Popular Political Economy: Four Lectures Delivered at the London Mechanics' Institution
Political economists have not inquired into the natural laws regulating the progress of knowledge.—It does not depend exclusively on division of labour which is preceded by inventions and discoveries.—This fact illustrated by Hindostan and other countries.—Progress of knowledge depends on general natural laws.—Uniformity of the progress of civilization.—Influence of necessity as caused by an increasing population.—Illustration from agriculture.—Individual genius the result of the general progress.—Illustration of Mr. Watt.—Manual dexterity must be united with observation.—Natural and necessary increase of knowledge from an increase of people.—Influence of governments in adding to knowledge.
I QUOTED in the last chapter more instances of knowledge and observation adding to productive power, than would have been necessary, had not the vast effects of mental labour been in general either overlooked in works treating of political economy, or ascribed to some other causes. Its influence, in fact, is so obvious and familiar, that it seems on this account to have been thought not worthy of philosophic investigation. Numberless observations are scattered through the pages of the economists on the subject; but by no one of them has it been treated of with a view to explain or discover the general laws which influence, regulate, and limit the progress of knowledge. "In the means of increasing our subsistence," says an author whose book is written to express his doubts of the prevailing political-economical theories, "as in every thing else, knowledge is, in the strictest sense of the word, power. It introduces new modes of cultivation; it converts the barren soil into a garden; and calls forth the hidden powers of nature, which might otherwise have slumbered on for ever useless and unknown."*26 But the author seems to have been satisfied with stating this truth, as one objection to the completeness of certain prevalent theories, and he has not traced out its consequences; not supposing, apparently, that the increase of knowledge was as much regulated by general natural laws, as that increase of the means of subsistence which it so efficaciously promotes.
Dr. Smith was not ignorant, I admit, of the effects of knowledge and observation in adding to productive power; for he has remarked, "that one of the circumstances which distinguished the colonists of North America from its former inhabitants was, that they carried with them a knowledge of agriculture and other useful arts superior to what can grow up of its own accord in the course of many centuries among savage and barbarous nations."*27 But he seems not to have been thoroughly sensible of their importance; and to have supposed, I think erroneously, as mental labourers subdivide their employments in the progress of society, as well as bodily labourers, that the effects of observation and knowledge might all be referred to his favourite principle. "The invention," he says, "of all those machines by which labour is so much facilitated and abridged, seems to have been originally owing to the division of labour."*28 In consequence of this opinion, while Dr. Smith has developed at great length the influence of the latter principle, he has done little or nothing towards explaining the more important laws which regulate the increase of knowledge, and its influence over productive power. Whenever his successors mention the subject, and few of them ever think it worthy of notice, they treat of it under the head of accumulation and employment of capital. But I have no doubt I shall be able to show, that the laws which regulate the accumulation and employment of capital are quite dissimilar to and unconnected with the laws regulating the progress of knowledge.
This general neglect adds much to the difficulty I feel in endeavouring to develope the natural laws which regulate this progress,—which stimulate observation, and lead to the numberless happy inventions that continually arise in the progress of society; and that seem, by recurring at unequal periods, by differing in degree as to utility, and by being again occasionally lost or forgotten, not to be under the influence of permanent natural laws. The supposition that these improvements may all be traced to division of labour, imposes on me, on the other hand, the task of contending against it. I shall clear my way by beginning with the latter subject; and, in order to make the reader thoroughly sensible of the necessity for inquiring into the laws which regulate the progress of knowledge, I shall first show that it does not depend, as stated by Dr. Smith, and tacitly adopted by his successors, exclusively on division of labour.
The question at issue between Dr. Smith and his followers and myself, is, whether a knowledge of the material world, and inventions in the arts, including the invention of machines, are, or are not, originally owing to the division of labour. I maintain they are not. I admit, that a progress in knowledge, and division of labour, mutually promote each other; that observation, introducing new practices, leads to extended division of labour; and extended division of labour, allowing those, whose principal business it is to make observations, to confine their attention to some small part of the material world, enables them, and of course enables society at large, more speedily to become acquainted with it: but I contend, that observation must have preceded division of labour, and some progress must have been made in a knowledge of the external world, before men could have thought of devoting themselves to different employments. Undoubtedly they had learned to make bows and arrows, to catch animals and fish, to cultivate the ground and weave cloth, before some of them dedicated themselves exclusively to making these instruments, to hunting, fishing, agriculture, and weaving. I take this to be strictly consistent with Dr. Smith's own principles; for had men laid themselves out for particular employments, before those employments were invented, it would prove that division of labour was the fore-planned result of human wisdom to lighten labour, which he expressly denies.
