Popular Political Economy: Four Lectures Delivered at the London Mechanics' Institution

Hodgskin, Thomas
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London: Charles Tait
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Popular Political Economy

"The laws which determine the prosperity of nations are not the work of man; they are derived from the nature of things. We do not establish; we discover them."—J. B. Say

M. D., F. C. S., M. A. S.

President of the London Mechanics Institution, of the Meteorological and Chemical Societies, and of the Medical and Chirurgical Society of London; Honorary Member of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Bristol, &c. &c.



IN requesting you to accept the dedication of this little work I am actuated by no mean ambition. I wish to bear in this public manner my humble but sincere testimony to the great importance of your services in promoting the advancement of sound knowledge, and to the generous zeal which leads you to devote much of your time, and I am afraid, to sacrifice your health, to the accomplishment of this great object; and I wish at the same time, thus publicly to express the pride I feel at being numbered among your acquaintance and fellow-labourers in this field of true honour.


From the beginning of the London Mechanics' Institution, which it is, I believe, our common pride to have originated and supported, though with very unequal powers and unequal efficacy, I have witnessed the unwearied diligence, the never sparing exertions, with which you have laboured through good and through evil report, sometimes publicly misrepresented, but always esteemed and honoured by those who knew you best, to enlighten and improve its members. I have frequently heard with delight the choicest truths of science explained by you in the happiest language and most engaging manner, and I have marked with deep interest how the taste of your audience has been gradually refined by your example, while their understandings have been enlarged by your acquirements.


The Members of the Institution are already indebted to you for numberless lectures on some of the most interesting branches of experimental science, always recommended by beautiful illustrations, and always made the means of enforcing some moral truths. Never wearied with well doing, after having explained the mechanism of the larger masses of inorganic matter, you are now about to begin a course of lectures on the more refined mechanism of organised beings. You mean probably to unfold to the members the wonders of our physical existence, and by convincing them that the structure and functions of our body cannot be understood, nor, if disordered, restored to health, unless we are minutely acquainted with all its parts, you will prepare the way for the extinction of that prejudice which still, unfortunately, attaches to scientific dissection. Nobody can wish that the respect and affection we all naturally entertain for the hallowed remains of dear relatives should be lessened, or that dissection should become here, as it is in some parts of the Continent, the mere butchery of a carcase; but we are all interested that no useless impediments should be laid in the way of prosecuting this arduous and important study, and that those to whose care and tenderness we must trust our lives and our health, should not have to begin their medical education by violating the sanctity of the grave. They are not made more humane by being compelled, as at present, to have recourse to some unlawful means of procuring the dead, in order that they may relieve the living.


The success of your former exertions is a fair augury for your promised undertaking. Not only has the parent Institution in London given rise to numerous similar institutions in the suburbs of the metropolis, and in the greater number of our manufacturing towns; but it has been the exciting cause for establishing similar institutions in France, Belgium, and Germany: not only has the extension of demand for scientific information called into existence in this country several cheap and useful treatises, it has also induced several clever men to publish such works on the Continent, some of which have been wisely added to our own stock. It has been said of Newton and La Place, and very probably may be said of every man who zealously devotes himself to accomplish some great and useful object, as for example, Mr. Watt, and Mr. Wilberforce, that they enjoyed their reputation. Their celebrity was not altogether posthumous. And you, my dear Sir, having kept a good object zealously in view, are also honoured and imitated; you have the satisfaction of seeing your exertions crowned with success, and of knowing, that the respect and admiration of your auditors spring, in part, from the improved, the kind, and endearing moral feelings you have excited in their minds, while you have imparted to them scientific instruction.


Like many other persons, I felt a wish to imitate your conduct, but I also felt, as I expressed in my first discourse, a great difficulty in addressing an audience whose taste had been refined by your lectures, and who had been almost spoiled for any less gifted teacher. I felt that it was a perilous undertaking to speak to them on a subject, generally considered dry and repulsive, and unsusceptible of illustration by experiment; but being honoured on each occasion by your attendance, the Members of the Institution were attracted to the theatre by your presence; they seemed to transfer to me a portion of that deep respect they always entertain for you, and I had the satisfaction of delivering my lectures to numerous and attentive audiences.


