Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
1059 of 1105



UTILITY. This word has the same meaning in politico-economic language as in the usual vocabulary. What it designates, in things, persons or acts, is the power they have of rendering us some service, the service, for instance, of sparing us certain privations, inconveniences or suffering, or of procuring for us satisfactions and enjoyments. Economists, however, employ the word in the plural, when, instead of considering utility as an abstraction, made up of every distinct particularity, they look upon it as it exists in different objects with differences of nature and destination.


—The first distinction to be made between utilities is, that there are natural and artificial utilities. Natural utilities are those which supply the necessities of our existence without our having to do anything to obtain them. Such are the utilities furnished us by the air which surrounds us, by the heat and light which the rays of the sun bring to us. These utilities are the work of nature entirely. Nature makes them a gratuity to us. Artificial utilities are those which we obtain only at the price of more or less painful efforts. It is for us to learn to produce them, and we never acquire their possession and use, except for some consideration or on the performance of certain services.


—Political economy has scarcely anything to do with natural utilities. It may say that they are not all spread in the same measure over all parts of the globe; that there are no two regions in which heat, the force of the wind, water or arable land, is distributed in exactly like proportions, and that such a fact exercises a necessary influence on the modes of the activity, the facility of the development and the destiny of the populations of those regions; but here ends what political economy has to say about them. We are here in presence of a phenomenon whose essence it is not given to man to change, for it emanates from laws over which his will can not possibly have any efficient action. Everything, on the other hand, which relates to artificial utilities belongs to the domain of political economy, and challenges its investigation.


—To produce utilities is all that it is in the power of men to do. When nature placed matter at their disposal, it did not wish that they might have the power to add one single particle to it. All they can do is to change the place of, to separate, to combine and to transform the elements of matter in such a way as to cause them to acquire properties which they do not possess in their raw state. The labor of men consists only in giving the things on which it is brought to bear qualities and forms which adapt them to use; more than this, human labor can not do. Nature has reserved creative power to itself entirely; to men it has granted only the power to utilize its gifts.


—It is easy to conceive that human labor can propose to itself no end but that of producing utilities. All labor involves pain and fatigue, and no one would surrender the sweets of rest if he had not in prospect the compensation which is the reward of labor. But there is no work which can reap reward unless it produces fruits endowed with some quality. Mistakes may, indeed, be made in this respect; it may be, that, from ill-advised endeavors, the results which the men who made them promised themselves may not come; but these are mere accidents. In the normal state of things, there is no labor which has not the production of pretty manifest utilities for its object, utilities sufficiently desired by others to make the advantage of disposing of them compensate for the sacrifices necessary to the obtainment of them.


—In proportion as nations become enlightened and wealthy, they strive to produce utilities more diverse and in greater numbers. After those utilities which serve to satisfy the principal necessities of life, they create others which answer only factitious wants and tastes, which grow more and more elegant and refined. It is the eternal task of nations to seek for and endeavor to obtain all that can add to the well-being already acquired, to the satisfactions already enjoyed; and the better they accomplish this task, the higher is the degree of power and prosperity which they attain.


—Artificial utilities, those which are the fruit of man's own labor, have given rise to distinctions. At first they were divided into material utilities and immaterial utilities. The former are these utilities which man communicates to matter, which he fixes and incorporates in matter either by changing its place or form; the latter are those which do not assume a form either tangible or ponderable. These latter again have been divided into two categories. To the first of these categories belong such utilities as are incorporated in persons, and fit them to render services to themselves or to others. Utilities attached to talent, to information or knowledge, are of this kind, as are also utilities whose use is beneficent and profitable. To the second category belong those utilities which emanate from services and acts that produce no change in the productive capacity of persons or in the condition of things. Of this latter kind are the utilities which result from the labor of judges, soldiers, public functionaries physicians, lawyers, musicians and actors. These utilities may answer to very real social wants; but they have not, at least in appearance, directly reproductive effects; neither are they susceptible of accumulation or duration.


