The Common Sense of Political Economy

Wicksteed, Philip H.
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First Pub. Date
London: Macmillan and Co.
Pub. Date
1st edition.



Greek quote, Plato

    CALLICLES. How you keep on, Socrates, harping on the same old string about food and drink and doctors and sandals and such-like trivialities!




Summary.—This work is a study of the organisation of industry and commerce in its bearing upon social problems and upon human life. The derivation and the current use of the terms "Economy," "Political Economy," and "Economics" suggest that we should approach the problems of the industrial administration of resources from the field of domestic and personal administration to which we all have access. Every purchase being a virtual selection and involving a choice between alternatives is made in obedience to impulses and is guided by principles which are equally applicable to other acts of selection and choice. To understand them we must study the psychology of choice. The price of a thing is an indication of the range of alternatives open to the purchaser, and is a special case of "terms on which alternatives are offered to us." We are constantly weighing apparently heterogeneous objects of desire against each other and selecting between them according to the terms on which we can secure them. All these things that we balance against and compare with each other, whether they can be had for money or not, may ideally be arranged on a scale of relative significance in our minds.


"Economy" etymologically means the regulating or managing of a household, that is to say, the administration of the household affairs and resources. It describes a branch of activity. In current language "economy" means the administration of any kind of resources (time, thought, or money, for instance) in such a way as to secure their maximum efficiency for the purpose contemplated. It is administration with a minimum of waste. It describes not a branch but a characteristic of administrative activity. If we go on to analyse our conception of "waste," we find it to be expenditure upon objects in excess of their worth, or loss and destruction of resources by mere thoughtlessness or negligence. And finally when we say that a thing is not "worth" what we expend upon it or devote to it, we mean that there is some alternative application of the resources in question, either actually or prospectively open to us, by which a more worthy, more extended, more important, or in general terms a more desired or more desirable object could have been accomplished by the outlay. All successful administration, then, consists in the purposeful selection between alternative applications of resources; and the ultimate value or significance of such success depends on the nature of the objects at which the administrator aims.


If we engraft the current meaning of the word "economy" (the avoiding of waste) upon its etymological meaning (the administration of a household), we shall arrive at "the administration of the affairs and resources of a household in such a manner as to avoid waste and secure efficiency" as our conception of "Economy." "Political" Economy would, by analogy, indicate the administration, in the like manner, of the affairs and resources of a State, regarded as an extended household or community, and regulated by a central authority; and the study of Political Economy would be the study of the principles on which the resources of a community should be so regulated and administered as to secure the communal ends without waste.


Now since the idea of "worth" enters, as the regulating and dominating principle, into every act of administration, and since it is our ends or objects that determine the relative worth, or worthiness, of this or that achieved result, it follows that the ultimate ideals of any individual, household, or community—the nature of the ends it seeks and desires—must give the tone and character to its "economy," and must be the soul and inspiration of its administrative system. We should therefore expect Political Economy in the first place either to assume or to inculcate certain ends as proper for the State to pursue, and in the second place to consider how the central authority can best direct the State resources to their accomplishment. But both these expectations are disappointed when we look into books on Political Economy. The tendencies of modern thought and the conditions of modern life have combined to sever the consideration of the administration of resources from the discussion of the ultimate ends it has in view; and it has therefore become usual to treat Political Economy as concerned with increasing the communal means rather than securing the communal ends; and though there has recently been some reaction against this tendency it is still dominant. And again the deliberate direction of communal resources to communal ends, by a central authority, now occupies only a small place in treatises of Political Economy. It is true that the science still embraces the study of taxation, including all the fiscal arrangements of the State or the municipality, whether made with a view to raising a revenue or to the advantageous regulation of commerce; but in modern times it has become obvious to the reflective mind that the rhythm and articulation of societies depend more upon spontaneous adjustments in which each individual contemplates but a very small portion of the consequences, antecedents, and implications of his actions, and less upon deliberate regulations laid down with a view to their effect on the whole community, than was supposed by earlier thinkers. And even where we are considering the deliberate and collective administration of communal resources, as in questions of taxation, public finance, and fiscal arrangements, it is obvious that we cannot hope to understand either the direct result or the indirect reactions of systematic regulations unless we have carefully studied the spontaneous organisation of individual efforts upon which these regulations will react and with which they will combine, and the spontaneous relations which establish themselves under any or every system of regulations, and which are based upon the permanent characteristics of human nature. "Political Economy" then, or the administration of resources of a society, must at any rate include and imply a study of the way in which members of that society will spontaneously administer their own resources and the relations into which they will spontaneously enter with each other.