I had, moreover, the satisfaction of observing, that there was nothing in the subject which the audience could not comprehend; and there was much in which they took a lively interest. That it is one in which sound information is more especially necessary, the proceedings of every day, and in every part of our country, testify. That the laws which regulate the production of wealth form a part of the system of the universe, is now generally admitted; that I have successfully explained them, it is not becoming in me to assert, but that we are all deeply interested in ascertaining them, no man can deny. You will, I trust, my dear Sir, remember, that in my lectures I only explained the phenomena of social production, as far as they form part of a natural science; I took no notice of the effects of political regulations; nor have I departed from this principle in my book. But when we learn from this science to extend our admiration of Nature from the phenomena of the material to those of the moral world, it is impossible that we should on all occasions curb our indignation and prevent our tongues or our pens from over-flowing with maledictions against those political systems and institutions which seem to have turned the bounties and blessings of nature into the direst curses.


The natural science of wealth relates only to man, and knows nothing of the distinctions between nobles and peasants, kings and slaves, legislators and subjects; and if we are led to conclude at every step of our investigations, that the fundamental principles of political society as well as the administrative acts of most governments are hostile to the principles of this science, must we wilfully suppress our conclusions,—must we turn aside from the light of truth, that the wisdom of our ancestors, or the peculiar wisdom of the few hundred beings in whose hands the different governments of the world are lodged, may remain for ever the only objects of human adoration? I think not: and therefore, in endeavouring to unfold the natural laws which regulate the progress of nations in wealth, I have never hesitated in my book to affirm, that we are indebted for all civilization to that desire of providing for our wants or of bettering our condition, which arises naturally in all human beings, and which political systems have only degraded into low cupidity, or inflamed into mad ambition. In this book I have ventured to contrast in stronger colours than might have been proper when addressing a large meeting of the working classes, the boundless reverence due to the Author of our natural affections and instincts, which, unwilled by us, lead to the present beautiful and comprehensive system of social production, with the little respect due to human institutions, which appear to me little, if at all, calculated to promote the general welfare.


I need not remind you, my dear Sir, that the wisest of mankind were for ages ignorant or unobserving of those natural laws which Dr. Smith first remarked as determining the prosperity of our race; nor need I call your attention to the obvious fact, that the wisest of all existing men are quite incompetent to guess from the few of these laws yet known to us what will be the future condition of mankind. It is, however, quite plain, that the course in which our race is carried forward by natural passions and affections is so opposed to all human institutions, that they must be changed or abolished day after day in order to adapt them to a state of things they are intended by the lawgiver, but vainly intended, to prescribe. Society continually outgrows and casts off the swaddling bands with which the wisdom of our ancestors swathed its infancy. Those persons who stand at the helm of affairs are continually made sensible that the human race is hurried along by a rapid current which they cannot stem, and can scarcely divert from its course. Their view of the past is limited by the acts of their predecessors, of the future by the probable results of their own enactments. In the mean time, that civilization of which they take no note, and one great branch of which you have been so instrumental in promoting, proceeds onward in a steady course, under the influence of general laws; and no class of men live in such a state of perpetual amazement and alarm at the occurrence of events which they did not foresee, and being quite unprepared to meet, attempt to check by violence, as those statesmen who pretend to direct the march of nations. Notwithstanding, they continue to look on human society as a machine put together and regulated in all its movements by the politician; and they endeavour to make us believe that it would fall in pieces if it were not for the preserving power of his master hand.


