A Treatise on Political Economy

Jean-Baptiste Say
Say, Jean-Baptiste
Display paragraphs in this book containing:
C. R. Prinsep, trans. and Clement C. Biddle., ed.
First Pub. Date
Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co.,
Pub. Date
6th edition. Based on the 4th-5th editions.




Independently of the aid that industry receives from capital, that is to say, from products of her own previous creation, towards the creation of still further products, she avails herself of the agency and powers of a variety of agents not of her own creation, but offered spontaneously by nature: and from the co-operation of these natural agents derives a portion of the utility she communicates to things.


Thus, when a field is ploughed and sown, besides the science and the labour employed in this operation, besides the pre-created values brought into use, the values, for instance, of the plough, the harrow, the seed-corn, the food and clothing consumed by labourers during the process of production, there is a process performed by the soil, the air, the rain, and the sun, wherein mankind bears no part, but which nevertheless concurs in the creation of the new product that will be acquired at the season of harvest. This process I call the productive agency of natural agents.


The term natural agents is here employed in a very extensive sense; comprising not merely inanimate bodies, whose agency operates to the creation of value, but likewise the laws of the physical world, as gravitation, which makes the weight of a clock descend; magnetism, which points the needle of the compass: the elasticity of steel; the gravity of the atmosphere; the property of heat to discharge itself by ignition, &c. &c.


The productive faculty of capital is often so interwoven with that of natural agents, that it is difficult, or perhaps impossible, to assign, with accuracy, their respective shares in the business of production. A hot-house for the raising of exotic plants, a meadow fertilized by judicious irrigation, owe the greater part of their productive powers to works and erections, the effect of antecedent production, which form a part of the capital devoted to the furtherance of actual and present production. The same may be said of land newly cleared and brought into cultivation; of farm-buildings; of enclosures; and of all other permanent ameliorations of a landed estate. These values are items of capital, though it be no longer possible to sever them from the soil they are attached to.*60


In the employment of machinery, which wonderfully augments the productive power of man, the product obtained is due partly to the value of the capital vested in the machine, and partly to the agency of natural powers. Suppose a tread-mill,*61 worked by ten men, to be used in place of a wind-mill, the product of the mill might be considered as the fruit of the productive agency of a capital consisting of the value of the machine, and of the labour of ten men employed in turning the wheel. If the tread-mill be supplanted by sails, it is evident that the wind, a natural agent, does the work of ten human beings.


In this instance, the absence of the natural agent might be remedied, by the employment of another power; but there are many cases, in which the agency of nature could not possibly be dispensed with, and is yet equally positive and real; for example, the vegetative power of the soil, the vital principle which concurs in the production of the animals domesticated to our use. A flock of sheep is the joint result of the owner's and shepherd's care, and the capital advanced in fodder, shelter, and shearing, and of the action of the organs and viscera with which nature has furnished these animals.


Thus nature is commonly the fellow-labourer of man and his instruments; a fellowship advantageous to him in proportion as he succeeds in dispensing with his own personal agency, and that of his capital, and in throwing upon nature a larger part of the burthen of production.


Smith has taken infinite pains to explain, how it happens that civilized communities enjoy so great an abundance of products, in comparison with nations less polished, and in spite of the swarm of idlers and unproductive labourers that is to be met with in society. He has traced the source of that abundance to the division of labour;*62 and it cannot be doubted, that the productive power of industry is wonderfully enhanced by that division, as we shall hereafter see by following his steps; but this circumstance alone is not sufficient to explain a phenomenon, that will no longer surprise, if we consider the power of the natural agents that industry and civilization set at work for our advantage.


Smith admits that human intelligence, and the knowledge of the laws of nature, enable mankind to turn the resources she offers to better account: but he goes on to attribute to the division of labour this very degree of intelligence and knowledge: and he is right to a certain degree; for a man, by the exclusive pursuit of a single art or science, has ampler means of accelerating its progress towards perfection. But, when once the system of nature is discovered, the production resulting from the discovery, is no longer the product of the inventor's industry. The man who first discovered the property of fire to soften metals, was not the actual creator of the utility this process adds to smelted ore. That utility results from the physical action of fire, in concurrence, it is true, with the labour and capital of those who employ the process. But are there no processes that mankind owes the knowledge of to pure accident? or that are so self-evident, as to have required no skill to discover? When a tree, a natural product, is felled, is society put into possession of no greater produce than that of the mere labour of the woodman?