In modern European society it may be questioned how far the ties of religion, of family, of feudal patronage and cliency, of civic, national, and imperialistic sentiment, are individually or collectively effective as organising powers; but it can hardly be questioned that relations of a business or commercial nature take a larger place in proportion to all these other forces than they did in ancient or medieval times. And the growing sense that the spontaneous relations into which men enter with each other in the administration of their resources are largely or even predominantly of the nature of business or commerce is reflected in the fact that Political Economy has come to concern itself more and more largely, and sometimes exclusively, with the principles on which all kinds of commercial and industrial enterprises and relations tend to regulate themselves. And indeed this tendency has gone so far that it has often been expressly laid down that Political Economy, strictly speaking, is only concerned with business relations, subject to whatever minimum of external control is regarded as inevitable. The reaction between these permanent tendencies to spontaneous organisation amongst individuals, and the deliberate regulations which trade unions, associations of employers, municipal or national assemblies, or contracting parties of any kind, may see fit to impose, has sometimes been isolated as the subject of Applied Political Economy. Thus, by an intelligible and instructive series of modifications, Political Economy has come to be generally understood as concerning itself mainly, if not exclusively, with industrial relations. It considers the forces and principles that determine market prices, rate of interest, foreign exchanges and so forth, in communities the individual members of which are free to organise themselves spontaneously in pursuit of their industrial interests.


The more general term "Economics" (corresponding to "Ethics," "Politics," or "Physics") has recently found increasing acceptance. It is probably felt that etymologically the term "Political Economy" has little relation to the study it now describes, and that the connotation it has recently acquired is too narrow to suit our present ideas, so that a more neutral term is preferred. "Economics," then, may be taken to include the study of the general principles of administration of resources, whether of an individual, a household, a business, or a State; including the examination of the ways in which waste arises in all such administration.


The object of this book is, indeed, to elucidate the problems of "Political Economy" in the narrower and modern sense; that is to say, to bring the reader to a comprehension of the mechanism and spontaneous organisation of industrial and commercial life; but at the same time it is the author's firm conviction that this comprehension can be best achieved by a thorough preliminary study of "Economics" in their widest scope; that is to say, a study of the principles of administration of resources and selection between alternatives, conceived without any formal or conventional limitations. Therefore we shall not exclude from our studies the consideration of ends and of those general purposes and impulses which determine the drift and flow of our energies. The movement can hardly be studied intelligently if we have taken vows at the outset never to think of the motive. The motive that inspires the study of Political Economy is almost invariably social, and the field of observation that lies nearest to each one of us is necessarily personal. The study of the problems of industry, then, must be based on personal Economics and must be inspired by social ideals; and even if we exclude direct consideration of the latter from some parts of our investigation it will still be for their bearings upon them that we value our results.


We shall seek our point of departure, then, in the regions with which we are most familiar, and shall endeavour there to find the clue to the general principles of administration, and so far our study will be personal; but it is by the bearing of these principles, when discovered, upon the social and communal weal that we shall justify our studies to the social instincts which prompt them. Thus personal and domestic administration will at first be our chosen field of observation, and our chief collecting ground of examples. We shall then proceed to the elucidation of the general principles on which men spontaneously administer their resources and conduct their business. And in the bearing of this conduct in business upon the general welfare of the community we shall find the justification of our desire to understand its inmost workings. Following these indications, then, let us begin our investigations at the point they suggest, and let us take the administration of the affairs of a household as our starting-point.


As we oftener think of women than of men as administering the affairs of a household, and as we oftener say of a woman than of a man that she is "economical," we may naturally draw our first illustrations mainly from the doings of housewives; and this will have the great advantage of keeping us upon ground with which we are all broadly familiar and with which all of us, man, woman, and child, are closely concerned. As bankers, manufacturers, dealers, or mechanics, we may have some inside knowledge of one or another order of industrial facts, but these special fields of experience give us no common ground. In the administration of the affairs of a household the matriarchal type of civilisation is indeed dominant, but every member of every family is more or less closely participant and more or less keenly interested in it. It furnishes us with a common ground, the exploration of which demands no special or technical information, and from which we may therefore conveniently start on a general investigation. Many of us are, severally and by training, more familiar with some other region of the economic world, but collectively and spontaneously we are most closely intimate with this. Starting then with the investigation of the management of household affairs, we will begin by taking for granted without examination the purchasing power of money and the existence of market or current prices, as facts which the housewife has to deal with; and on this basis we will observe and analyse the principles on which she administers the household resources. I shall then try to shew that these principles are identical in that part of her administration in which money is employed and that part in which it is not; and further, that they are identical with the principles that regulate the conduct of life in general, and the administration of all resources whatsoever.


From the vantage ground thus gained we will then go back upon the phenomena we had at first taken for granted, and I shall hope to shew that the principles we shall then have formulated will themselves enable us to explain the meaning and those functions of money and the constitution of those market prices which at first we took for granted. We shall then be in a position to go on to the direct treatment of the ordinary categories of Political Economy.