The view I take is totally different. Man being placed on the earth by a power greater than himself, and society being founded in natural laws, is regulated by them in every minute part, and at every period of its existence. To provide for general social welfare seems to me an object much more beyond the power of man than to estimate the bulk and density of the planets. However admirably the faculties of each individual are adapted to provide for his own wants, they are quite incompetent to grasp, much less to regulate the complicated relations of society; and these relations, growing more complicated as our race multiplies on the earth, make the puny ambition of lawgivers appear every day more and more contemptible. If this be novel doctrine, it is dictated by the altered circumstances of mankind. Events, which continually, but more especially of late, have set at nought the anticipations and wisdom of legislators, must be responsible for it. Mankind naturally multiply on the earth, and naturally extend their wants; the produce of manufacturing and commercial industry, which springs from these two sources, naturally increases in value and in quantity much faster than the produce of agriculture; the manufacturing and commercial classes of society, consequently, come naturally to out-number and to surpass in wealth those whose support is derived from agricultural labour; and this has necessarily altered, and is continually altering, in the natural progress of society, the basis of power in all governments, founded, as those of Europe originally were, on the principle of giving all political power to the owners of land, because they were then the owners of all wealth. This circumstance sets in a clear light the opposition between the natural progress of civilization and all existing governments; and this circumstance, my dear Sir, I need not inform you, has been made more evident in our times than formerly, by those beautiful and ingenious mechanical contrivances, the structure and movements of which I have heard you so eloquently describe, and which in our time have multiplied to an astonishing extent the products of manufacturing and commercial industry.


But I must stop. I have less occasion indeed to dwell at present on this circumstance, because some farther observations on it will be found in the following pages; and I only advert to it now as a justification of some of the sentiments contained in them. I wish to inform you, that I have a settled and sincere conviction, whether right or wrong is another question, that governments generally are founded on principles directly in opposition with the natural progress of civilization. I trust our countrymen are now much too liberal and enlightened to be offended with the honest expression of such an opinion: I do not court either persecution or martyrdom for my political faith, if there be now any men so attached to existing systems, as to think that he who does not believe in their efficacy ought to be hanged or burned; and it is only under the confident assurance that no man by our liberal countrymen, and under a soi-disant liberal government, will be persecuted on account of opinions, that I venture to place your respected and honoured name at the head of some that are at variance, I am afraid, with the political creed of the great majority of men.

I am, my Dear Sir,
With the most unfeigned respect,
Your obliged and obedient Servant,
Pentonville, April 19, 1827.



THIS book not being exactly a transcript of the Lectures delivered by the author at the London Mechanics Institution in 1826, he thinks it is right to point out in what respects it resembles or differs from them. The first lecture, on THE INFLUENCE OF KNOWLEDGE, consisted of the second, and part of the third chapters of the present work, with one or two passages of the Introduction. The second lecture, on DIVISION OF LABOUR, is here transformed into the fourth, fifth, and sixth chapters. The seventh chapter, on TRADE, formed the third lecture; and the chapters on MONEY and PRICES contain the substance of the fourth lecture. The greater part of the Introduction, and of the third chapter, with the first and tenth chapters, formed no part of the Lectures. Some few passages, alluding to events connected with the Institution, have been suppressed, though with some pain to the author, because they were appropriate only when mentioned in the presence of those who could judge of their correctness. Many passages also have been added, even in those chapters which are most literally a transcript of the Lectures. To those who did not hear them, the view here taken of PRODUCTION will probably appear to have some little novelty in it; and those who did, should they look into the book from the expectation of finding something to read more than they heard, will not be disappointed.


Some of the added passages may appear unsuitable to the mixed and popular assembly in which the Lectures were delivered; and on account of them, those persons who have assumed the guardianship of the national intellect, carefully shielding it from the contamination of philosophy, and drilling it into servile obedience to human institutions, the only proper objects, in their opinions, of worship and veneration, will be prone to condemn the managers of the Institution for allowing the Lectures to be delivered. The author being willing to bear all the blame that may belong to such passages, and being anxious to guard the Institution against the possibility of its being misrepresented, regrets very much that he is unable to designate them,—they have become by revision so blended with the original matter,—or he should have thought it due to those gentlemen, to mark in the following pages, as is done by plays, the passages omitted in the representation.


The term POPULAR is not used in the Title from a notion that the thorny discussions of Political Economy are made amusing, and that its abstract doctrines have been reduced to light reading; but from a notion that the principles here expounded are more agreeable to popular prejudices than those which have been made prevalent, though still unpopular, by the writings of Mr. Malthus. Our feelings are hostile to his theory; and without pretending to controvert it, the Author has endeavoured to show, that the true principles of production justify the prejudices of mankind, and strengthen that confidence the most enlightened of our species were most disposed, prior to the unhappy celebrity obtained by THE ESSAY ON THE PRINCIPLE OF POPULATION, to place in the wisdom and goodness of that Power, which sustains, informs, and regulates the moral as well as the material world.


