Political Economy

Nassau W. Senior, from the Warren J. Samuels Portrait Collection
Senior, Nassau W.
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First Pub. Date
London: Richard Griffin and Co.
Pub. Date
3rd edition.



Definition of the Science.—We propose in the following Treatise to give an outline of the Science which treats of the Nature, the Production, and the Distribution of Wealth. To that Science we give the name of Political Economy. Our readers must be aware that that term has often been used in a much wider sense. The earlier writers who assumed the name of Political Economists avowedly treated not of Wealth but of Government. Mercier de la Riviere entitled his Work The Natural and Essential Organization of Society, and professed to propose an organization "which shall necessarily produce all the happiness that can be enjoyed on earth."*1 Sir James Steuart states, that "the principal object of the Science is to secure a certain fund of subsistence for all the inhabitants, to obviate every circumstance which may render it precarious, and to provide everything necessary for supplying the wants of the society."*2 The modern continental writers have in general entered into an equally extensive inquiry. "Political Economy," says M. Storch, "is the Science of the natural laws which determine the prosperity of nations, that is to say, their wealth and their civilization."*3 M. Sismondi considers "the physical welfare of man, so far as it can be the work of government, as the object of Political Economy."*4 "Political Economy," says M. Say, "is the economy of society; a Science combining the results of our observations on the nature and functions of the different parts of the social body."*5 The modern writers of the English school have in general professed to limit their attention to the theory of Wealth; but some of the most eminent among them, after having expressed their intention to confine themselves within what appears to us to be their proper province, have invaded that of the general legislator or the statesman. Thus Mr. M'Culloch, after having defined Political Economy to be "the Science of the laws which regulate the production, accumulation, distribution, and consumption of those articles or products that are necessarily useful or agreeable to man, and possess exchangeable value"*6 or, "the Science of Values;" adds, that "its object is to point out the means by which the industry of man may be rendered most productive of wealth, to ascertain the circumstances most favourable to its accumulation, the proportions in which it is divided, and the mode in which it may be most advantageously consumed."*7


Limits of the Science.—It is impossible to overstate the importance of these inquiries, and it is not easy to state their extent. They involve, as their general premises, the consideration of the whole theory of morals of government, and of civil and criminal legislation; and, for their particular premises, a knowledge of all the facts which affect the social condition of every community whose conduct the Economist proposes to influence. We believe that such inquiries far exceed the bounds of any single Treatise, and indeed the powers of any single mind. We believe that by confining our own and the reader's attention to the Nature, Production, and Distribution of Wealth, we shall produce a more clear, and complete, and instructive work than if we allowed ourselves to wander into the more interesting and more important, but far less definite, fields by which the comparatively narrow path of Political Economy is surrounded. The questions, To what extent and under what circumstances the possession of Wealth is, on the whole, beneficial or injurious to its possessor, or to the society of which he is a member? What distribution of Wealth is most desirable in each different state of society? and What are the means by which any given Country can facilitate such a distribution?—all these are questions of great interest and difficulty, but no more form part of the Science of Political Economy, in the sense in which we use that term, than Navigation forms part of the Science of Astronomy. The principles supplied by Political Economy are indeed necessary elements in their solution, but they are not the only, or even the most important elements. The writer who pursues such investigations is in fact engaged on the great Science of legislation; a Science which requires a knowledge of the general principles supplied by Political Economy, but differs from it essentially in its subject, its premises, and its conclusions. The subject of legislation is not Wealth, but human Welfare. Its premises are drawn from an infinite variety of phenomena, supported by evidence of every degree of strength, and authorizing conclusions deserving every degree of assent, from perfect confidence to bare suspicion. And its expounder is enabled, and even required, not merely to state general facts, but to urge the adoption or rejection of actual measures or trains of action.


On the other hand, the subject treated by the Political Economist, using that term in the limited sense in which we apply it, is not Happiness, but Wealth; his premises consist of a very few general propositions, the result of observation, or consciousness, and scarcely requiring proof, or even formal statement, which almost every man, as soon as he hears them, admits as familiar to his thoughts, or at least as included in his previous knowledge; and his inferences are nearly as general, and, if he has reasoned correctly, as certain, as his premises. Those which relate to the Nature and the Production of Wealth are universally true; and though those which relate to the Distribution of Wealth are liable to be affected by the peculiar institutions of particular Countries, in the cases for instance of slavery, legal monopolies, or poor laws, the natural state of things can be laid down as the general rule, and the anomalies produced by particular disturbing causes can be afterwards accounted for. But his conclusions, whatever be their generality and their truth, do not authorize him in adding a single syllable of advice. That privilege belongs to the writer or the statesman who has considered all the causes which may promote or impede the general welfare of those whom he addresses, not to the theorist who has considered only one, though among the most important, of those causes. The business of a Political Economist is neither to recommend nor to dissuade, but to state general principles, which it is fatal to neglect, but neither advisable, nor perhaps practicable, to use as the sole, or even the principal, guides in the actual conduct of affairs. In the meantime the duty of each individual writer is clear. Employed as he is upon a Science in which error or even ignorance may be productive of such intense and such extensive mischief, he is bound, like a juryman, to give deliverance true according to the evidence, and allow neither sympathy with indigence, nor disgust at profusion or at avarice—neither reverence for existing institutions, nor detestation of existing abuses—neither love of popularity, nor of paradox, nor of system, to deter him from stating what he believes to be the facts, or from drawing from those facts what appear to him to be the legitimate conclusions. To decide in each case how far those conclusions are to be acted upon, belongs to the art of government, an art to which Political Economy is only one of many subservient Sciences; which involves the consideration of motives, of which the desire for Wealth is only one among many, and aims at objects to which the possession of Wealth is only a subordinate means.