Our position may be restated thus. We will begin with that part of our economic world which we ourselves immediately control, or which is generally accessible to observation from the inside, about which we are constantly thinking, and in which we are all concerned, namely, the expenditure of our personal and domestic resources. This we may reasonably hope to be able to understand and analyse. But it is conditioned on every side by facts that we are not conscious of controlling, that we do not understand, and that cannot be generally got at from the inside (such as market prices), and instruments which we generally take for granted (such as money and the mechanism of exchange). We may hope, however, that a careful examination of what we ourselves or those with whom we are most intimately associated are consciously doing may throw light upon the great movements, institutions, and combinations which seem to be the result of the unconscious, or half-conscious, aggregate of doings that we vaguely conceive of as due to the "community."


Beginning our study of the administration of domestic resources, then, we note that in marketing, shopping, giving orders to tradesmen and so forth, the mother of a family is administering her pecuniary resources and trying to make the money go as far as possible; and when her purchases have been brought home she still has the kindred task, sometimes a delicate and difficult one, of so distributing them amongst the various claimants (whose wants they may be very far from completely satisfying) as to make them tell to the utmost. In marketing she is constantly compelled to buy less of this or that than she would like, because her whole resources are inadequate to the satisfaction of every desire, and the thoughtless indulgence of one would involve disproportionate neglect of others. At home she is compelled to give one child less than she would wish of something he wants, because the whole stock is inadequate to meet all the claims she would like to admit, and too liberal indulgence of one child's desires would involve disproportionate neglect of another's. Her doings in the market-place and her doings at home are therefore parts of one continuous process of administration of resources, guided by the same fundamental principle; and it is the home problem that dominates the market problem and gives it its ultimate meaning. The problem of the limitations which she must face at home in concrete detail is the same problem of which she is conscious, in a more collective form, in the market.


This task of home administration is not of uniform difficulty. Materfamilias will not mind who gets hold of the bread though she will exercise a general watchfulness against its being wasted, but when she has begun her first purchases of new potatoes for the year, she will be very careful to keep the dish under her own direct control and not let one of the children determine, at his own discretion, what is his proper share; for if she did there would be disproportionate gratification and disproportionate privation. "I am as the centre of the circle to which all parts of the circumference bear a like relation. But thou art not such," she says in effect to each child in turn. She may let the milk-jug pass freely round, and her vigilance will only take note of mugs full, but she will keep the cream-jug in her own immediate vicinity, and however nobly she tilts it on some occasions, there will be others on which she measures and estimates its contents by drops. But in all cases, whether she is spending money, helping the potatoes, pouring out the cream, or exercising a more general vigilance over the bread and milk, she is engaged in the same problem of the administration of resources and she is guided by the same principle. She is trying to make everything go as far as it will, or, in other words, serve the most important purpose that it can. She will consider that she has been successful if, in the end, no want which she has left unsatisfied appears, in her deliberate judgment, to have really been more important than some other want to which she attended in place of it. Otherwise there has been waste somewhere, for money, milk, potatoes, or attention have been applied to one purpose when they might better have been applied to another. Note that "attention" is included amongst the things that have to be administered and that are often wasted. The art of life includes the art of effectively and economically distributing our vital resources of every kind, and domestic administration is a branch of this art in which it is possible to pay too dear in money for the saving of time, or too dear in time for the saving of money, or too dear in thought and energy for saving in bread, potatoes, or cream. Whatever the nature of the alternatives before us, the question of the terms on which they are offered is always relevant. If we secure this, how much of that must we pay for it, or what shall we sacrifice to it? And is it worth it? What alternatives shall we forgo? And what would be their value to us?


In the market this problem presents itself in terms of money prices. Let us work this out in detail, and try to gain a more accurate and intimate knowledge of the considerations that connect themselves with this phenomenon of "price." It is sufficiently obvious that when a woman goes into the market uncertain whether she will or will not buy new potatoes, or chickens, the price at which she finds that she can get them may determine her either way; and if she buys at all, the price may determine whether she buys a larger or a smaller quantity. For the price is the first and most obvious indication of the nature of the alternatives that she is forgoing, if she makes a contemplated purchase. But it is almost equally obvious that not only the price of these particular things, but the price of a number of other things also will affect the problem. If good sound old potatoes are to be had at a low price the marketer will be less likely to pay a high price for new ones, because there is a good alternative to be had on good terms. If there is a good prospect of damsons at a reasonable figure presently, the immediate purchase of greengages for jam may seem less desirable than if there is not. If the housewife is thinking of doing honour to a small party of neighbours by providing a couple of chickens for their entertainment at supper, it is possible that she could treat them with adequate respect, though not with distinction, by substituting a few pounds of cod. And in that case not only the price of chickens but the price of cod will tend to affect her choice. (To say this, of course, is merely to say that we do not know the actual alternatives represented by the price of any one commodity until we know the price of certain other commodities also.) Under such circumstances as we have supposed, the price of 6s. for a pair of chickens means different things if cod is to be had at 6d. a pound, and if it is only to be had at 10d. In one case it would mean that the lower compliment of say six pounds of cod, as against the higher compliment of the chickens, would save 3s.; in the other, that it would only save 1s.; and it may be worth sacrificing a little distinction in the entertainment for all the possibilities opened out by 3s., though not for those opened out by 1s. This, however, is only what mathematicians call a first approximation. If the entertaining housekeeper suspects that one or more of her guests will know the price of cod and chickens as well as she does, a complication is introduced; for cod will be still less of a compliment at 6d. than at 10d. a pound, and the 3s. in the one case will then be secured at a greater sacrifice than the 1s. in the other; and this consideration may or may not turn the scale.


