Hodgskin on Econlib
By Alberto Mingardi
I’m delighted to see that Econlib is showcasing, these days, Thomas Hodgskin’s “Popular Political Economy“. Chances are good you’ve never read it, if you’ve even heard of it.
The “Popular” in the title does not imply an attempt to have political economy “vulgarised and written down to the level of a popular audience, but conceived from the standard of the interest of the people.” Rather, it is the economy as seen from the viewpoint of the people, considered as protagonists and not passive object of economic development.
Indeed, for Hodgskin, “All the benefits” of the division of labour “naturally centre in the labourer; belong to him, and contribute to his ease or add to his opulence.” He sees skillful labourers as the drivers of innovation: they are the inventors of machineries, and they can invent other ways to further improve their own productivity.
For Hodgskin, human ingenuity is ubiquitous and he indeed provides us with an account with what we would call, today, “innovation“.
He sees (hence, the “popular”) that “the chances of improvement … are great in proportion as the persons are multiplied whose attention is devoted to any particular subject. … 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 (…) 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.” For this reason he defended population growth as conducive to more economic progress, against Thomas Malthus.
For Hodgskin, deeply influenced by Adam Smith and Jean-Baptiste Say (whose lectures he attended in Paris), political economy “is not a political science, prescribing regulations for society, or dictating duties to men” .
Hodgskin is best known for a work published a couple of years before “Popular Political Economy”, “Labour Defended against the Claims of Capital”. For that, he has often been considered a forerunner of Karl Marx (who quoted him a few times, with respect) and labeled a “Ricardian socialist”. He is actually more of a “Smithian anarchist”.
Let me put a plug in for a paper of mine, “Thomas Hodgskin, Rational Optimist“. The core argument is that Hodgskin understood the Industrial Revolution was likely to increase the living standard of the lower classes of society, and expressed that concept with formidable clarity and panache.