Introductory Lectures on Political Economy

Whately, Richard
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First Pub. Date
London: B. Fellowes
Pub. Date
2nd edition.

Lecture IV


"Bees," said Cicero, "do not congregate for the purpose of constructing a honey-comb; but being by nature gregarious animals, combine their labours in making the comb. And man, even still more," he continues, "is formed by nature for society, and subsequently, as a member of society, promotes the common good in conjunction with his fellow creatures." Greek Posei politikon anthropos, is the doctrine maintained by Aristotle also. Both these writers stood opposed to some, of their own times, who represented the social union as an expedient which men resorted to on account of their mutual wants, and which they would never have cared for, if those wants could have been independently supplied. The two writers whom I have alluded to resembled each other very little in their intellectual character; but they were both of them far enough from overlooking or depreciating the advantages of the social union; which yet they agreed in representing as not formed by men with a view to those advantages, but from an instinctive propensity: the one insisting, that if a philosopher could be furnished with a magic wand which would command all the necessaries and luxuries of life, he would still crave companions; the other, that without society, though a man should posses all other goods, life would be not worth having;*14 and that to be independent of associates, one must be either more or less than man: Greek y theos estin, y ther.


Yet the opinion to which they were opposed, has, in part, always found some advocates, even down to the present day.


When I say, "in part," I mean, that though there are perhaps few or none who deny man to be by nature a social Being, incapable, except in a community, of exercising or developing his most important and most characteristic faculties, yet various parts of man's conduct as a member of society are often attributed to human forethought and design, which might with greater truth be referred to a kind of instinct, or something analogous to it; which leads him, while pursuing some immediate personal gratification, to further an object not contemplated by him. In many cases we are liable to mistake for the wisdom of Man what is in truth the wisdom of God.


In nothing, perhaps, will an attentive and candid inquirer perceive more of this divine wisdom than in the provisions made for the progress of society. But in nothing is it more liable to be overlooked. In the bodily structure of Man we plainly perceive innumerable marks of wise contrivance, in which it is plain that Man himself can have had no share. And again, in the results of instinct in brutes, although the animals themselves are, in some sort, agents, we are sure that they not only could not originally have designed the effects they produce, but even afterwards have no notion of the contrivance by which these were brought about. But when human conduct tends to some desirable end, and the agents are competent to perceive that the end is desirable, and the means well adapted to it, they are apt to forget, that in the great majority of instances, those means were not devised, nor those ends proposed, by the persons themselves who are thus employed. Those who build and who navigate a ship, have usually, I conceive, no more thought about the national wealth and power, the national refinements and comforts, dependent on the interchange of commodities, and the other results of commerce, than they have of the purification of the blood in the lungs by the act of respiration, or than the bee has of the process of constructing a honey-comb.


Most useful indeed to Society, and much to be honoured, are those who possess the rare moral and intellectual endowment of an enlightened public-spirit; but if none did service to the Public except in proportion as they possessed this, Society I fear would fare but ill. Public-spirit, either in the form of Patriotism which looks to the good of a community, or in that of Philanthropy which seeks the good of the whole human race, implies, not merely benevolent feelings stronger than, in fact, we commonly meet with, but also powers of abstraction beyond what the mass of mankind can possess. As it is, many of the most important objects are accomplished by the joint agency of persons who never think of them, nor have any idea of acting in concert; and that, with a certainty, completeness, and regularity, which probably the most diligent benevolence under the guidance of the greatest human wisdom, could never have attained.


For instance, let any one propose to himself the problem of supplying with daily provisions of all kinds such a city as our metropolis, containing above a million of inhabitants. Let him imagine himself a head-commissary, entrusted with the office of furnishing to this enormous host their daily rations. Any considerable failure in the supply, even for a single day, might produce the most frightful distress; since the spot on which they are cantoned produces absolutely nothing. Some indeed of the articles consumed admit of being reserved in public or private stores, for a considerable time; but many, including most articles of animal food, and many of vegetable, are of the most perishable nature. As a deficient supply of these even for a few days, would occasion great inconvenience, so, a redundancy of them would produce a corresponding waste. Moreover, in a district of such vast extent, as this "province" (as it has been aptly called) "covered with houses," it is essential that the supplies should be so distributed among the different quarters, as to be brought almost to the doors of the inhabitants; at least within such a distance, that they may, without an inconvenient waste of time and labour, procure their daily shares.