But on what does the significance of the saving (at whatever sacrifice made) depend? Probably upon the price of things that have no obvious connection with either chicken or cod. (A father and mother may have ambitions with respect to the education or accomplishments of their children, and may be willing considerably to curtail their expenditure on other things in order to gratify them. Such parents may be willing to incur the twofold reproach of being mean and being stuck up, by entertaining their guests less sumptuously than custom demands, and at the same time getting French or violin lessons for their children. In such a case the question whether to buy new or old potatoes, or whether to entertain friends with chicken or cod, or neither, may be affected by the terms on which French or music lessons of a satisfactory quality can be secured. If they are half a guinea a lesson the terms on which the alternatives between a better education and a more elaborate table are offered determine the choice in the table's favour; but if, owing to any combination of circumstances, it chances that instruction of adequate quality can be got for 5s. an hour, the price (or terms on which the alternatives are offered) having changed, the more elaborate education has the preference given to it, because more of it is now to be had for a given sacrifice of other things.


Moreover, new inventions, or the opening of new routes of commerce, are constantly bringing new alternatives within the range of possible selection, and the price which would have been cheerfully paid for some commodity when only the old range of alternatives was open is grudged in the presence of the fresh ones. It is said that the invention of the lady's bicycle materially affected the trade in low-priced pianos. Many young women, it seems, would have saved up for a piano before this invention was made. That is to say, they would have regarded the possession of a piano as a more eligible alternative than the indulgence of the thousand small wants they would have had to ignore in order to raise the money, or than the acquisition of any other possession, or the realisation of any other purpose that the money when raised would have secured. But now there is a newly opened alternative which they prefer to any of those that were open to them before, including the possession of the piano itself, which is accordingly beaten off the field. And it should of course be noted that for this effect to follow there is no necessity for any exact correspondence of price between the piano and the bicycle. It may be a case of weighing not a piano against a bicycle, but a piano against a bicycle plus sundry other things; and the collective group that includes the bicycle might offer a more eligible alternative than the piano, though the piano would outweigh any other alternative group from which the bicycle was excluded. And so it might conceivably happen that the introduction of the bicycle, while interfering with the sale of cheap pianos, might promote that of literature or even of fruit and vegetables; for these things might now be able to enter into a victorious alliance with the bicycle and defeat the hitherto triumphant piano that had excluded them.


We may further illustrate the general thesis to which we are leading up by supposing that the members of a family have been deeply affected by the news of an Indian famine. Now although it is said that the alternatives relinquished in order to meet fresh appeals to philanthropic sympathies are generally themselves philanthropic—that is to say, that the subscriptions given to meet a special appeal are largely withdrawn from the support of existing charities—yet this is certainly not always or altogether the case; and our housekeeper's purchases of chickens may certainly be affected not only by the price of cod, or by the price of French or music lessons or of pianos or bicycles, but also by the fact that there is a famine in India and that machinery by which she and her family can help to alleviate it has been brought to her door.


It is sufficiently obvious, further, that alternatives often present themselves in the form, "Shall I have this to-day and go without that to-morrow, or shall I have that to-morrow and go without this to-day?" In fact we can assign no definite limit to the remoteness in time of the realisation of one purpose which may come into competition with the instant or imminent realisation of another. We may deny ourselves many satisfactions day by day and week by week, because we are saving up for a piano, for the education of our children, for retirement from business in old age, for the amassing of a fortune, for general provision against contingencies more or less vaguely conceived, or for insurance against evils definite in their nature but uncertain in their incidence. To the wide range of alternatives, already examined, that compete with some definite purchase at a particular stall in the market-place, we may therefore add the further alternative of not spending the money at present either on that or on anything else, but saving something out of the housekeeping allowance for undefined future contingencies, or for the realisation of hopes regarding the definite but remote (and therefore necessarily uncertain) future.


Still further, if the housewife is herself a bread-winner, in the usual acceptation of the term, or if she is conscious of having any influence upon the general scheme of her husband's life, there may be present in her mind a yet further possible alternative to some special expenditure; for she may consider the advisability of ceasing, in future, to spend money in this and in certain other ways to which she is accustomed, but, instead of spending it on anything else, or saving it, simply not earning it at all, and devoting the time and energy so released to public work, or to the cultivation of private tastes, or to acts of neighbourly service, or finding compensation merely in relief from a strain which has become painful.


Thus, through widening circles of remoter and fainter influence, everything that changes the value or significance of any possible application of energies and resources, or that changes the terms on which any alternative whatever is offered, may affect the purchase of any single article at a market stall. Primarily it will be affected by its own price, secondarily by the price of the things that are most readily thought of as substitutes for it, and more remotely by the whole range of alternatives open to the individual, or the group, by whom, or for whom, the purchase is to be made.