In the savage state all men learn some of or all these arts, before they begin to devote themselves exclusively to one or two of them. Between savages and the most civilized people there is no difference as to this progress. Inventions always precede division of labour, and extend it, both by introducing new arts and by making commodities at a less cost. The art of working in metals, leather, or wood, was unquestionably known to a certain extent, before there were smiths, shoemakers, and carpenters. In very modern times, steam-engines and spinning mules were invented, before some men made it their chief or only business to manufacture mules and steam-engines. That numerous class of men called engineers (journeymen,) together with those who practise several other modern callings of a novel description, who are rising into notice in every part of the country,—such as those, for example, who make or who work only with power looms,—breaking up some other trades, and giving a death blow to corporation and apprentice laws, which do not apply to them—have been separated from other workmen by those numerous modern inventions which have called into existence the new arts they practise. Mr. Windsor introduced the practice of lighting our streets with gas, to give one additional illustration, before a set of men dedicated themselves to the business of making gasometers and fitting up gas-apparatus. Although division of labour promotes art and skill, it is not the parent of those species which are most important. Invention and knowledge precede it to a certain extent in all cases, and are to be considered, rather than it, the chief causes of those new arts which add so much to productive power.
That division of labour is not the cause of inventions may be illustrated by experience. In Hindostan, for example, and in some other parts of Asia, it is, in some arts, carried to as great an extent as in Britain, and has been longer established. But the inhabitants of those countries are said to make at present little or no progress in wealth, and none in knowledge; and they invent few or no machines. The Indian weaver makes the finest muslin by stretching his warp along over two rough stakes under the shade of a tree; he digs a hole in the ground for his feet, and all his weaving apparatus does not exceed in value a few shillings. Man is there the only machine; and although he acquires exquisite tact and skill in his particular calling, he is incapable of inventing any thing new. There is good reason to believe, that the weavers in India have continued to use the same sort of loom, without any improvement, since the days of Alexander the Great.
Some countries nearer home will exemplify the same principle. There can be no doubt but division of labour began much sooner on the neighbouring continent, and was carried much farther at a former period, particularly in Italy, France, and Germany, than in Britain. At this time division of labour is as extensive in some of these countries as in England. For example, literature, as a business, is probably more subdivided in Germany than here; as are also, or were up to a late period, probably, all the professions considered as businesses or trades, of music, painting, and sculpture, in Italy and France. But those countries have not made a progress equal to this country, during the last century, in a knowledge of the arts which create wealth. They have endeavoured, and often, I believe, in vain, to import the inventions and the arts which have originated in Britain; but, except some improvements made in France since the peace—such, for example, as a better loom for silk-weaving, which has however, it is said, been equalled or surpassed by one invented in Britain—these countries have of late had comparatively few inventions or discoveries of their own to send us in exchange.
I must contend, therefore, and it will be found that the principle is of great importance, inasmuch as it removes far off the supposed natural limits to division of labour, that the invention of useful machines and discoveries in the material world, facilitating production and abridging labour, are not the exclusive result of Dr. Smith's grand principle.
"Another person," says Mr. Say, "observes, that water expanded into steam is capable of raising an enormous piston; and this steam, condensed by a jet of cold water, leaves a vacuum which causes the piston to descend with a force equal to that of twenty, thirty, or forty horses;—whence results a power which may be applied to every purpose, and hence the employment of steam-engines. Is this improvement to be attributed to the division of labour? No. The weight of the atmosphere, which causes the piston to descend, has existed since the commencement of the world, and been allowed to lie idle for sixty centuries. The progress of knowledge, the art of observing, led to the discovery; and the human race has been enriched by all the wealth this power has enabled them to create during the last forty years."*29
To develope the natural laws which regulate the progress of our race in knowledge, (the subject being one not much explored,) is more difficult than to show, as I think I have done, that it does not depend exclusively on division of labour. I am afraid it is too generally, and I am sure it is idly supposed, that this progress is not regulated by any general and permanent law. All such phenomena are closely connected with the will of man; and whatever is connected with or depends on it, we imagine to be given up to boundless caprice. This is not the place to enter into a metaphysical argument, to show that the will, or rather the desires of men, are as much regulated by general natural laws—though the circumstances which influence these desires are so numerous that they have not yet been classified by us—as any other part of the creation; nor even to advert to those general social phenomena, such as the number of births, marriages, letters daily transmitted by the post, etc. etc. which, though they depend on individual will, are plainly regulated by some general laws,—for we find, by extending our observations to long periods, that the average number of births and marriages in a given district, either does not vary, or varies according to some rule and under the influence of some natural circumstances which are easily ascertained: I say, this is not the place to enter into a metaphysical argument of this nature; and I shall therefore content myself with briefly referring to the uniform progress of our race, to satisfy the reader, capricious and unregulated as the will or desires of individuals may appear, that the will and conduct of masses of men—and the more numerous they are, the more evident and certain is the truth—are regulated by permanent natural laws.