—Utility is produced under forms so diverse that it would be easy to add to the number of these classifications and to establish new subdivisions among them. But it is in view of the correlations and affinities which exist between utility and wealth that the classifications we have made have been admitted; and the ideas or notions to which they answer merit serious attention. The term utility is a generic one; and everything which, it matters not by what way or in what manner, has the power of satisfying our wants or relieving our sufferings, of contenting our desires, or contributing to our pleasure, possesses the quality characterized by the term utility. The meaning of the word wealth is a more restricted one. Although there can be no wealth whose basis is not utility, utility alone does not suffice to constitute wealth; it constitutes wealth only by allying itself in things to certain qualities of a particular order. Most assuredly natural utilities are indispensable to us; but as every one uses these utilities at pleasure, and gathers them without cost of any kind, and as they are not susceptible of private appropriation, it would be wrong to apply the term wealth to them. What constitutes wealth is exchangeability, it is the value things owe to the possibility of procuring us, by our delivering them to others, this quantity or that of other things. All economists, however, do not admit that exchangeable utility, or utility having a price, is sufficient to give things the name of wealth; they claim, that, in order that that name should properly belong to the things in which this utility is to be met with, these things should, besides, be susceptible of accumulation and duration; in other words, that they should exist under a material form. It is easy to see, that, according to the definition given to the word wealth, the number of utilities which is admitted to constitute a part of it, must increase or decrease, and that the classification adopted by some writers should not be adopted by others. Be this as it may, the question of immaterial products and unproductive labor is the one that suggests itself à propos of utilities. Of artificial utilities, there are some which are not converted into material wealth or into the means of producing material wealth; such utilities are considered by some writers as unproductive; and, in the eyes of these writers, the labor to which the utilities just referred to is due is in as much disfavor as sterile labor. Whatever the distinctions that may be established among the different kinds of utility, it is a mistake to suppose that there can be any utilities which do not contribute more or less actively to the production of all the others. All the utilities which man succeeds in realizing have the same destination, the improvement of his lot; they all assist one another, combine with one another, and mutually fecundate one another, in such a way that those least material are as much as the others essential to the formation and accumulation of wealth, and serve as much to produce it.


—Take wealth in the form under which that name can be least denied it, the form of utilities fixed and incorporated in material objects: such wealth can be produced only with the aid and concurrence of immaterial utilities. It is intellectual conceptions that the workman realizes in his action on matter; it is the knowledge he has acquired that decides the success of his work; and the more precise and extensive this knowledge is, the more fruitful are his efforts, and the more do these efforts increase the things they are intended to produce. But in what does knowledge consist if not in the acquisitions of the mind? And is it not certain that the nations which possess most knowledge are those which obtain material wealth in greatest abundance? Assuredly nothing is more indispensable to the production of material wealth than the formation and accumulation of the capital the employment of which that production necessitates. But it is to the action of utilities of the moral order that the creation of capital is due. It is love for one's family, temperance, economy, and care for the future, which determine or permit the making of savings. If these qualities were wanting, no one would lay by, in order to reap a remote advantage from them, resources whose consumption would increase the well-being of the present; and there can be no doubt that the countries in which these qualities are found are always those in which capital continually extends its conquests and increases wealth most rapidly.


—Many economists admit rightly that the knowledge, skill and constancy of artisans and workmen are as much a part of the wealth of a country as the tools, machines and instruments which they use. Doubtless these kinds of utilities contribute powerfully to the formation and increase of wealth; from the point of view of the production of material wealth, there are, however, between them and the utilities which become incorporated in persons, differences only as to the modes in which their action respectively becomes manifest. And, in fact, that labor may produce wealth, it is not sufficient that it be enlightened, active and intelligent; it is further necessary that those who perform it be certain of reaping the fruits of their endeavors. But it is to insure this very certainty that the work of judges, magistrates, and even of armies, is intended; and such is the utility which results from the performance of such work. If the laborer, the manufacturer and the merchant display all the activity of which they are capable; if they make savings in order to extend the field of their operations; if they seek for and apply to production better and better processes, it is only because they have faith in the efficacy of the services of all those who are charged with guaranteeing the security of person and property. The utility produced by the prosecution, sentencing and punishment of crimes and misdemeanors, does not vanish, as is supposed, with the acts in which it is embodied; on the contrary, it continues to subsist in the minds of all, intimidating these who might be tempted to do wrong, and demonstrating to others that neither violence nor spoliation can attack them unpunished, and that they may devote themselves to their work in security. We have seen the services rendered by the agents of authority cease to keep their habitual course; and, at that very instant, we witnessed, too, the production of wealth affected by languor and discouragement; so true is it that in the kind of utility which these services produce, is to be found the most indispensable stimulant to the success and energy of industrial labor.


—We may boldly assert, that nothing which is useful, nothing which serves to enlighten minds, to quicken the moral sense, to propagate healthy habits, or to guarantee peace and security among a people, can be without effect on the success of the efforts employed in producing material wealth. Those immaterial utilities even which seem the least productive; those even the obtaining of which, according to eminent economists, instead of making nations richer in material products, impoverish them to the amount of the sum total of material products consumed by the men employed in the service of the public, contribute their share to the formation of wealth; so true is this, that the formation or production of wealth would become impossible if the immaterial utilities above referred to were either entirely wanting or not to be found in the proportion required by the wants which they serve to satisfy.