But the reference just made to "relief from a strain" may warn us that we have not even yet reached a sufficient generality in our survey, and that we must mount to a point which will still further extend our outlook. We have spoken hitherto as if we were habitually choosing between different objects of positive desire, and as though the privation involved in securing one thing were simply going without another. But balking an impulse or starving a desire may involve not only the sacrifice of the thing desired, but the encountering of a positive pain. In this and in other ways we may be called upon at any time to consider, not which of two satisfactions we would rather forgo, but which of two pains or miseries we would rather escape, or whether we will endure this pain in order to secure that object of desire or in order to avert a given loss. And here again all will depend upon the "price" or terms on which the alternatives are offered. A pair of pinching or ill-fitting shoes furnishes a familiar example. Are we to go on wearing them and suffering, or are we to put them aside, give them away, or sell them for what they will fetch, and buy a new pair? If we determine to go on wearing them, we are practically earning a certain sum of money (or, if you like, purchasing certain things which we should have had to go without had we bought the new pair of boots) at the "price" of a certain sum of physical suffering, with all its secondary products of lowered vitality, irritability of temper, and so forth. Most ways of earning a living involve, possibly during a part of most days or every day, and almost certainly from time to time, effort or endurance which is positively, perhaps acutely, painful. So that in surveying the alternatives between which we have to choose in the ordinary course of life and business (whether in reference to earning or spending our income), we must not only compare different and heterogeneous objects of desire, but also different and heterogeneous forms of suffering, or objects of terror or aversion, which may be regarded as negative quantities on the scale of satisfaction. In the ordinary conduct of our lives we not only compare positive satisfactions amongst themselves, considering which we prefer, and negative satisfactions amongst themselves, considering which we are most anxious to avoid, but we also deliberate whether we will accept such and such a positive satisfaction on condition of having to take a negative one with it, or escape such and such a negative satisfaction on condition of forfeiting a positive one at the same time. Indeed, a moment's reflection will make us aware how very large a part of our resources is directed not so much to securing things we want as to averting things to which we object. And, in truth, moralists have such a long list of proscribed pleasures that the avoidance of a pain is often (and perhaps legitimately enough) represented as a more creditable motive than the securing of a pleasure. It is supposed to be to a man's credit if he eats, not because he enjoys it, but because he desires to avoid the faintness, inefficiency, and positive pain which would come upon him if he did not. Cato is praised by Lucan for having reduced his expenditure on clothing to the point demanded for protection against the weather; and many of us are so far Stoics that we would gladly reduce our tailor's bill more nearly to the modest dimensions sanctioned by Cato's standard, and spend the surplus on books or holidays, if we did not find that the dress which is adequate for protection against the weather is quite inadequate for protection against domestic criticism, to which we are equally sensitive. In this case we sacrifice positive pleasures in order to escape pains, and we are told that it would be disreputable to do otherwise. But we are not all or always of Cato's mood. If some people spend money on dress in order to avoid both suffering and inflicting mental pain, others do so in order to secure the positive satisfactions incidental to beautifying their own appearance and exciting the admiration, the approval, or the envy of others. Moreover, the two sets of incentives may combine, or the one may be the alleged while the other is the secretly effective motive.


Thus, in order to arrive at any adequate conception of the nature of the alternatives between which we are constantly choosing we must realise (a) that a large part of our energies and resources is habitually directed not towards getting what we want, but towards escaping what we do not want; (b) that we balance positive and negative satisfactions against each other*1 just as we balance positive against positive, and negative against negative satisfactions; (c) that positive and negative satisfactions may blend or even coincide (as when we secure sympathy that we value by the same act which averts criticism which we dread); and (d) that the principle of price obtains throughout the whole range of negative as of positive satisfactions. Whether we are willing to incur this kind of pain in order to secure that kind of pleasure depends on the terms on which they are offered. How much of the pain and how much of the pleasure may I expect? I may be glad to endure a day's sea-sickness for the sake of a fortnight's enjoyment, but may decline a day's enjoyment at the cost of a week's sea-sickness.


