Political Economy Defined
As domestic economy regulates the acts and habits of a household, political economy regulates those of a society or State, with reference to its maintenance.
Political economy is neither an art nor a science, but a system of conduct and legislature, founded on the sciences, directing the arts, and impossible, except under certain conditions of moral culture.
By the "maintenance" of a State is to be understood the support of its population in healthy and happy life; and the increase of their numbers, so far as that increase is consistent with their happiness. It is not the object of political economy to increase the numbers of a nation at the cost of common health or comfort; nor to increase indefinitely the comfort of individuals, by sacrifice of surrounding lives, or possibilities of life.
The assumption which lies at the root of nearly all erroneous reasoning on political economy — namely, that its object is to accumulate money or exchangeable property — may be shown in few words to be without foundation. For no economist would admit national economy to be legitimate which proposed to itself only the building of a pyramid of gold. He would declare the gold to be wasted, were it to remain in the monumental form, and would say it ought to be employed. But to what end? Either it must be used only to gain more gold, and build a larger pyramid, or to, some purpose other than the gaining of gold. And this other purpose, however at first apprehended, will be found to resolve itself finally into the service of man — that is to say, the extension, defence, or comfort of his life. The golden pyramid may perhaps be providently built, perhaps improvidently; but, at all events, the wisdom or folly of the accumulation can only be determined by our having first clearly stated the aim of all economy, namely, the extension of life.
If the accumulation of money, or of exchangeable property, were a certain means of extending existence, it would be useless, in discussing economical questions, to fix our attention upon the more distant object — life — instead of the immediate one — money. But it is not so. Money may sometimes be accumulated at the cost of life, or by limitations of it; that is to say, either by hastening the deaths of men, or preventing their births. It is therefore necessary to keep clearly in view the ultimate object of economy, and to determine the expediency of minor operations with reference to that ulterior end.
It has been just stated that the object of political economy is the continuance not only of life, but of healthy and happy life. But all true happiness is both a consequence and cause of life; it is a sign of its vigour, and means of its continuance. All true suffering is in like manner a consequence and cause of death. I shall therefore, in future, use the word "Life" singly: but let it be understood to include in its signification the happiness and power of the entire human nature, body and soul.
That human nature, as its Creator made it, and maintains it wherever His laws are observed, is entirely harmonious. No physical error can be more profound, no moral error more dangerous than that involved in the monkish doctrine of the opposition of body to soul. No soul can be perfect in an imperfect body; no body perfect without perfect soul. Every right action and true thought sets the seal of its beauty on person and face; every wrong action and foul thought its seal of distortion; and the various aspects of humanity might be read as plainly as a printed history, were it not that the impressions are so complex that it must always in some cases and, in the present state of our knowledge, in all cases — be impossible to decipher them completely. Nevertheless, the face of a consistently just, and of a consistently unjust person, may always be rightly discerned at a glance; and if the qualities are continued by descent through a generation or two, there arises a complete distinction of race. Both moral and physical qualities are communicated by descent, far more than they can be developed by education (though both may be destroyed for want of education), and there is as yet no ascertained limit to the nobleness of person and mind which the human creature may attain, by persevering observance of the laws of God respecting its by persevering and training. We must therefore yet farther define the aim of political economy to be
"the multiplication of human life at the highest standard".
It might at first seem questionable whether we should endeavour to maintain a small number of persons of the highest type of beauty and intelligence, or a larger number of an inferior class. But I shall be able to show in the sequel, that the way to maintain the largest number is first to aim at the highest standard. Determine the noblest type of man, and aim simply at maintaining the largest possible number of persons of that class, and it will be found that the largest possible number of every healthy subordinate class must necessarily be produced also.
The perfect type of manhood, as just stated, involves the perfections (whatever we may hereafter determine these to be) of his body, affections, and intelligence. The material things, therefore, which it is the object of political economy to produce and use (or accumulate for use), are things which serve either to sustain and comfort the body, or exercise rightly the affections and form the intelligence. Whatever truly serves either of these purposes is "useful" to man, wholesome, healthful, helpful, or holy. By seeking such things, man prolongs and increases his life upon the earth.
On the other hand, whatever does not serve either of these purposes, — much more whatever counteracts them, — is in like manner useless to man, — unwholesome, unhelpful, or unholy; and by seeking such things man shortens and diminishes his life upon the earth. And neither with respect to things useful or useless can man's estimate of them alter their nature. Certain substances being good for his food, and others noxious to him, what he thinks or wishes respecting them can neither change their nature, nor prevent their power. If he eats corn, he will live; if nightshade, he will die. If he produce or make good and beautiful things, they will "recreate" him (note the solemnity and weight of the word); if bad and ugly things, they will "corrupt" or break in pieces — that is, in the exact degree of their power, kill him. For every hour of labour, however enthusiastic or well intended, which he spends for that which is not bread, so much possibility of life is lost to him. His fancies, likings, beliefs, however brilliant, eager, or obstinate, are of no avail if they are set on a false object. Of all that he has laboured for, the eternal law of heaven and earth measures out to him for reward, to the utmost atom, that part which he ought to have laboured for, and withdraws from him (or enforces on him, it may be) inexorably that part which he ought not to have laboured for. The dust and chaff are all, to the last speck, winnowed away, and on his summer threshing-floor stands his heap of corn; little or much, not according to his labour, but to his discretion. No "commercial arrangements", no painting of surfaces nor alloying of substances, will avail him a pennyweight. Nature asks of him calmly and inevitably, What have you found, or formed — the right thing or the wrong? By the right thing you shall live; by the wrong you shall die.
To thoughtless persons it seems otherwise. The world looks to them as if they could cozen it out of some ways and means of life. But they cannot cozen IT; they can only cozen their neighbours. The world is not to be cheated of a grain; not so much as a breath of its air can be drawn surreptitiously. For every piece of wise work done, so much life is granted; for every piece of foolish work, nothing; for every piece of wicked work, so much death. This is as sure as the courses of day and night. But when the means of life are once produced, men, by their various struggles and industries of accumulation or exchange, may variously gather, waste, restrain, or distribute them; necessitating, in proportion to the waste or restraint, accurately so much more death. The rate and range of additional death is measured by the rate and range of waste, and is inevitable; — the only question (determined mostly by fraud in peace, and force in war) is, Who is to die, and how?
Such being the everlasting law of human existence, the essential work of the political economist is to determine what are in reality useful and life-giving things, and by what degrees and kinds of labour they are attainable and distributable. This investigation divides itself under three great heads — first, of Wealth; secondly, of Money; and thirdly, of Riches.
These terms are often used as synonymous, but they signify entirely different things. "Wealth", consists of things in themselves valuable, "Money", of documentary claims to the possession of such things; and "Riches" is a relative term, expressing the magnitude of the possessions of one person or society as compared with those of other persons or societies.
The study of Wealth is a province of natural science: — it deals with the essential properties of things.
The study of Money is a province of commercial science: — it deals with conditions of engagement and exchange.
The study of Riches is a province of moral science: — it deals with the due relations of men to each other in regard of material possessions; and with the just laws of their association for purposes of labour.
I shall in this paper shortly sketch out the range of subjects which will come before us as we follow these three branches of inquiry.