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.
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AGENTS, Natural, a politico-economical term. The earlier economists were wont to say that three distinct elements concur in the production of wealth, to wit: land, labor and capital, the last being nothing else than previous labor accumulated. But this nomenclature soon seemed too narrow, at least in regard to the first of the terms composing it, in that it appeared to imply that land, properly speaking, is the only one of the natural forces which associates itself with human labor. It is evident that such is not the truth. Man finds agents everywhere in nature to second his efforts. The sea spontaneously yields to him a number of products which he needs only to gather up. The air, the wind, water courses, electricity, all the powers of the physical world, supply him with force of which he makes useful employment in the series of his industrial labors.


—The need has been felt, therefore, of putting in the place of land, words of more general meaning, applicable to all the powers of nature whose existence is useful to man. To-day the term natural agents is almost universally accepted.


—Natural agents are of various kinds. Some, like arable land, mines and quarries, furnish both the materials and the workshop of production. They constitute the foundation of all industry. To the arable land, the mines and the quarries may be added the sea, lakes and rivers, in so far as they are considered productive of fish; the others are merely simple agents, aids which second the labor of man either of themselves and naturally, or after they have been, so to speak, tamed and conquered. Such, for example, are the heat of the sun, which develops and ripens plants; the rains which make them fruitful; the water courses which turn hydraulic wheels; the wind which moves ships at sea, or whirls the windmill's arms on land; the seas, lakes and rivers, in so far as they are navigable routes; the weight of bodies, electricity, the force of expansion or contraction of metals, and generally, all the forces which man has found the means of bending to his service.


—At no time has human industry been entirely deprived of the aid of natural agents; otherwise it would have produced nothing. But the number of forces which come to man's aid goes on increasing in proportion as his knowledge extends and his means of action grow. Man taxes his brain to conquer the powers of nature and shape them to his use, making them work to his profit, and he gradually succeeds in getting from them the better service. There is scarcely a discovery in science, or at least in the industrial arts, whose object it is not either to put some natural power hitherto unknown at the service of man or to make a new use of an agent already known. It is thus that the discovery of Daguerre compelled the rays of light to trace the image of external objects with a marvellous truth which the pencil of the painter will never attain. It is thus that electricity, that power hitherto so mysterious and disobedient, is forced to furnish us with the means of instant communication with most distant places. The admirable discovery of the steam engine is nothing else than putting a natural agent at the service of man, a natural agent of incalculable power which has been successfully mastered. From day to day the number of natural agents in our service increases, and we obtain from them better work. This is one of the aspects of human progress, and not the one least worthy of interest.


—This progress is visible in all directions. New mines and new quarries are constantly being discovered. On the other hand, the extent of arable land increases, either by the clearing up of forests, the draining of morasses or the converting of plains and heather into cultivated fields. In the meanwhile new seas are discovered by navigators, their surfaces are explored more exactly and their depths are sounded with increasing accuracy. Lakes by degrees disclose the wealth which they conceal. Rivers and lakes are confined within their beds, and, freed from the obstacles which barred their course, they become, thanks to the labor of engineers, channels of navigation which grow more perfect every day. The force of gravitation, which human ingenuity at first knew so little how to use, and which was even an obstacle to it in most cases, has become, owing to the discoveries of science, one of our most powerful auxiliaries at the present day. Again, the most mysterious forces of nature, as well as the most hidden properties of bodies, formerly rebellious to such a degree that frequently they were a source of trouble to man in his labors, but now conquered and pliant, have been put under contribution, and have become useful instruments in our hands. This is one of the chief causes of the relative fruitfulness of modern industry as compared with the industry of ancient times. "Analyze the progress made by industry," says J. B. Say, "and you will find that it can be reduced to having turned to best advantage the forces and the things which nature has placed at the disposal of man."


—Among the natural agents of industry some are capable of being appropriated, others not. And this is true not only of those which constitute the ground-work itself on which industry operates, but also of those which act only as simple auxiliaries. Thus arable land, mines and quarries can be and are almost always appropriated. But the sea, which is productive as well as the land, though not in the same degree, since it produces fish, coral, pearls, salt, etc., the sea, we repeat, is not capable of appropriation, unless perhaps in some of its interior bays. A waterfall considered as a motive power can be appropriated, and we see in practice that most waterfalls have become private property in civilized countries. But the wind, which fills, very nearly, the same office either for windmills on land or vessels which sail on the seas, is not susceptible of appropriation, and there are really but rare and very exceptional cases in which we may say that it was appropriated to a certain extent.


—This distinction is important because of the serious consequences which it involves. It has therefore been laid down carefully by all economists.


—The services of unappropriated natural agents is always gratuitous, in this sense, at least, that all men are free to use them gratuitously, on the sole condition of assuming whatever care and expense may be necessary to reap a benefit from them. On the contrary, the service of natural agents already appropriated, is generally burdened with certain dues for the benefit of those who have become their owners. It can be readily understood that he who has succeeded in obtaining exclusive possession of a productive force, should not wish to yield the use of it to others without compensation. If he lends or rents it he is paid for its use. If he uses it himself for the purpose of selling the products which he obtains from it, he charges a little more for these products than the ordinary cost of production.


—Looking at things from this point of view we are tempted to believe at first that the appropriation of natural agents is always an evil. But reflection is not slow in correcting this first impression. If it be true that the man who has become master of a productive force of nature to the exclusion of his fellows generally exacts a price for its use, it must be remarked also that he is impelled by his own interest to increase its power when he can do so by his labor and his pains. There are certain natural agents which work for man spontaneously, but the greater number need to be constrained by various means which science suggests, and which are sometimes very costly. Who would burden himself with these costs, if he were not sure of reaping a benefit? The appropriation of these agents therefore is often necessary, since, without it, we should not obtain the services which they can render, and in this case it is surely beneficial to all.


—Let us hear J. B. Say on this subject. "If the instruments furnished by nature were all private property, the use of them would not be gratuitous, the man who became master of the winds would let their service to us for money; carriage of goods by sea would be more expensive and products consequently would be dearer.

—On the other hand, if natural instruments capable of becoming property, as tracts of land, had not become such, no one would run the risk of making them useful lest he might not enjoy the fruit of his labors. We could not have at any price commodities in the production of which and has a part, which would be equivalent to excessive dearness. Thus, although the product of a field may be made dearer by the rental of the field which must be paid to its owner, this product is less dear than if the field had not become property."


—These words sum up sufficiently well the two aspects of the question.


—It must be said, nevertheless, that certain questions of another order are connected with this subject, which it suffices to refer to here. Can the appropriation of natural agents, useful or not, be justified in law? Is it legitimate in its origin, leaving out of consideration the advantages admitted to result from it?


—To what point may this appropriation be extended? It has long been applied to arable lands, mines and quarries, to water courses, and a great number of other tangible natural agents. Can it also be applied legitimately and with the same advantage to those intangible natural agents whose services industry is enlisting every day by aid of new methods which it invents?


—There remains a last question raised by some distinguished economists, and which merits a solution. It is: Are the services of appropriated natural agents really paid for, if the price which one is obliged to give the proprietors for their use is anything else in reality than the just remuneration for their actual labor or for their accumulated previous labor? (See APPROPRIATION, LAND, RENT.)


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