Insensibly we have passed from the confined conception of price as so much money, to the generalised conception of price as representing the terms on which anything we want may be had or anything we shun avoided. Current phraseology recognises this wider application of the language of the market and of pecuniary expenditure. "Spend," "afford," "waste," "worth," "price," are terms universally applicable to all kinds of material and immaterial resources and objects of desire or aversion, whether milk, money, time, pain, or vital energies. "It is not worth the money," our housekeeper may say when she determines not to buy a cabbage; "I cannot afford the time," when she explains why she has not weeded a flower-bed; "It is not worth making a fuss about," when she refrains from emphasising a slight deviation from the path of duty on the part of a maid. And note, at this point, that the implication in some or all of these instances is that the object in question would have justified the expenditure of a certain amount of money, time, and moral energy respectively, and the incurring of a certain amount of discomfort, but not so much as they would have taken. That is to say, that they are all worth having or doing, but not worth having or doing at the price. We habitually talk of a man gaining some object "at the price of his honour"; or say to some one who contemplates an action which would alienate his friends, "Oh yes! Of course you can do it, if you choose to pay the price." "Price," then, in the narrower sense of "the money for which a material thing, a service, or a privilege can be obtained," is simply a special case of "price" in the wider sense of "the terms on which alternatives are offered to us"; and to consider whether a thing is worth the price that is asked for it, is to consider whether the possession of it is more to be desired than anything we can have instead of it, and whether it will compensate us for everything we must take along with it. Selection between alternatives, then, is the most generalised form under which we can contemplate the ordinary acts of administration of resources, whether in the market-place, the home, or elsewhere; and, obviously, price or the terms on which the alternatives are offered (how much of this against how much of that?) must often be a determining consideration in our choice between them.


It would be a very great mistake to suppose that the influence of the terms on which alternatives are offered to us is confined to cases where our choice is deliberate; and a still greater mistake to confine it to cases in which that choice is rational. A great part of our conduct is impulsive and a great part unreflecting; and when we reflect our choice is often irrational. In all these cases, however, the principle of price is active.


Habit or impulse perpetually determines our selection between alternatives without any reflection on our part at all; and the terms on which alternatives are offered us may change within wide limits without affecting us. But if they are altered beyond a certain point the habit will be broken or the unconscious impulse checked, and we shall enter a stage of conscious choice. The power of habit or impulse to resist the intrusion of deliberate choice is quantitatively defined, and may be overcome on certain terms. Thus the impulse to rescue a drowning man and the dread of taking a high dive may balance themselves without reflection within certain limits, but when those limits are transgressed a deliberate choice may be made. The principle is at work on the unconscious area, and emerges into consciousness when it crosses the boundary. A man of given temperament and accomplishments, who without a moment's hesitation would take a header of 5 feet to help a drowning stranger, might be conscious of a conflict of two forces in him, though hardly of a deliberate choice, as he took off from a height of 8 feet, might nerve himself with an effort to a 10-foot throw, might refrain, though with some measure of self-contempt, if the height were 12 feet, and without any self-reproach at all if it were 20 feet. But the same man might unhesitatingly take off from 12 feet to save his friend, or from 20 feet, with a sense of desperation, but with no fear or consciousness of an open alternative, to the rescue of his wife or child; though even in this case it would not occur to him to take off from 40 feet, and at some height short of this he might go through a rapid estimate of the relative chances of a desperate plunge or a race for other means of rescue, and into this estimate his own instinctive fears might or might not, according to his temperament, enter as a recognised or unrecognised weight.


Or again, when our selection between positive and negative satisfactions is wholly irrational, and the price required (even according to our own standards, apart from any ideal scale of values) is vastly less than the worth of what is offered, the principle of price is still active. The terms on which the rejected alternative is offered are already favourable, if judged by any rational standard, and yet we persist in our rejection. But if the terms are made more favourable still, we shall accept them. For example, we lie awake (or what we call awake next morning) half the night consciously suffering from cold, when without even getting out of bed we could reach a blanket or a rug which would secure comfortable sleep for the rest of the night. We cannot say that we deliberately prefer the discomfort we have encountered to the discomfort we have escaped. Perhaps the psychological analysis is that we prefer each second of the discomfort of cold, as it comes, to the discomfort that would accrue during that second if we secured peace for the rest of the night. At any rate our choice is irrational, yet the principle of price is at work all the same; for there is a degree of chill discomfort which, if reached, will break the spell and induce us to put on the extra blanket. Or for months, perhaps years, we have suffered our conscience to be periodically troubled, and our general vitality sensibly lowered, because we know that we ought to pay a certain call, write a certain letter, or even post-card, or return a book to a friend, who, for all we know, may be suffering more or less seriously for want of it and wondering what has become of it. An hour's or a minute's exertion of a kind we are constantly making for trivial objects, and which we do not find particularly painful, would relieve us of this burden, and yet, apparently under some spell of impotence, we continue to bear it. Nothing could be more supremely irrational (to say nothing of its morality), and yet here too the quantitative law of "price" is at work. There is a degree of depression, self-reproach, or sudden panic, which will induce us to break the spell that has prevented our writing the post-card or sending the book back. If the terms on which we can hug our indolence or aversion become too hard we shall at last cast it from us. There are people who will endure long-protracted agonies of toothache sooner than face an extraction which they know perfectly well would be comparatively easy to bear; or who are restrained from indulging their taste for foreign travel by terror of sea-sickness, though they know that it is a weak and foolish shrinking, and that what they are losing is, in their own deliberate judgment, worth much more than the price they shrink from paying. Their conduct is admittedly irrational; but though they refuse to pay a given price for something that far exceeds it in value, yet if the offer be raised still higher they will at last consent to pay. If the present and prospective pain from toothache, or the degree of prospective enjoyment from travel, reaches a certain point, they will at last face an hour in the dentist's chair, or a night and a day on the deep. When the terms on which the alternatives are offered are such as not only to enlist their deliberate reason, but also to overcome their instinctive and morbidly absorbing terror, they will face the thing they dread, though they would have done so on no lower terms. Our irrational shrinkings then, as well as our rational preferences, "have their price." And as irrational aversion or dread does not supersede the principle of price, so neither does irrational attraction or fancy. The phenomenon of enamourment is not special to one relation in life; and if it is sometimes a better guide than reason it certainly is not always reasonable. Yet the man who has "fallen in love" with a house, a horse, a book, or a scheme of business or pleasure, while he may resent the suggestions of his reason that a given price is too high, will nevertheless be daunted when it rises beyond a certain point; and that point affords an accurate gauge of his "infatuation" regarded as a quantity.*2