From this error Smith has drawn the false conclusion, that all values produced represent pre-exerted human labour or industry, either recent or remote; or, in other words, that wealth is nothing more than labour accumulated; from which position he infers a second consequence equally erroneous, viz. that labour is the sole measure of wealth, or of value produced.


This system is obviously in direct opposition to that of the economists of the eighteenth century, who, on the contrary, maintained that labour produces no value without consuming an equivalent; that, consequently, it leaves no surplus, no net produce; and that nothing but the earth produces gratuitous value,—therefore nothing else can yield net produce. Each of these positions has been reduced to system; I only cite them to warn the student of the dangerous consequences of an error in the outset,*63 and to bring the science back to the simple observation of facts. Now facts demonstrate, that values produced are referable to the agency and concurrence of industry, of capital,*64 and of natural agents, whereof the chief, though by no means the only one, is land capable of cultivation; and that no other but these three sources can produce value, or add to human wealth.


Of natural agents, some are susceptible of appropriation, that is to say of becoming the property of an occupant, as a field, a current of water; others can not be appropriated, but remain liable to public use, as the wind, the sea, free navigable streams, the physical or chemical action of bodies one upon another, &c. &c.


We shall by-and-by have an opportunity of convincing ourselves, that this alternative, of productive agents being or not being susceptible of appropriation, is highly favourable to the progress of wealth. Natural agents, like land, which are susceptible of appropriation, would not produce nearly so much, were not the proprietors certain of exclusively gathering their produce, and able to vest in them, with full confidence, the capital which so much enlarges their productiveness. On the other hand, the indefinite latitude allowed to industry to occupy at will the unappropriated natural agents, opens a boundless prospect to the extension of her agency and production. It is not nature, but ignorance and bad government, that limit the productive powers of industry.


Such of the natural agents as are susceptible of appropriation, form an item of productive means; for they do not yield their concurrence without equivalent; which equivalent, as we shall see in the proper place, forms an item of the revenues of the appropriators. At present we must be content to investigate the productive operation of natural agents of every description, whether already known, or hereafter to be discovered.

Notes for this chapter

It is for the proprietor of the land and of the capital respectively, when the ownership is in different persons, to settle between them the respective value and efficacy of the agency of these two productive agents. The world at large may be content to comprehend, without taking the trouble of measuring, their respective shares in the production of wealth.
A wheel in the form of a drum, turned by men walking inside, (roue a marchre.)
Take his own words: "It is the great multiplication of the productions of all the different arts, in consequence of the division of labour, which occasions, in a well-governed society, that universal opulence, which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people." Wealth of Nations, b. i. c. 1.
Amongst other dangerous consequences of the system of the economists, is the notable one of substituting a land-tax in lieu of all other taxation; in the certainty, that this tax would affect all produced value whatever. Upon a contrary principle, and in pursuance of the maxims laid down by Smith, the net produce of land and of capital ought to be exempted from taxation altogether, if with him we take for granted, that they produce nothing spontaneously; but this would be as unjust on the opposite side.
Although Smith has admitted the productive power of land, he has disregarded the completely analogous power of capital. A machine, an oil-mill for example, which employs a capital of 4000 dollars, and gives an annual net return of 200 dollars, after paying all expenses, gives a product quite as substantial as that of a real estate, that cost 4000 dollars, and brings an annual rent or net produce of 200 dollars, all charges deducted. Smith maintains, that a mill which has cost 4000 dollars, represents labour to that amount, bestowed at sundry times upon the different parts of its fabric; therefore, that the net produce of the mill is the net produce of that precedent labour. But he is mistaken: granting for argument sake, the value of the mill itself to be the value of this previous labour; yet the value daily produced by the mill is a new value altogether; just the same as the rent of a landed estate is a totally different value from the value of the estate itself, and may be consumed, without at all affecting the value of the estate. If capital contained in itself no productive faculty, independent of that of the labour which created it, how is it possible, that capital could furnish a revenue in perpetuity, independent of the profit of the industry that employed it? The labour that created the capital would receive wages after it ceased to operate—would have interminable value; which is absurd. It will be seen by-and-by, that these notions have not been mere matter of speculation.

Book I, Chapter V

End of Notes

Return to top