Thus, when we call to mind the uniformity of the progress of civilization in its early stages—man having everywhere, as far as history reaches, gradually passed successively through the state of a naked savage living on wild fruits, of a hunter feeding on flesh, almost as wild and ferocious as the wild beasts with which he contended for prey, of a shepherd domesticating and rearing the animals he found it difficult to catch by hunting, and ultimately of an agriculturist, raising vegetable food for himself, and for the animals he destines for his own use,—acquiring therefore successively, in all places, the knowledge which enables him first to hunt and ensnare wild animals, next to domesticate them, and finally to cultivate the ground; when we recollect this uniformity in the progress of our race, we can hardly fail to suppose that it must be regulated by some general natural law. When we advance farther in the scale of civilization, and observe in almost all countries, whatever may be their form of government and whatever their situation, manufacturing industry, and of course the varied knowledge which is necessary to it, succeeding to agriculture; and commerce, with a knowledge of the art of navigation and constructing ships, whenever a people live near the borders of that ocean which washes the whole habitable globe, succeeding to manufactures; and when we observe, that wherever this natural progress is not arrested by the violent hand of lawless ambition, the growth of manufactures and the increase of commerce necessarily beget extended cultivation, stimulating to new discoveries in agriculture and introducing new crops, calling also in turn some new manufacturing skill into existence, and increasing the commerce of the world; we are compelled to believe, though the belief belongs, I admit, rather to wonder and admiration than to accurate detailed knowledge, that this uniform progress is the result of some permanent natural law.
Although it is not possible to point out in detail the circumstances which in every case led to the important inventions briefly alluded to, there can be no doubt that they are the result of that necessity to labour, which is the law of our being, and of the natural increase of population. Thus, the spontaneous productions of the earth being exhausted, hunger stimulated the ingenuity of man, and he became a hunter or a fisherman, as his lot was cast amidst boundless plains, or near waters which he saw teemed with fish. As the number of men multiplied, these resources also were insufficient, and the same want led to farther improvements—led first to a rude species of agriculture, then to a rude species of manufacture, and subsequently to a refined cultivation, and to the wonderful inventions of our own times. This principle operates now as well as formerly, and the natural progress of our race is ever in the same direction. Thus the increase of people in this country within the last century, by creating a great demand for agricultural produce, has led not merely to extended cultivation, to inclosing commons and breaking up heaths, but also to those improved agricultural processes to which I have alluded. The stimulus most generally present to the mind of every inventor, and which may be said to be the immediate cause of the invention, is the natural but insatiable desire of providing for his wants or bettering his condition. But, were population not to increase, there could be no additional wants to provide for. The labour of the past year would be more than sufficient to supply the wants of the next; and but for the continual increase of people, there would not now be, there never would have been, a stimulus to invention and to the increase of knowledge. Wherever they stop increasing, a stop seems also to be put to the increase of knowledge. Thus, although we may fail to observe how the law operates in each particular case, we may be certain that the cause of that progress in knowledge, which is in its turn the cause of a perpetual increase in our productive power, is the natural law which dooms us to labour, and which is kept perpetually in operation, at its greatest extent, by the active principle of population. Necessity is the mother of invention; and the continual existence of necessity can only be explained by the continual increase of people.
