The Character and Logical Method of Political Economy

Cairnes, John Elliot
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First Pub. Date
London: Macmillan and Co.
Pub. Date
2nd edition
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Appendix A


If, not confining myself to economists of established position and reputation, I were to include every writer on economic questions, there is not a single doctrine within the range of the science that could be said to be undisputed. A late writer (1857), e.g., Mr. Macleod, in a work entitled, 'The Theory and Practice of Banking,' proposes to make a complete tabula rasa of Political Economy (which he considers as 'almost a branch of mechanics;'—'all sciences,' he tells us, being 'questions of force and motion,') and to reconstruct it, taking as its basis certain notions of credit and capital, which he claims to be the first to have evolved, and his title to the discovery of which will probably pass unchallenged. This writer thus delivers himself:"—We do not hesitate to say that there is not a single writer on Political Economy who has given a correct account of them [the laws of wealth], and more especially what has been written lately is the result of the most extraordinary misconception of the nature of the thing, the most profound ignorance of the details of business, clothed in language so palpably self-contradictory and inaccurate, as to excite nothing but surprise." [Vol. ii. Introduction, p. hiii.]... "THE TIME HAS COME WHEN ALL POLITICAL ECONOMY MUST BE RE-WRITTEN. Every error in thought and language, which confused and retarded all the other inductive sciences, now deforms and obscures monetary science. There is hardly an expression in common use among writers on the subject which is not totally erroneous." [p. lxxx.]


The weapons by which Mr. Macleod proposes to demolish the present edifice of the science would seem to be vituperative epithets. Here are a few examples of his method. Ricardo's theory of rent he brands as a 'prodigious delusion.' Mr. Mill's nomenclature implies 'the most ludicrous misconception,' &c. Of the doctrine that cost of production regulates value, he says, that 'no more stupendous philosophical blunder ever infected the principles of any science.' In the next sentence it is called a 'tremendous fallacy,' and further on a 'pestilent heresy.' Mr. Tooke's distinction between currency and capital exhibits 'a profound misconception of the whole nature of monetary science—'... ' one of the most profound delusions that ever existed.' A passage quoted from Colonel Torrens is 'nothing but a series of blunders and absurdities;'... his statements are 'simply ridiculous;'—while, in another place, he confounds together in one sweeping category "Mr. Ricardo, Mr. McCulloch, Mr. John S. Mill, Mr. Samuel Jones Loyd, Colonel Torrens, Mr. Norman, Sir Robert Peel, and Sir Archibald Alison,' as the propounders of every species of logical fallacy.


The cause of the failure of Political Economy hitherto, Mr. Macleod tells us, is 'that no writer who has yet handled it possessed the indispensable qualifications for success.' These qualifications the writer then not obscurely hints have been incarnated for the first time in the person of the author of 'The Theory and Practice of Banking.' Amongst the requisites for success, one would imagine a competency to write the English language, and a capacity to understand the views of previous writers before denouncing them, would be included. How far these are included amongst Mr. Macleod's qualifications the reader may judge from the following examples.


First, to take a specimen of this author's defining power. 'Capital,' he tells us, 'is the circulating power of commodities,' [Vol. ii. Introduction, p. xlvii.] When Mr. Macleod tells us elsewhere that 'the object and function of capital is to circulate commodities,' he uses language which, however objectionable and repugnant alike to scientific requirement and to popular usage, has at least the merit of being intelligible. Again, when he says that 'capital and credit constitute the circulating medium,' though the expression implies a fundamental misconception of the nature of the agencies in question, we may yet guess at what he means. But when he says that 'capital is the circulating power of commodities,' if he does not mean to attribute to commodities a faculty of locomotion, he uses language which is capable of conveying no idea whatever; yet this, he tells us, is 'the original primary and genuine sense of capital' as distinguished from 'the secondary or metaphorical sense.' Let us suppose that Mr. Macleod meant by the expression, 'circulating power of commodities,' what assuredly the language does not convey, viz., the power which circulates commodities, even this will not help him. From his remarks elsewhere it is plain that he meant to designate money and credit. Now, money and credit are not the power which circulates commodities, any more than air is the power which transmits sounds, or language the power which communicates ideas. The power which performs all these things is the human will; money and credit in the one case, air and language in the other, being the media or instruments by which the several ends are accomplished. But, without entering into the metaphysical question, let us ask what would be thought of a writer who should describe air as 'the transmitting power of sounds,' or language as 'the communicating power of ideas?'


Take another example of Mr. Macleod's scientific precision. He thus lays down the criterion of a true principle, 'Every true formula, or general rule, must bear on the face of it all the elements which influence its action,' [p. lxv.] i.e. which influence the action of the formula! One may guess at the idea which Mr. Macleod intends to express; but the words as they stand are destitute of meaning. Take another case. In p. lxi., &c. Mr. Macleod objects to the law of 'cost of production regulating value,' because it is inapplicable to 'all cases where the same cost of production produces articles of different qualities.' Will Mr. Macleod inform us how 'cost of production' can 'produce articles?' In another passage he writes thus, "alone of all the political sciences its phenomena (i.e. the phenomena of monetary science) may be expressed with the unerring certainty of the other laws of nature." [p. xxxv.] If I may venture to conjecture the meaning of this remarkable passage (which has a curiously Hibernian ring about it) possibly what Mr. Macleod meant to say was that the phenomena of monetary science may be expressed with the same unerring certainty as the phenomena of the other inductive sciences—a thought, one would imagine, which might be conveyed without severely taxing the resources of the English tongue.


