.

But to such an investigation there is one thing so necessary, one thing of such primary and constant importance, that I cannot too soon and too strongly urge it upon the reader. It is, that in attempting the study of political economy we should first of all, and at every step, make sure of the meaning of the words that we use as its terms, so that when we use them they shall always have for us the same meaning.

Words are the signs or tokens by which in speech or writing we communicate our thoughts to one another. It is only as we attach a common meaning to words that we can communicate with one another by speech. And to understand one another with precision, it is necessary that each attach precisely the same meaning to the same word. Thus, two men may look on the ocean from the same place, and one honestly insist that there are three ships in sight, while the other as honestly insists that there are only two, if the one uses the word ship in its general meaning of navigable vessel, and the other uses it in its technical meaning of a vessel carrying three square-rigged masts. Such use of words in somewhat different senses is peculiarly dangerous in philosophic discussion.

But words are more than the means by which we communicate our thoughts. They are also signs or tokens in which we ourselves think—the labels of the thought-drawers or pigeonholes in which we stow away the various ideas that we often mentally deal with by label. Thus, we cannot think with precision unless in our own minds we use words with precision. Failure to do this is a great cause of the generation and persistence of economic fallacies.

In all studies it is important that we should attach definite meanings to the terms we use. But this is especially important in political economy. For in other studies most of the words used as terms are peculiar to that study. The terms used in chemistry, for instance, are used only in chemistry. This makes the study of chemistry harder in beginning, for the student has to familiarize himself with new words. But it avoids subsequent difficulties, for these words being used only in chemistry, their meaning is not likely to be warped by other use from the one definite sense they properly bear in chemistry.

Now the terms used in political economy are not words reserved to it. They are words in every-day use, which the necessities of daily life constantly require us to give to, and accept for, a different than the economic meaning. In studying political economy, in thinking out any of its problems, it is absolutely necessary to give to such terms as wealth, value, capital, land, labor, rent, interest, wages, money, and so on, a precise meaning; and to use them only in this—a meaning which always differs, and in some cases differs widely, from the common meaning. But not only have we all been accustomed in the first place to use these words in their common meanings; but even after we have given them as politico-economic terms a definite meaning, we must, in ordinary talk and reading continue to use and accept them in their ordinary sense.


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