Though popular in this sense, the book makes no pretensions to be what is called practical. The author is even afraid that its principles may be regarded as more remote from the business of life than those of most treatises on Political Economy. He discusses none of the subjects on which the people are in the habit of petitioning Parliament; and, as far as legislation is concerned, the book contains no practical applications whatever. But if the view of the science here adopted be correct, there already exists a code of natural laws, regulating and determining the production of wealth; and although they influence the conduct of individuals, in a national point of view, they are only susceptible of being known. To know is to apply them. Though they dictate no immediate and positive enactments, they may, nevertheless, be as worthy of the attention of mankind, as the vain and ignorance-begotten schemes of human legislators.


It will be found moreover, on a close examination, that the human lawgiver only attempts to influence the production of wealth by altering its distribution. The reason urged in favour of our corn laws, for example, is, that they encourage agriculture, and increase the production of corn: but they do this by raising its price to the consumer, and thus compelling him to give more of his own produce than he otherwise would to corn growers. In the same manner, bounties, monopolies, commercial prohibitions, alterations in the currency, taxes, and, in short, the greater number of all those social regulations which influence production, whether they promote or retard it, only operate on it by first altering distribution. Accordingly, all legislative measures relative to the production of wealth, all the petitions of different classes in the community, have no other immediate object, like the petitions of the agriculturists for the continuance of the corn laws, or like the petitions of the manufacturers for the abolition of them, but to take or keep from one class and give to some other; or, in other words, to alter the distribution of wealth. As the present Volume is strictly confined to developing the natural laws which regulate production only, and as the author purposely avoids discussing legislative measures, the reader will see that he does not touch on those subjects which are supposed to constitute the practical part of the science. It is his intention, however, should his efforts meet any encouragement, to examine, in a subsequent volume, the natural laws which regulate the distribution of wealth. But, even should he succeed in developing these laws, he may still, perhaps, be liable to the reproach of not being a practical man; for it is strictly consistent with his views of social phenomena, not to dictate or recommend any legislative measures whatever, but to leave mankind at large, free from the restraint of positive institutions, and clear from the disturbance of view caused by them, to find out and to follow the laws which Nature has dictated.


It was his intention also to have noticed some of the errors of the great Masters of the science, which would have enabled him, as moral feeling and scientific truth must always be in harmony with each other, to trace to its source the repugnance now felt to some of the doctrines of Political Economy. Men turn away disgusted, not from truth, but from errors dogmatically enforced. Being obliged, however, for the conveniency of publication to choose between pointing out errors and displaying truth, he has preferred the latter, and has contented himself in general with giving what appears to him, as far as it goes, a correct view of production, to controverting the opinions of others. On this branch of the science, the writings of Dr. Smith's successors are chiefly defective;—they are erroneous chiefly on the subject of distribution. That great man carefully distinguished the natural distribution of wealth from the distribution which is derived from our artificial right of property. His successors, on the contrary, make no such distinction, and in their writings the consequences of this right are stated to be the laws of Nature. The falsity of their doctrines relating chiefly to distribution, the author has the less reason to regret that he has been obliged to alter his intended plan; for should his book be received with only a small part of the favour shown to his Lectures, he may have a future opportunity of explaining the cause of the general aversion from this not unpleasing and very important science.


A knowledge of the natural laws which regulate the production of wealth, and consequently the progress of civilization, is equally, if not more, essential to the welfare of man, than a knowledge of any other part of the wide creation. All other sciences and every art are only subsidiary parts of that great whole, the master principles of which it is the object of Political Economy to discover and describe. That the science is incomplete, and as yet in its infancy—those who profess it differing among themselves as to its first principles—is generally admitted; and supposing it be of great importance to our welfare, the author concludes that any work which either familiarizes the knowledge already possessed, or adds to it in the smallest degree, does not require to be ushered into the world by an apology. His book may not accomplish either of these objects; but having aimed at both, he commits his labours to the judgement of the reader, without making any apologies for adding one more to the many books already published on what is generally considered an unreadable subject.

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