Modern agricultural improvements offer an illustration of this principle. They have in general tended to augment the quantity of our food, by increasing the number of cattle. The green crops cultivated are intended for fodder, and by cultivating them an increased number of animals has been reared and fed; their flesh has added to our means of subsistence, and the manure obtained by keeping them has increased to a great extent the quantity of corn. Dr. Smith has remarked that "till the price of cattle has got to such a height as to render it profitable to cultivate land for the sake of feeding them, it seems scarcely possible that the greater part even of those lands which are capable of the highest cultivation, can be completely cultivated."*30 But the price of cattle can only rise permanently from an increase in the number of people; and they having wherewithal the produce of their own labour to give for cattle. Thus, the rise in the price of cattle is caused by an increase of people and by an increase in their manufacturing or other produce. Again, the rise in the price of cattle leads to cultivating food for them, augmenting manure, and occasioning that increased quantity of produce which has been stated to amount, in this country, to nearly one third of the whole. But for the increase of people, therefore, all that fruit-fulness of the soil which has been made manifest in our day and generation, by cultivating food for cattle, would have remained dormant and unknown.
The endeavour to trace the discoveries and inventions of individuals to general natural laws, is not flattering, I am aware, to that vanity which loves to think itself, by the possession of some peculiar genius, distinguished from the common herd of mankind. But let us not injure society and vilify nature, that we may set up some palpable objects for reverence. It is plain that every individual, be his singularities and his intellectual powers what they may, has his character, his sentiments, his thoughts, his passions,—yea, even his intellect itself,—fashioned by the time at which he lives, and by the society of which he is a member; so that any thing which is peculiar to himself forms but the smallest part of the whole man. Whatever may be his natural endowments, and some philosophers have doubted if there be originally any difference among men, every man is chiefly indebted for whatever he possesses of knowledge, of skill, of inventive power, to the knowledge and skill of other men, either living or dead. The influence of society over every individual mind, is paramount to all other things. Perhaps, of the last century, there is no man who stands higher as a philosopher and a mechanic than James Watt; but he was indebted for most of his scientific and mechanical knowledge, for every thing, indeed, which constituted his talents, and which contributed to his glorious success, to his having been born in Britain in the 18th century. Were it possible, which it evidently is not, for a mind richly stored like his, to be nourished into such inventive maturity amidst the rude peasantry of Ireland, or the still ruder Guachos of South America, he could never have invented so sublime a machine as the steam-engine. No possible motive could there have existed for the invention; it being of no utility except in crowded countries, in which fuel is plentiful and manufactures established; or having invented it, if it were possible, there would be no body to make or use it, no purpose to which it could be applied, and the invention could only be realised by the patient labour of the inventor himself, and in the shape of a model in his own hut. Under such or any similar circumstances, instead of adding immensely to the power of our race, it would have been a mere philosophical toy, contributing, perhaps, to the amusement of the ingenious individual, but of no use to mankind.
It is quite clear, also, that Mr. Watt could not have invented the steam-engine to any purpose a century before: society was not prepared to adopt such an invention, had it been made; nor could he then have possessed the requisite knowledge, nor found the means for putting his invention into practice. He might have made some random conjectures, and have been the author, perhaps, of another "Century of Inventions," but he could not have invented and made steam-engines. At the very time when he began to think and to plan, a vast flood of light, proceeding in scattered rays from every capital and almost every town of note in Europe, its generality proving that it depended on some general law, was spreading itself over the hitherto unknown world of chemistry. Bergman, and Scheele, in a remote town in Sweden, Klaproth, at Berlin, Rouelle, Lavoisier, and Berthollet, in France, and Black, Cavendish, and Priestley, in England, are a few only of the very eminent individuals who had, just as Mr. Watt came to maturity, contributed, by a series of splendid discoveries, to fix the attention of all the observing part of mankind on their favourite science. "When Dr. Cullen," says Dr. T. Thomson, "became professor of chemistry in Edinburgh, in 1765, he kindled a flame of enthusiasm among the students, which was soon spread far and wide by the subsequent discoveries of Black, Cavendish, and Priestley, and meeting with the kindred fires which were already burning in France, Germany, Sweden, and Italy, the science of chemistry burst forth at once with unexampled lustre."*31 Mr. Watt, therefore, ought, I think, to be considered like Columbus, like Bacon, like Newton, like Luther, and like the inventor of printing, as one of those master-spirits who gather and concentrate within themselves some great but scattered truths, the consequences of numberless previous discoveries which, fortunately for them, are just dawning on society as they arrive at the age of reflection. They have the happy art to connect, by some little additional discovery of their own, the various truths lately brought into day; and they apply them to elucidate some unexplained phenonema, to establish some general law, or to bring forth some invention that is to add to the wealth, the power, or the reputation of that society, to the previous progress of which they are indebted for their knowledge, their genius, and their intellect. Their acquirements, their schemes, and their thoughts are closely and inseparably linked with the acquirements, the projects, and the thoughts of their predecessors, and of all around them; and their inventions and discoveries are the necessary consequences of preceding inventions and discoveries. They are only parts of the general system. Such minds and such men arise naturally and necessarily from the general progress in knowledge; as a Borgia, a Cromwell, and a Napoleon, are sure to spring up whenever great mistrust of existing authority, in conjunction with a general disposition to obey, and a reverence for whoever is most impudent and assumes the most, furnishes an opportunity for the gratification of unbridled, bloody, and ferocious ambition.