Thus the principle of price, or terms on which the alternatives are offered, which decides the housewife to make this or that purchase at the stall, may be traced through the whole range of our irrational as well as our rational, of our impulsive as well as our deliberate and even of our unconscious as well as our conscious selection between alternatives.


And finally, if the principle of price extends to cases in which there is an open alternative but no deliberate estimate, it may also be traced where there is a deliberate estimate though there is no open alternative; for where there is no possibility of selection we nevertheless determine in our thought the terms which would sway our selection this way or that if there were a choice. "I would rather have lost £20," a man may say when he has forgotten a promise that it must seem heartless not to have kept; or "I would give half my possessions if I could believe it," when he is told something that he would willingly accept as a fact, but cannot. Such utterances may not be very serious or accurate estimates, but their very form shews that there is nothing inherently absurd in the idea that a painful impression, of given gravity, on the mind of a friend would be worth removing at £20, but not at £25; or that some definite relief to my mind might be worth the sacrifice of half, but not of three-quarters, of my fortune; though neither of the alternatives is actually open to me upon these or perhaps upon any other terms.


We have thus arrived at the conclusion that all the heterogeneous impulses and objects of desire or aversion which appeal to any individual, whether material or spiritual, personal or communal, present or future, actual or ideal, may all be regarded as comparable with each other; for we are, as a matter of fact, constantly comparing them, weighing them against each other, and deciding which is the heaviest. And the question, "How much of this must I forgo to obtain so much of that?" is always relevant. If we are considering, for example, whether to live in the country or in the town, such different things as friendship and fresh air or fresh eggs may come into competition and comparison with each other. Shall I "bury myself in the country," where I shall see little of my dearest friends, but may hope for fresh eggs for breakfast, and fresh air all the day? Or shall I stay where I am, and continue to enjoy the society of my friends? I start at once thinking "how much of the society of my friends must I expect to sacrifice? Will any of them come and see me? Shall I occasionally be able to go and see some of them?" The satisfactions and benefits I anticipate from a country life will compensate me for the loss of some of their society, but not for the loss of all of it. The price may be too high. In such a case as this the terms on which the alternatives are offered are matter of more or less vague surmise and conjecture, but the apparent dissimilarity of the several satisfactions themselves does not prevent the comparison, nor does it prevent the quantitative element from affecting my decision. Using the term price then in its widest extension, we may say that all the objects of repulsion or attraction which divide my energies and resources amongst them are linked to each other by a system of ideal prices or terms of equivalence. We may conceive of a general "scale of preferences" or "relative scale of estimates" on which all objects of desire or pursuit (positive or negative) find their place, and which registers the terms on which they would be accepted as equivalents or preferred one to the other.


Presumably no man's scale, however, is completely consistent. That is to say, if I would choose A rather than B and would choose B rather than C, it does not follow (as it ought to do) that a fortiori I should choose A rather than C. A man might be willing to give a shilling for a knife because he thought it cheap, and might refuse to give a shilling for a certain pamphlet because he thought it dear, and yet if he had been offered the direct choice between the pamphlet and the knife as a present he might have chosen the pamphlet. That is to say, he would prefer the knife to a shilling and would prefer a shilling to the pamphlet, and yet he would prefer the pamphlet to the knife. Or a man who is going abroad may employ half a day in finding where he can get best change for his money, with the result of getting half a crown's worth more of foreign coin for his £30 than he could have got at the tourist office without any trouble; and he may be quite pleased with his achievement. But the same man would scornfully refuse to sell half a day of his time for 2s. 6d., and will lose all his self-gratulation on the favourable exchange that he has got if it occurs to him to think of it as 2s. 6d. earnings for half a day's work. That is to say, at one and the same time he is willing and unwilling to accept 2s. 6d. as an adequate compensation for half a day's work, according to the light in which it happens to present itself to him. Or when he has arrived at the station the exact book that would suit him to read on his journey occurs to his mind, and he knows where he can get it for 1s. There is just time to go for it, but it will cost 2s. 6d. in cab fares, and it does not even occur to him to be so extravagant as to incur 250 per cent incidental expenses in transacting this little piece of business. Yet if the book had been brought out at 3s. 6d. and had been on the stall he would have bought it with much satisfaction.