Moreover, whereas the supply of provisions for an army or garrison is comparatively uniform in kind: here the greatest possible variety is required, suitable to the wants of various classes of consumers.


Again, this immense population is extremely fluctuating in numbers; and the increase or diminution depends on causes, of which, though some may, others can not, be distinctly foreseen. The difference of several weeks in the arrival, for instance, of one of the great commercial fleets, or in the assembly or dissolution of a parliament, which cause a great variation in the population, it is often impossible to foresee.


Lastly, and above all, the daily supplies of each article must be so nicely adjusted to the stock from which it is drawn—to the scanty, or more or less abundant, harvest—importation—or other source of supply—to the interval which is to elapse before a fresh stock can be furnished, and to the probable abundance of the new supply, that as little distress as possible may be undergone;—that on the one hand the population may not unnecessarily be put upon short allowance of any article, and that on the other hand they may be preserved from the more dreadful risk of famine, which would ensue from their continuing a free consumption when the store was insufficient to hold out.


Now let any one consider this problem in all its bearings, reflecting on the enormous and fluctuating number of persons to be fed—the immense quantity, and the variety, of the provisions to be furnished, the importance of a convenient distribution of them, and the necessity of husbanding them discreetly; and then let him reflect on the anxious toil which such a task would impose on a Board of the most experienced and intelligent commissaries; who after all would be able to discharge their office but very inadequately.


Yet this object is accomplished far better than it could be by any effort of human wisdom, through the agency of men, who think each of nothing beyond his own immediate interest,—who, with that object in view, perform their respective parts with cheerful zeal,—and combine unconsciously to employ the wisest means for effecting an object, the vastness of which it would bewilder them even to contemplate.


Early and long familiarity is apt to generate a careless, I might almost say, a stupid indifference, to many objects, which, if new to us, would excite a great and a just admiration; and many are inclined even to hold cheap a stranger, who expresses wonder at what seems to us very natural and simple, merely because we have been used to it; while in fact perhaps our apathy is a more just subject of contempt than his astonishment. Moyhanger, a New Zealander who was brought to England, was struck with especial wonder, in his visit to London, at the mystery, as it appeared to him, how such an immense population could be fed; as he saw neither cattle nor crops. Many of the Londoners, who would perhaps have laughed at the savage's admiration, would probably have been found never to have even thought of the mechanism which is here at work.


It is really wonderful to consider with what ease and regularity this important end is accomplished, day after day, and year after year, through the sagacity and vigilance of private interest operating on the numerous class, of wholesale, and more especially, retail, dealers. Each of these watches attentively the demands of his neighbourhood, or of the market he frequents, for such commodities as he deals in. The apprehension, on the one hand, of not realizing all the profit he might, and, on the other hand, of having his goods left on his hands, either by his laying in too large a stock, or by his rivals' underselling him,—these, acting like antagonist muscles, regulate the extent of his dealings, and the prices at which he buys and sells. An abundant supply causes him to lower his prices, and thus enables the public to enjoy that abundance; while he is guided only by the apprehension of being undersold; and, on the other hand, an actual or apprehended scarcity causes him to demand a higher price, or to keep back his goods in expectation of a rise.


For doing this, corn-dealers in particular are often exposed to odium, as if they were the cause of the scarcity; while in reality they are performing the important service of husbanding the supply in proportion to its deficiency, and thus warding off the calamity of famine; in the same manner as the commander of a garrison or a ship, regulates the allowances according to the stock, and the time it is to last. But the dealers deserve neither censure for the scarcity which they are ignorantly supposed to produce, nor credit for the important public service which they in reality perform. They are merely occupied in gaining a fair livelihood. And in the pursuit of this object, without any comprehensive wisdom, or any need of it, they cooperate, unknowingly, in conducting a system which, we may safely say, no human wisdom directed to that end could have conducted so well:—the system by which this enormous population is fed from day to day.