The circumstance just mentioned, of chemical science having, about the period of Mr. Watt's inventions, made as great a progress on the continent of Europe as in this country, without having led to any invention similar to that of the steam-engine, shows that what is called learning, is comparatively of little advantage unless it be connected with other things. Among the numberless persons of undoubted eminence who then cultivated knowledge, there were probably many as well acquainted as Mr. Watt with mechanics, and with the laws of heat and vapour. It is not enough, therefore, for an individual to be endowed with genius and talents, if the circumstances of society do not offer the means of applying them. On the continent there was not the same commercial demand for means of abridging labour as in this country; nor were there the same mechanical means previously prepared for carrying such inventions into execution. Even at present, when our continental neighbours have all the advantages of our previous experience, when they are just as well acquainted as we are with the theory of steam-engines, and possess all the information on the subject which description can convey, they are nearly incapable of erecting a steam-engine without the assistance of English workmen. Although Mr. Watt may have found it necessary, as it is said he did, to instruct workmen for his particular views, yet he must have met with a vast deal of practical manual skill ready formed to his hands, which needed only some peculiar direction, or he could not have succeeded in manufacturing his own inventions. In addition, therefore, to the commercial demand for means of abridging labour, which was felt in this country, there also existed a great degree of manual dexterity among workmen; or a considerable number of skilful millwrights, founders, smiths, and carpenters, were ready formed, by whose assistance Mr. Watt was enabled to realize his conceptions. This is one of the circumstances, arising from the time and place of his birth, to which he is indebted for his celebrity. It shows, I admit, how ignorant we yet are of all the causes which promote wealth-creating knowledge; but it also shows, that without practical manual skill, the most elaborate learning may be of no use, and that without dexterous workmen, the most ingenious contrivances must be classed merely as visionary dreams. There is an absolute necessity for observation and practice, for mental and bodily labour to go hand-in-hand, neither preceding nor staying behind the other. All encouragement consequently, given to one species of labour, all bounties on a particular art or particular kind of learning, may be highly delightful to royal and noble patrons, but on society at large they inflict injury, by promoting one kind of knowledge at the expense of some other.
It is impossible for me to take notice of all the natural circumstances which influence the progress of our race in knowledge, or which determine its kind and degree; such, for example, as diversity of organization among tribes and races of men, for there can, I think, be no doubt that such a diversity exists, and influences both the species and the degree of knowledge acquired;—as peculiarities in geographical position, for it is evident that as a people inhabit an inland or maritime country, the sort of knowledge they acquire will be different;*32 as language, for this is the instrument of thought, and as it is perfect, the acquisition and diffusion of knowledge will be easy and correct;—but there is one natural circumstance to which I have already alluded, of such paramount importance, when viewed in connexion with some prevalent theories, that I cannot pass it by without farther illustration. It has of late been so much the fashion to look only at one side of the great question of population,—and to look at it with reference only to its operation under the perverting control of human institutions and an unjust distribution of the products of labour; and so much have the leading men of society delighted to find in this natural principle, an excuse for the consequences of their own rapacity, it supplying a plea on the one hand for the continuance of usurpation, and on the other for unenquiring submission, that the doctrines ascribing all the miseries of our species to their too great power of increase have been widely adopted, weakening and even destroying in these latter times the confidence of man in the wisdom of God. That principle, I have already shown, is the source of all national greatness worthy of the name, and of much individual exertion; it is probably also the source of those improvements which are said to spring from necessity; and I think I shall now satisfy the reader that it is the chief source of that increase in knowledge which gives man power and dominion over the external world.