The obscure impulses and associations which affect our choice, and interpose themselves between the realities with which we are dealing and our estimate of them, yield in an erratic and irregular manner to the light of reason, lingering here when they have retreated there; and thus inconsistencies of every kind are introduced into our scale. But the greater the range of that scale that is present to our minds at one and the same time, and the more precise our mental estimates, the fewer will be our inconsistencies. The man of alert intelligence and sound judgment will reduce them to a minimum, and the wider and more consistent the range of our consciously realised alternatives is, the more economical will the administration of our resources become.


A man's actual scale of preferences then may depart to any extent and for any reason from the ideal of wisdom, and may be full of inconsistencies and vacillations. But such as it is, it connects the various objects of his desire by a system of prices, and his successive acts of choice, whether purchases or other selections, are constantly revealing fragments of it, as he determines that at this price he will take this instead of that, and on these terms he will select this alternative and reject the other.


But here it may naturally occur to us to ask why we are so seldom conscious of this ever-present fact of selection between alternatives, particularly in our money purchases. Why even in the simplest and most obvious cases do we comparatively seldom think of definite alternatives when asking ourselves whether we will or will not buy such and such an article? There are indeed many instances, if we look for them, in which we do this. Many young women, and some young men, living alone and on narrow resources, habitually realise that literature, lectures, concerts, and theatres are in direct competition with each other, and that if they buy a coveted book they cannot go to the concert, and they also realise every day that it is the penny or twopence by which their expenditure on dinner each day of the week falls short of satisfying their appetite which enables them to make a selection between these competing satisfactions at all, and that secures them in the enjoyment of one of them every week or fortnight. The people living on or below the line of positive want in York had no difficulty in telling a sympathetic inquirer that every pair of boots bought "came out of the food." If any person living at or near the edge of his income is touched by a charitable appeal, he habitually sets about thinking what he can go without in order to respond to it; and there are periods in most people's lives at which they deliberately revise their expenditure and attempt to realise and select between the main alternatives it embraces. But most people would have some difficulty, if challenged, in giving any large number of consciously realised concrete examples of selection between definite alternatives. A girl is conscious of choosing between a number of hats in a shop, but she may hardly be conscious of choosing between a hat and something else. She never gets a hat, she will tell you, unless "she has to," and then there is no choice in the matter. In fact (like the poet) "she does but buy because she must." And when she "has to" buy a hat she leaves the one she would like best unpurchased, because she "cannot afford" it, and gets the "best she can afford." She has no schedule in her mind of the things she would have to go without if she bought the more expensive hat, and she has made no calculation that to go without them would be worse than putting up with the inferior hat. And even when a man is tempted to incur some considerable expense which he knows he "cannot afford," he does not generally realise exactly what the consequences of buying it will be, but has a vague sense of future inconvenience, privations, and possibly regrets. Afterwards, indeed, he may say from time to time, "I can't afford to get a new greatcoat just yet, after such an expensive holiday," and so on; but more often he will only be vaguely conscious of things being tighter, and of a temporary modification in his general ideas of what he "can afford"; and the pressure will perhaps as often act unconsciously as consciously in his selection of the things that he must now go without. But to say all this is merely to say that our scale of preferences often asserts itself automatically. Life would be impossible if we were always in the state of mind professed by the lady who said she liked "to get up every morning feeling that everything was an open question." We are not obliged to be constantly considering alternatives, because in a fairly well regulated mind the suggestion of any particular item of expenditure does not as a rule arise until it is approximately in its proper turn and place for gratification. The vague sense of restraint, which subdues and suppresses it, is really the unanalysed consciousness of the higher place on the scale of preferences of certain other unspecified items which will one by one assert themselves in due time and place. That is to say, if we are moderately wise we pretty generally act without reflection in the manner which reflection would have dictated. But these unconscious and automatic processes are far from being infallible, and one of the qualities most conducive to effective expenditure is an alertness to changed conditions, which reopens every question that has been materially affected by the change, while abstaining from fruitless and fidgeting reconsiderations for which there is either no ground, or ground insufficient to justify the requisite expenditure of thought and energy.


By a man's "scale of preferences" or "relative scale," then, we must henceforth understand the whole register of the terms on which (wisely or foolishly, consistently or inconsistently, deliberately, impulsively or by inertia, to his future satisfaction or to his future regret) he will, if he gets the chance, accept or reject this or that alternative. And by saying, for example, that a bunch of radishes stands higher than a red herring on his scale of preferences, or that an honorary degree stands lower than a baronetcy, we shall simply mean that he would at this moment, if he had the choice, take the radishes in preference to the herring, and receive the title rather than the degree. This conception of a "scale of preferences" will underlie all our future investigations. It is quite fundamental, and the whole purpose of this introductory chapter has been to explain and to illustrate it.

Notes for this chapter

Cf. pages 414 sqq.
Cf. pages 118.

End of Notes

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