—We have still to examine one other correlation of utility with wealth. It is certain that utility is a necessary condition to wealth. A product incapable of rendering any service whatever, unfit for any use, would find no one willing to give anything whatever for it; it would, consequently, be wanting in all exchangeable value, that is, in the quality, lacking which, it could not become wealth. This constant association of wealth and utility could not fail to attract attention; and, therefore, many writers supposed that there must exist between them relations such that the one might serve as a measure for the other. Although this error is refuted in the article VALUE, we can not pass it over in silence here. Although the utility inherent in things depends, so far as the estimate made of it is concerned, on circumstances momentarily variable, it is none the less certain, looked at from the general point of view, that it has its measure marked by the species of wants to which it relates. Thus, that utility exists in the highest degree in those things which supply the prime necessities of life, necessities which must be provided for under pain of inevitable death. It exists, in an inferior degree only, in the things which merely serve to defend us against privations and sufferings which do not jeopardize life, and in a degree still lower in those things whose use has no effect out to procure us pleasure or amusement. This gradation of utilities, based on the very nature of the evils or perils attached to the non-satisfaction of the wants which they enable us to satisfy, is simple and easy to understand. There is no one who does not recognize and assert that utility is much greater in the alimentary substances, without which we would have to suffer the deadly pangs of hunger, than in the products to which we owe enjoyments, the privation of which would be attended by neither pain nor harm.


—But if utility finds its measure in the greater or lesser absolute exigency of the wants of our nature, that measure is far from being found again in the value itself of the things we may use, and far from contributing, according to their degree of distinction, to make those things integral parts, more or less considerable, of public or private wealth. It is in vain that the bread which nourishes us and the woolens that cover us are of prime necessity to us: that does not prevent an object which, at best, is good only to relieve for a moment the ennui of the person who buys it, being paid for at a price infinitely higher. The reason of this is, that there are men rich enough to give full rein to tastes and desires which others are entirely ignorant of or can not satisfy. Those to whom it is easy to provide for the most essential wants of life, think of procuring all the enjoyments compatible with the size of their fortune. It is not enough for them to be well fed, comfortably lodged and warmly clothed; they offer incense to pleasure, and seek it in everything. They must have things which charm the eye, which afford them delicate impressions and sensations, whose possession flatters their vanity, which sometimes borrow all their attraction only from a fancy or from the caprice of a moment; and the value conferred on these objects by what those who desire them are willing to give in exchange for them, assures to them, among things considered wealth, a much greater place than they would occupy if nothing but the quantum of real utility they contain were taken into consideration.


—It is only when the products indispensable to the satisfaction of the wants of existence are lacking that the utility which they contain makes its empire felt, and becomes the dominating principle of their value. When the things which can be dispensed with without peril or injury cease to be supplied in sufficient quantity, fewer of them are bought, and the rise in the price of them has its limit in the reduction of the number of those who ask to acquire them. The same is not the case with those whose use no one can give up without running the risk of death. In times of famine men dispute the means of subsistence with one another. The rich, to procure bread, sell everything which ministers only to their pleasure. The poor despoil themselves of their furniture, their clothing and their shoes. People must then perish or assuage their hunger: each sacrifices to the first of all wants, that of self-preservation, everything which is not of a nature to satisfy that want. Such cases present themselves in besieged cities when their stores are exhausted, and in deserts when, devoured by thirst, the merchants crossing them give for a few drops of water the treasures carried by their camels. But in the normal condition of things, when all kinds of utility are to be found in their customary proportion, their particular destination or quality has no influence on the value at which they figure in exchanges or at which they are estimated in the sum total of wealth. What operates, then, across the variations in price due to the fluctuations of supply and demand, is the amount of the cost of production of each.


—These considerations suffice to show in what the correlation which exists between utility and wealth consists. If value attaches to things only on condition that they be gifted with the utility which alone has the power to render them exchangeable, the value in attaching to them by no means takes for its measure the character of that utility. It is the quantity of other things which each of them permits us to obtain that determines its value; and a precious stone, a pearl or a jewel which serves only to adorn the lady who wears it, has, with like weight and quantity, a thousand of times the value of the wheat or fuel without which we should fall victims of hunger or cold, but which costs little to produce, abounds in the markets, and sometimes has to wait for purchasers.


—To resume. Nature gratuitously gives up to men certain utilities which all enjoy equally: it imposes on them the necessity of creating the others. Their labor can produce only artificial utilities, and never has any end but to produce such utilities. The utilities which human labor obtains are of various kinds: some, becoming fixed and incorporated in matter, communicate to it the qualities which constitute wealth; the others are not realized under a material form; they attach to the persons of men, fitting them to render services to themselves or to others, or they attach to acts or services the performance of which has for effect to insure to the individuals or nations to whom they belong, satisfactions, advantages or guarantees, the absence of which would infallibly react in an injurious manner on their interests and on their well-being. It must be remarked, that, although immaterial, these utilities contribute actively to the formation as well as to the accumulation of the products which constitute material wealth; from which it follows, that, even considered solely in their relations to that wealth, the labor by means of which it is obtained has a character of productiveness not less real than the labor which acts more directly on matter itself.


—Utility is one of the constituent conditions of wealth; it is inseparable from wealth, but can not furnish a measure of wealth. The utility inherent in things is greater in proportion as the wants to which they are fitted to give satisfaction are more urgent and intense; the wealth inherent in things, on the contrary, is greater in proportion as the cost of production of the latter is greater.


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