No one doubts that the rapid communication which may now be had from every part of this country to every other part, contributes both to the increase of knowledge and of wealth. The discoveries made in London, Manchester, or Glasgow, are known in either of these other towns, and are spread over the whole island, in a few days. Numbers of minds are instantly set to work even by a hint; and every discovery is instantly appreciated, and almost as instantaneously improved. The chances of improvement, it is plain, are great in proportion as the persons are multiplied whose attention is devoted to any particular subject. It appears to me, therefore, that an increase in the number of persons produces the same effect as communication; for the latter only operates by bringing numbers to think on the same subject.
To illustrate this by one example: Mr. Scheele, a celebrated Swedish chemist, first remarked the bleaching power of chlorine; Berthollet, in France, first applied it as a manufacturing agent, and first suggested its probable utility in the arts. Mr. Watt, I believe, introduced the practice into England; and Mr. Tennant, some time afterwards, first suggested a mode of uniting chlorine with pulverulent lime; "one of the greatest improvements," says Dr. Ure, "in practical bleaching which has ever been made." The united experience and knowledge of at least these four persons, and, in fact, of the experience and knowledge of a great number of others, was necessary before chloride of lime could be advantageously employed as a bleaching agent. The proverb says that two heads are wiser than one, and in this case four heads completed what one did not. On the same principle, each one of four thousand heads, and of four million heads, will necessarily have still more wisdom and still more knowledge than when there is only one head in existence.
One generation is wiser and possesses more knowledge than the generation which preceded it. This is not merely from being later in the world. Time is a mere personification, and adds nothing to wisdom. The last generation is wiser than the generation which preceded it, because it adds, where language is in use, and particularly where writing and printing are known, all its own observations to the knowledge of the generation which went before. There have been more eyes to see, more hands to practise, and more minds to treasure up and record observations and practices. As the world grows older, and as men increase and multiply, there is a constant, natural, and necessary tendency to an increase in their knowledge, and consequently in their productive power.
This principle seems to be amply confirmed by experience. Almost all discoveries and improvements have been made in crowded cities and in densely peopled countries. It was amidst the populous cities of ancient Greece, and not among the few wandering tribes of the desert, that the arts, both for creating wealth and adorning existence, were in the old world cultivated with such singular success. It was in the populous cities of modern Italy, of Holland, and of Germany, that the arts again sprang up in the middle ages. The discovery of America, by supplying Europe with many desirable commodities, and by providing it with a large market, has probably added on the whole upwards of fifty millions of people to the mass of human beings communicating with each other. Since that event, there can be no doubt that the inhabitants, both of Europe and America, have made a very great progress in a knowledge of all the useful arts. At no period of our history was Great Britain ever so populous as at present; and it has been within these last fifty years that some of those most useful and surprising improvements, in agriculture, in practical chemistry, and in the mechanic arts, to which I have alluded, have been made. Finally, it was not till the year 1823, when England alone numbered eleven millions of people, and this metropolis and its environs contained upwards of a tenth of this number, that Mechanics' Institutions were established. Unless there had been a great many persons to profit by such establishments, they could not have succeeded. In whatever light other persons may regard such societies, I can but look on them as the germs of greater improvements in the arts than the world has ever yet seen.
"More discoveries," says Mr. M'Culloch, speaking of them, "will be made, according to the degree in which more individuals are placed in a situation to make them. And it is neither impossible nor at all improbable, that the lustre which now attaches to the names of Arkwright and Watt, may be dimmed, though it can never be wholly effaced, by the more numerous, and it may be more important discoveries, that will at no distant period be made by those who would have passed from the cradle to the tomb in the same obscure and beaten track that had been trodden by their unambitious ancestors, had not the education now so generally diffused, served to elicit and ripen the seeds of genius implanted in them for the general advantage of mankind."*33
The principal object, I must here remind the reader, which I have in view, though I am sensible it must be very imperfectly executed, is to develope the natural laws which determine the progress of our race in opulence. Accordingly, I have first attempted to show from facts the influence of knowledge on productive power, and next to point out the natural circumstances which determine the increase of knowledge. The conclusion I come to, and I wish to state it plainly, that whether true or false, right or wrong, it may not be misunderstood, is, that independent of all governments and of all their regulations, there is in the universa necessity to labour a universal stimulus for all men to exert those natural faculties with which all are endowed; that this stimulus is at all times the cause of observation, and that observation brings knowledge; and that there is a natural and necessary tendency, independent of all and every sort of social regulations, to a gradual increase of knowledge as the world grows older, as generation follows generation, and as mankind are multiplied on the face of the earth. Our natural faculties, under the influence of this stimulus and this influence of increasing population, lead, without our willing it beforehand, without our ever conjecturing what will be the result, to all those grand and sublime and beneficial consequences—which we call in one comprehensive word, civilization. To complete the subject, it would be necessary to enquire into the effects of social regulations—and to ascertain distinctly, not only what their effects have been, but also, if it be possible, by any and what social regulations to promote knowledge, and thus add to productive power. Into such an inquiry I do not mean to enter, but the subject demands it, and we cannot know, till it be gone into and finished, what are the laws which regulate the progress of opulence. Those books, therefore, called Elements, Principles, or Systems of Political Economy, which do not embrace and fully develope, as not one of them does, the whole influence of knowledge on productive power, and do not explain the natural laws which regulate the progress of society in knowledge, are and must, as treatises on Political Economy, be essentially incomplete.