I have said, "no human wisdom;" for wisdom there surely is, in this adaptation of the means to the result actually produced. In this instance, as well as in a multitude of others, from which I selected it for illustration's sake, there are the same marks of contrivance and design, with a view to a beneficial end, as we are accustomed to admire (when our attention is drawn to them by the study of Natural-Theology) in the anatomical structure of the body, and in the instincts of the brute-creation. The pulsations of the heart, the ramifications of vessels in the lungs—the direction of the arteries and of the veins—the valves which prevent the retrograde motion of the blood—all these, exhibit a wonderful combination of mechanical means towards the end manifestly designed, the circulating system. But I know not whether it does not even still more excite our admiration of the beneficent wisdom of Providence, to contemplate, not corporeal particles, but rational free agents, cooperating in systems no less manifestly indicating design, yet no design of theirs; and though acted on, not by gravitation and impulse, like inert matter, but by motives addressed to the will, yet advancing as regularly and as effectually the accomplishment of an object they never contemplated, as if they were merely the passive wheels of a machine. If one may without presumption speak of a more or a less in reference to the works of infinite Wisdom, I would say, that the branch of Natural-Theology with which we are now concerned, presents to the reflective mind views even more striking than any other. The heavens do indeed "declare the glory of God;" and the human body is "fearfully and wonderfully made;" but Man, considered not merely as an organized Being, but as a rational agent, and as a member of society, is perhaps the most wonderfully contrived, and to us the most interesting, specimen of divine Wisdom that we have any knowledge of. Greek quotation Greek quotation.


The phenomena which can be exhibited directly to the senses, afford perhaps, for the youthful mind, the best introduction to the study of Natural-Theology; but even greater admiration will arise as the philosophical inquirer proceeds to trace the marks of divine Wisdom in the various contrivances for the well-being of man, exhibited in the complicated structure of Society. The investigation is indeed one of more intricacy and difficulty, from various causes; especially, from the more frequent frustration of the apparent designs of Providence through human faults and follies; in the same manner as, in a less degree, the provisions of Nature for the growth, and strength, and health, of the body, are often defeated by man's intemperance or imprudence. But still I am inclined to think, that if the time should ever arrive, when the stricture of Human Society and all the phenomena connected with it, shall be as well understood as Astronomy and Physiology, it will be regarded as exhibiting even more striking marks of divine Wisdom.


I shall probably take occasion from time to time to advert incidentally to this view of the subject, as the matter which may happen to be before us may suggest. But the point to which I wish at present more particularly to call your attention is, the one in which Man, and more especially Man considered as a social Being, stands contrasted both with inanimate bodies, and with the lower animals;—I mean, the provisions made for the progress of society. A capacity of improvement seems to be characteristic of the Human Species, both as individuals, and as existing in a community. The mechanical and chemical laws of matter are not only unvarying, but seem calculated to preserve all things either in an unvarying state, or in a regular rotation of changes, except where human agency interferes. The instincts of brutes, as has been often remarked, lead them to no improvement. But in Man, not only the faculties are susceptible of much cultivation, (in which point he does indeed stand far above the brutes, but which yet is not peculiar to our species,) but besides this, what may be called the instincts of Man lead to the advancement of society. I mean, that (as in such cases as those just alluded to) he is led to further this object when he has another in view. And this procedure is, as far as regards the object which the agent did not contemplate, precisely analogous, at least, to that of instinct.


The workman, for instance, who is employed in casting printing-types, is usually thinking only of producing a commodity by the sale of which he may support himself; with reference to this object, he is acting, not from any impulse that is at all of the character of instinct, but from a rational and deliberate choice: but he is also in the very same act, contributing most powerfully to the diffusion of knowledge; about which perhaps he has no anxiety or thought: in reference to this latter object therefore his procedure corresponds to those operations of various animals which we attribute to instinct; since they doubtless derive some immediate gratification from what they are doing. So, Man is, in the same act, doing one thing, by choice, for his own benefit, and another, undesignedly, under the guidance of Providence, for the service of the community.