The confounding Political Economy with the Sciences and Arts to which it is subservient, has been one of the principal obstacles to its improvement. It has acted thus in two different modes:—


First, by exciting in the public unfavourable prejudices.


And, secondly, by misleading Economists, both with respect to the object of their Science and the means of attaining it.


With respect to the first of these obstacles, it has often been made a matter of grave complaint against Political Economists, that they confine their attention to Wealth, and disregard all consideration of Happiness or Virtue. It is to be wished that this complaint were better founded; but its general existence implies an opinion that it is the business of Political Economists not merely to state propositions, but to recommend actual measures; for on no other supposition could they be blamed for confining their attention to a single subject. No one blames a writer upon tactics for confining his attention to military affairs, or, from his doing so, infers that he recommends perpetual war. It must be admitted that an author who, having stated that a given conduct is productive of Wealth, should, on that account alone, recommend it, or assume that, on that account alone, it ought to be pursued, would be guilty of the absurdity of implying that Happiness and the possession of Wealth are identical. But his error would consist not in confining his attention to Wealth, but in confounding Wealth with Happiness. Supposing that error, and it is a very obvious one, to be avoided, the more strictly a writer confines his attention to his own Science, the more likely he is to extend its bounds.


Secondly, The confounding the Science of Political Economy with the Sciences and Arts to which it is subservient, has seduced Economists sometimes to undertake inquiries too vague to lead to any practical results, and sometimes to pursue the legitimate objects of the Science by means unfit for their attainment. To their extended view of the objects of Political Economy is to be attributed the undue importance which many Economists have ascribed to the collection of facts, and their neglect of the far more important process of reasoning accurately from the facts before them. We are constantly told that it is a Science of facts and experiment, a Science avide de faits. The practical applications of it, like the practical applications of every other Science, without doubt, require the collection and examination of facts to an almost indefinite extent. The facts collected as materials for the amendment of the poor-laws, and the opening of the trade to China, fill more than twice as many volumes as could be occupied by all the Treatises that have ever been written on Political Economy; but the facts on which the general principles of the Science rest may be stated in a very few sentences, and indeed in a very few words. But that the reasoning from these facts, the drawing from them correct conclusions, is a matter of great difficulty, may be inferred from the imperfect state in which the Science is now found after it has been so long and so intensely studied.


This difficulty arises partly from the extremely complicated nature of the subjects which it investigates, and the consequent abstractness and generality of its terms. A description, if it were possible, of all the different things which are designated by the word "Wealth," or even by the less comprehensive word "Capital," would fill an Encyclopædia. It arises partly, also, from the circumstance, that the terms which we are forced to use as signs for these abstractions are taken from ordinary language, commonly used in senses too wide or too narrow for scientific purposes. In the case, therefore, both of the writer and of the reader, they are often associated with ideas which are intended to be excluded, or separated from ideas which are meant to be comprehended. Thus, in ordinary language, the word Capital is sometimes used as comprehending every species of Wealth, and sometimes as confined to Money.


If Economists had been aware that the Science depends more on reasoning than on observation, and that its principal difficulty consists not in the ascertainment of its facts, but in the use of its terms, we cannot doubt that their principal efforts would have been directed to the selection and consistent use of an accurate nomenclature. So far is this from having been the case, that it is only within a very short period that serious attention has been given to its nomenclature. The Wealth of Nations contains scarcely a definition: most of the modern French writers, and some indeed of our own, have not only neglected definitions, but have expressly reprobated their use; and the English Work which has attracted the most attention during the present century, Mr. Ricardo's Principles of Political Economy, is deformed by a use of words so unexplained, and yet so remote from ordinary usage, and from that of other writers on the same subject, and frequently so inconsistent, as to perplex every reader, and not unfrequently to have misled the eminent writer himself. We do not complain of all his innovations in language: such innovations are, for scientific purposes, frequently indispensable, and we shall be forced to make many ourselves. What we do complain of is, that his innovations, such, for instance, as the substitution of the word Value for Cost, are frequently unnecessary, and are almost always made without any warning to his readers; and that the same words, such, for example, as the adjectives high and low, when applied to wages, are used by him sometimes in their popular sense, as expressing an amount, and sometimes in a technical sense of his own, as expressing a proportion.


Our object in these remarks has been not only to account for the slow progress which has as yet been made by Political Economy, and to suggest means by which its advancement may be accelerated, but also to warn the reader of the nature of the following Treatise. He will find it consist, in a great degree, of discussions as to the most convenient use of a few familiar words. Such discussions it is impossible to render amusing, but we trust that they will be useful, by directing his attention to the great difficulties of the Science, though he may often disapprove our classification or nomenclature.

Notes for this chapter

Discourse Préliminaire, liv. vi.
Vol. I. p. 2.
Tom. I. p. 21.
Nouveaux Principes d'Economie Polique, liv. i. ch. ii.
Cours Complet, Tom. I. pp. 1, 2.
Principles, &c. p. 1.
Ibid. p. 8.

Chapter 2, Nature of Wealth

End of Notes

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