Without departing from the principle I have laid down, of confining myself to the natural laws which regulate production, and of not taking any notice of the influence of governments; I must, however, observe, that unless we take into the account the vast influence of the adopted religion and the constitution of society, of every form of government comprised between perfect freedom and abject slavery, whether it be to living men or parchment statutes,—the worst species of slavery,—as well as the influence of temporary laws on the increase of wealth-creating knowledge, it is impossible for us to explain the different progress of different nations in opulence. Division of labour, security of property, and most of the other circumstances usually supposed to be the chief means of promoting national opulence, are, or were a few years back, nearly equal in all the countries of Europe. The religion, the government, the commercial regulations of all, were in principle so similar, that the influence they exercised over the production of wealth, must have been nearly equal. In that European country, however, which of late has made the most rapid progress in wealth, the people have been the freest to inquire. The press, and with that the mind, has been less shackled in Britain than in any other great country of Europe. This probably is the sole source of her superior opulence. Every part of knowledge is intimately and closely connected with every other, and men cannot be impeded or restrained from inquiring into one branch without their progress being ultimately checked in every other. Governments may, in their pretended wisdom, think, by what they call wholesome restraints, that they are only lopping off sedition or pruning heresy, but experience convinces us, that without meaning it, they at the same time, like unskilful gardeners, cut away fruit-bearing branches, and stint in every direction, the growth of wealth-creating knowledge. The restrictions imposed by governments on commercial enterprize and individual exertion, have been, it is now generally admitted, greatly injurious to the welfare of man; but this seems as nothing when compared to the extensive mischief, caused by that frightful mental debility which has ensued, whenever a few men, as ignorant as the meanest of their fellows, have been suffered to set bounds to inquiry, and to say, when its consequences cannot by any possibility be known beforehand, this species of knowledge will be injurious, you shall not taste of it; that will be healthful, and the mind of man shall have no other nourishment. So gross an absurdity can have none but fatal consequences; and whenever the rulers of a society have dictated what their subjects shall not study, they have, against their own wishes, rendered the slaves whom they only prize as tax-paying machines, incapable of making that progress in knowledge which is the dictate of nature, which takes place in less governed and restrained countries, and which is the chief means of adding to the productive power and wealth of man.
Notes for this chapter
A Few Doubts as to the Correctness of some Opinions generally entertained on the Subjects of Population and Political Economy. By Piercy Ravenstone. London, 1821.
Wealth of Nations.
Wealth of Nations, book 1, chap. i.
Notes to Storch.
Wealth of Nations.
A System of Chemistry, Introduction, page 9, 6th edit.
It may be as well just to remind the reader, that all our vast maritime knowledge and maritime power, which have in general been most absurdly attributed to some misbegotten, ill-tempered regulations of Oliver Cromwell and Charles II. (which have been more often suspended than enforced,) may all be very easily traced to the geographical nature of our country. Exclusive of colonies, we have four times as much sea coast as France, and four times as large a maritime population. This is the natural and simple source of our maritime power, which our celebrated navigation laws, commercial restrictions, and most abominable naval regulations, have done much to weaken. It is most gratifying to trace our national prosperity and greatness to a higher point than the wisdom of our lawgivers; and in the unalterable circumstances of our geographical position, we have the strongest possible guarantee for our future prosperity and greatness.
Principles of Political Economy, page 118.
Part I, Chapter IV
End of Notes
Return to top