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.
747 of 1105



NATURE OF THINGS. Political economy is not, as has been sometimes said and thought, a collection of arbitrary principles and maxims; it is a science founded upon the observation of the permanent laws of the very nature of things, following the experiential or inductive method, which also guides human investigations in the physical sciences. J. B. Say has expressed with his usual precision this fundamental truth, and we do not think we can do better than reproduce here what he has written upon this subject.


—The manner in which we find things, or in which they happen, constitutes what is called the nature of things, and the exact observation of the nature of things is the only foundation of all truth. Hence spring two kinds of sciences: the sciences which may be called descriptive, and which consist in naming and classifying things, like botany and natural history; and the experimental sciences, which teach us the reciprocal action which things exercise upon each other, or, in other words, the connection of effects with their causes; such are physics and chemistry. These latter require that we should study the intimate nature of things, for it is by virtue of their nature that they act and produce effects; it is because it is the nature of the sun to be luminous, and the nature of the moon to be opaque that, when the moon passes before the sun, the latter body is eclipsed. A careful analysis is sometimes sufficient to enable us to understand the nature of things; at other times it is completely revealed to us only by its effects; and observation, when we can not have recourse to experiment, is necessary to confirm what analysis was able to teach us.


—These principles, which have guided me, will aid me to distinguish two sciences, which have almost always been confounded: political economy, which is an experimental science, and statistics, which is only a descriptive science. Political economy, as it is studied today, is entirely founded upon facts; for the nature of things is a fact, as well as the event which results from it. The phenomena, the causes and results of which it seeks to make known, may be considered either as constant and general facts, which are always the same in all similar cases, or as particular facts, which happen by virtue of general laws, but where many laws act at once, and modify without destroying one another: as in the jets of water in our gardens, where the laws of gravity are modified by the laws of equilibrium but do not cease to exist on that account. Science can not pretend to make known all these modifications, which are renewed each day and vary ad infinitum; but it exposes their general laws, and explains them by examples the reality of which each reader may prove for himself.


—There is in society a nature of things which depends in no way upon the will of man, and which we can not arbitrarily regulate. This does not mean that the will of man has no influence upon the arrangement of society, but only that the parts of which it is composed, the action which perpetuates it, are not an effect of its artificial organization but of its natural structure. The art of the cultivator can prune a tree, can train it against a wall, but the tree lives and produces by virtue of the laws of vegetation, which are superior to the art and skill of any gardener. In the same way, society is a living body, provided with organs, which give it life; the arbitrary action of legislators, administrators, military men, a conqueror, or even the effect of fortuitous circumstances, may influence its manner of life, can make it suffer or cure it of its troubles, but can not give it life. Artificial organization has so little to do with producing this effect, that it is in the places where it is limited to preserving the social body from the attacks which threaten its proper action and its development, that society increases the most rapidly in numbers and in prosperity. The artificial organization of nations changes with time and place. The natural laws which govern their maintenance and effect their preservation are the same in all countries and in all ages. They were among the ancients what they are to-day; only they are better known now. The blood which circulates in the veins of a Turk obeys the same laws as that which circulates in the veins of a Frenchman; it circulated in those of the Babylonians as in our own; but it is only since the discovery of Harvey that we have known that the blood circulates, and that we have been acquainted with the action of the heart. Capital fed the industry of the Phœnicians in the same way that it feeds that of the English; but it is only since a few years that the nature of capital, and the manner in which it works, and produces the effects which we observe, has become known; effects which the ancients saw as well as we do, but which they could not explain. Nature is old; science is new.


—Now, it is the knowledge of these natural and constant laws, without which human societies could not subsist, which constitutes the new science, designated by the name of political economy. It is a science, because it is not composed of invented systems, of plans of organization arbitrarily conceived, of hypotheses devoid of proof; but of the knowledge of what is, of the knowledge of facts, the reality of which can is established. A science is complete, relatively to a certain order of facts, in proportion as we succeed in determining the bond which unites them, in connecting their effects with their real causes. This is attained by studying carefully the nature of each of the things which play any part in the phenomenon which is to be explained; the nature of things unfolds to us the manner in which things work, and the manner in which they support the action of which they are the object; it shows us the relations and the connection of facts with each other. Now, the best way to know the nature of a thing is to make an analysis of it, to see all that is in it, and nothing but what is in it. For a long time the fluctuations of the tides were observed without man having the power to explain them, or rather to give a satisfactory explanation of them. To be able to assign the true cause of this phenomenon, it was necessary that the spherical form of the earth and the communication established between the large bodies of water should be demonstrated facts; it was necessary that universal gravitation should be a proven truth; from that time the action of the moon and sun upon the sea was known, and it was possible to assign with certainty the cause of the tides. So, when analysis had shown the nature of that quality of certain things which we have called their value, and when the same process had revealed to us what are the component parts of the cost of production, and the influence of such cost on the value of things, we knew positively why gold is more precious than iron. The connection between this phenomenon and its causes has become as certain as the phenomenon is constant.


—The nature of things, proud and disdainful as well in the moral and political sciences as in the physical sciences, while it allows any one who studies it with constancy and good faith to penetrate its secrets, pursue its way regardless of what is said or done. Men, who have learned to know the nature of things, can, in truth, direct the acting part of society to the way of applying the truths which have been revealed to them; but, even supposing that their eyes and deductions have not deceived them, they can not know the numerous and diverse relations which make the position of each individual, and even of each nation, a special one. which no other resembles in all its aspects. Sciences is only systematized experimentation, or, perhaps, a mass of experiments pure in order, and accompanied by analyses, which unfold their causes and their results. The inductions, which those who profess science draw from it, may pass for example, which it would be well to follow strictly only under exactly similar circumstances, but which must be modified according to the position of each. The man who knows most about the nature of things can not foresee the infinite combinations which the movement of the universe is constantly bringing about."

J. B. SAY.

747 of 1105

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