These are a few specimens, and by no means unfavourable ones, of Mr. Macleod's ordinary scientific style;*84 they are taken, it will be observed, from that portion of his work in which accuracy of expression would be found, if it were to be found at all—namely, from his definitions and statements of general principles.


I have called attention to them, not only because of the importance of accuracy of thought and language in economic discussion, but because this writer, not content with pronouncing a general and sweeping condemnation on all preceding writers on Political Economy, has singled out for special denunciation their defects in regard to precision of language, a quality on which it is evident he peculiarly values himself. Thus, his anger passes all bounds against Mr. Mill, because that author states at the opening of his treatise, that it is no part of his design 'to aim at metaphysical nicety of definition, when the ideas suggested by a term are already as determinate as practical purposes require.' For this Mr. Mill is charged with deliberately adopting 'all the loose phraseology of the public'—with seeking to 'found a system on the loose babble of common talk.' After the few samples given above, probably most readers will prefer the laxity of Mr. Mill to the rigid accuracy of Mr. Macleod. Mallem, mehercule, errare cum Platone.


But a word with regard to Mr. Macleod's capacity of understanding the authors whose writings he treats so contemptuously. A large portion of the introduction to his second volume is devoted to an attempt to controvert the received doctrine, which attributes to 'cost of production' a governing influence on the value of certain classes of commodities. 'Political Economy,' he says, 'can never advance a step until this arch-heresy be utterly rooted out' Well, what is his contradiction of the 'arch-heresy?' Here it is given in capitals, "VALUE DOES NOT SPRING FROM THE LABOUR OF THE PRODUCER, BUT FROM THE DESIRE OF THE CONSUMER. To allege that value springs from the labour of the producer is exactly an analogous error in Political Economy to the doctrine of the fixity of the earth in Astronomy.' (p. lxiv.]


Granting that the analogy is perfect (though, for one, I am unable to perceive it), will Mr. Macleod inform us who has said that 'value springs from the labour of the producer?' His so-called 'refutation' was more particularly addressed to the views of Mr. Ricardo and Mr. Mill. In the second paragraph of Mr. Ricardo's great work, he writes as follows:—"Utility then is not the measure of exchangeable value, although it is essential to it. If a commodity were in no way useful—in other words, if it could in no way contribute to our gratification—it would be destitute of exchangeable value, however scarce it might be, or whatever quantity of labour might be necessary to procure it." The first sentence in Mr. Mill's chapter 'on demand and supply in their relation to value,' is as follows:—"That a thing may have any value in exchange, two conditions are necessary. It must be of some use, that is, it must conduce to some purpose, satisfy some desire. But secondly, the thing must not only have some utility, there must also be some difficulty in its attainment."


Mr. Macleod's refutation of the doctrine that 'cost of production regulates value' is, therefore, simply a refutation of his own extravagant misconception of it. If any further evidence be necessary to show this, take the following passage, in which an objection is taken to the ordinary limitation which is given to this doctrine;—"because for it to indicate price correctly, even in that one instance, it requires this essential qualification, that the supply should be unlimited" [p. lxi.] Now if the supply were 'unlimited,' the article could have no exchange value whatever. What the authors who have maintained this doctrine have stated, and what possibly Mr. Macleod intended to say, was that the articles, of which the value is regulated by cost of production, are only those which may be freely produced in any quantity required;—but Mr. Macleod can see no distinction between this and an "'unlimited supply.'


When a writer thus shows an entire inability to comprehend the meaning of authors of such remarkable perspicuity and power of expression as Mr. Ricardo and Mr. Mill (for I will not suppose that he intentionally misrepresents them), his competency for the task he has undertaken of re-constructing the science of Political Economy, may be imagined. It is, of course, unnecessary to notice his 'arguments' in refutation of the doctrine in question. It will be time enough to do so when he shows that he understands the principle he assails.

Notes for this chapter

As a specimen of his style when he is less restrained by scientific considerations, take the following, 'Some Political Economists pretend that the rules of the science are not applicable to extreme cases. An extremely convenient cover for ignorance, truly! Such arguments only prove the incapacity of those who use them. If an architect had miscalculated the strength of the materials of his columns, and his building came tumbling down, and he were to run about, crying out: 'It is an extreme case, the laws of mechanics do not apply to it!' the world would set him down as a fool. If an engineer whose boiler was to burst from bad workmanship, were to say that it was an extreme case, and that the laws of heat did not apply to it, he would be set down as a fool. In both these cases people would say that the architect and the engineer did not pay sufficient attention to the laws of nature. They would not say that the laws of nature paled before the incompetence of man. Those Political Economists who say that the laws of their science are not applicable to extreme cases, are just like such an architect, or such an engineer. Such a doctrine is the mere cloak of their own incompetence and ignorance. A false theory may account well enough for a particular case, like an engine may be at rest whose piston is crooked, whose wheels and cranks are all out of order. But the test of a well-finished engine is to work smoothly; it must be set in motion to test it properly. Just so with a theory; it must be worked—it must be set in motion. If it be true, like a well-fitting engine, it will work smoothly, it will explain all phenomena in the science; if it be not true like, a badly-fitting engine it will crack, split, break in all directions.

"Mr. Macaulay has used a similar line of argument with great skill and effect," &c.

End of Notes

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