The branch of Natural-Theology to which I have now been alluding—the contemplation of the divine Wisdom as displayed in provisions for the existence, the well-being, and the progress, of Society, comprises a great number of distinct heads, several of them only partially and incidentally connected with the subject of these Lectures. Our proper business at present is to consider the subject so far only as it is connected with national wealth; and more immediately the connexion of that, with the advancement of civilization.


And here I must take occasion to remark, that I do not profess to explain why things were so ordered, that any advancement at all should be needful;—why mankind were not placed at once in a state of society as highly civilized as it was destined ever to be.*15 The reasons for this are probably unfathomable by us in this world. It is sufficient for our present purpose merely to remark the fact, that the apparent design of Providence evidently is, the advancement of mankind, not only as Individuals, but as Communities. Nor again do I profess to explain, why in so many particular instances causes have been permitted to operate, more or less, towards the frustration of this general design, and the retardation, or even reversal, of the course of improvement. The difficulty in fact is one which belongs, not to this alone, but to every branch of Natural-Theology. In every part of the universe we see marks of wise and benevolent design; and yet we see in many instances apparent frustrations of this design; we see the productiveness of the earth interrupted by unfavourable seasons—the structure of the animal frame enfeebled, and its functions impaired, by disease—and vast multitudes of living Beings, exposed, from various causes, to suffering, and to premature destruction. In the moral and political world, wars, and civil dissention—tyrannical governments, unwise laws, and all evils of this class, correspond to the inundations—the droughts—the tornados, and the earthquakes, of the natural world. We cannot give a satisfactory account of either;—we cannot, in short, explain the great difficulty, which, in proportion as we reflect attentively, we shall more and more perceive to be the only difficulty in theology, the existence of evil in the Universe.*16


But two things we can accomplish; which are very important, and which are probably all that our present faculties and extent of knowledge can attain to. One is, to perceive clearly that the difficulty in question is of no unequal pressure, but bears equally heavy on Deism and on Christianity, and on the various different interpretations of the Christian scheme; and consequently can furnish no valid objection to any one scheme of religion in particular. Even Atheism does not lessen our difficulty; it only alters the character of it. For as the believer in a God is at a loss to account for the existence of evil, the believer in no God, is equally unable to account for the existence of good; or indeed of any thing at all that bears marks of design.


Another point which is attainable is, to perceive, amidst all the admixture of evil, and all the seeming disorder of conflicting agencies, a general tendency nevertheless towards the accomplishment of wise and beneficent designs.


As in contemplating an ebbing tide, we are sometimes in doubt, on a short inspection, whether the sea is really receding, because, from time to time, a wave will dash further up the shore than those which had preceded it, but, if we continue our observation long enough, we see plainly, that the boundary of the land is on the whole advancing; so here, by extending our view over many countries and through several ages, we may distinctly perceive the tendencies which would have escaped a more confined research.


In respect of the point now most particularly before us, the provisions made for the advancement of society, so far as they are connected with the progress of national wealth, I shall proceed to offer a few remarks, after premising some observations as to the state of society from which it is, I conceive, that improvement must date its commencement. That this is not (as several writers on Political-Economy have appeared to suppose) what is properly called the savage state—that we have no reason to believe that any community ever did, or ever can, emerge, unassisted by external helps, from a state of utter barbarism, into any thing that can be called civilization—is a point which I think can be very satisfactorily established. And I shall afterwards direct your attention to some of the principal steps by which nations have advanced, and may be expected to advance, from a comparatively barbarous, to a more civilized, condition. And I shall enter on these subjects in the next and following Lectures.

Notes for this chapter

Greek quotation
Eth. Nicom. book viii.
The present Bishop of Chester has treated at large of the subjects here considered, in the third part of his "Records of the Creation;" to which I have much pleasure in referring the reader, though I do not entirely coincide with every thing that the author has there said.

In the Notes and Appendix to Archbishop King's Discourse I have stated my own view of some of the most important of the questions now alluded to.

Yet how many, in almost every past age, (and so it will be, I suppose, in all future ages,) have shewn a tendency towards such presumption as that of our First Parents, in seeking to pass the limits appointed for the human faculties, and to "be as Gods, KNOWING GOOD AND EVIL!"

End of Notes

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