The Postulates of English Political Economy
By Walter Bagehot
Mr. Bagehot left behind him some materials for a book which promised to make a landmark in the history of economics, by separating the use of the older, or Ricardian, economic reasonings from their abuse, and freeing them from the discredit into which they had fallen through being often misapplied. Unfortunately he did not complete more than the examination of two of their postulates—the transferability of labour and capital. But these he treated with so much sagacity and suggestiveness as to give us great help in dealing with the others, and I have long been anxious that what he wrote about them should be published in a cheap form, so as to have a wide circulation among students…. [From the Preface, by Alfred Marshall]
First Pub. Date
London: Longmans, Green, and Co.
Preface by Alfred Marshall
The text of this edition is in the public domain. Picture of Walter Bagehot courtesy of The Warren J. Samuels Portrait Collection at Duke University.
II. The Transferability of Capital.
In my last paper I discussed the fundamental principle of English Political Economy, that within the limits of a nation labour migrates from employment to employment, as increased remuneration attracts or decreased remuneration repels it; and now I have to treat the corresponding principle as to capital, that it flows or tends to flow to trades of which the profits are high, that it leaves or tends to leave those in which the profits are low, and that in consequence there is a tendency—a tendency limited and contracted, but still a tendency—to an equality of profits through commerce.
First, this requires such a development of the division of labour as to create what we call ‘trade,’ that is to say, a set of persons working for the wants of others, and providing for their own wants by the return-commodities received from those others. But this development has only been gradually acquired by the human race. Captain Cook found some Australian tribes to whom the idea of traffic seemed unknown. They received what was given them readily, but they received it as a present only; they seemed to have no notion of giving anything in lieu of it. The idea of barter—an idea usually so familiar to the lower races of men—appeared never to have dawned on these very low ones. But among races in such a condition there is no change of trades as capital becomes more and more profitable in any one. The very conception comes long after. Everyone works for himself at everything; and he always works most at what he likes most for the time; as he changes his desires, so far as he can he changes his labour. Whenever he works he uses the few tools he has, the stone implements, the charred wood, the thongs of hide, and other such things, in the best way he can; a hundred savages are doing so at once some in one way, some in another, and these are no doubt ‘shiftings of capital.’ But there is no computation of profit, as we now reckon profit, on such shiftings. Profit, as we calculate, means that which is over after the capital is replaced. But a savage incapable of traffic does not make this calculation as to his flints and his hides. The idea could not even be explained to him.
Secondly, this comparison requires a medium in which the profits can be calculated, that is, a
money. Supposing that in the flax trade profits are 5 per cent., and that side by side in the cotton trade they are 15 per cent., capital will now-a-days immediately run from one to the other. And it does so because those who are making much, try to get more capital, and those who are making little—still more those who are losing—do not care to keep as much as they have. But if there is no money to compute in, neither will know what they are making, and therefore the process of migration wants its motive, and will not begin. The first sign of extra profit in a trade—not a conclusive, but a strongly presumptive one—is an extra high price in the article that trade makes or sells; but this test fails altogether when there is no ‘money’ to sell in. And the debit side of the account, the cost of production, is as difficult to calculate when there is no common measure between its items, or between the product, and any of them. Political Economists have indeed an idea of ‘exchangeable value’—that is, of the number of things which each article will exchange for—and they sometimes suppose a state of barter in which people had this notion, and in which they calculated the profit of a trade by deducting the exchangeable value of the labour and commodities used in its production from the value of the finished work. But such a state of society never existed in reality. No nation which was not clever enough to invent a money, was ever able to conceive so thin and hard an idea as ‘exchangeable value.’ Even now Mr. Fawcett justly says that it puzzles many people, and sends them away frightened from books on Political Economy. In fact it is an ideal which those used to money prices have framed to the themselves. They see that the price of anything, the money it fetches, is equal to its ‘purchasing power’ over things, and by steadily attending they come to be able to think of this ‘purchasing power’ separately, and to call and reason upon it as exchangeable value. But the idea is very treacherous even to skilled minds, and even now-a-days not the tenth part of any population could ever take it in. As for the nations really in a state of barter ever comprehending it, no one can imagine it, for they are mostly unequal to easy arithmetic, and some cannot count five. A most acute traveller thus describes the actual process of bargaining among savage nations as he saw it. ‘In practice,’ Mr. Gall on tells us of the Damaras, ‘whatever they may possess in their language, they certainly use no numeral greater than three. When they wish to express four they take to their fingers, which are to them as formidable instruments of calculation as a sliding rule is to an English schoolboy. They puzzle very much after five, because no spare hand remains to grasp and secure the fingers that are required for “units.” Yet they seldom lose oxen: the way in which they discover the loss of one is not by the member of the herd being diminished, but by the absence of a face which they know. When bartering is going on each sheep must be paid for separately. Thus suppose two sticks of tobacco to be the rate of exchange for one sheep, it would sorely puzzle a Damara to take two sheep and give him four sticks. I have done so, and seen a man first put two of the sticks apart, and take a sight over them at one of the sheep he was about to sell. Having satisfied himself that that one was honestly paid for, and finding to his surprise that exactly two sticks remained in hand to settle the account for the other sheep, he would be afflicted with doubts; the transaction seemed too pat to be correct, and he would refer back to the first couple of sticks, and then his mind got hazy and confused, and wandered from one sheep to the other, and he broke off the transaction until two sticks were put into his hand and one sheep driven away, and then the other two sticks given him, and the second sheep driven away.’ Such a delineation of primitive business speaks for itself, and it is waste of space showing farther that an abstraction like ‘value in exchange’ is utterly beyond the reach of the real bartering peoples—that a habit of using money, and of computing in it, are necessary preliminaries to comparisons of profits.
Unquestionably the most primitive community can see if a pursuit utterly fails, or if it immensely succeeds. The earliest men must have been eager in making flint tools, for there are so many of them, and no doubt they did not try to breed cattle where they died. But there was in those days no adjusted comparison between one thing and another; all pursuits which anyhow suited went on then as they do among savages now.
Money, too, is in this matter essential, or all but essential, in another way. It is a form in which capital is held
in suspense without loss. The transfer of capital from employment to employment is a matter requiring consideration, consideration takes time, and the capital must be somewhere during that time. But most articles are bought at a risk; they lose in the process, and become second-hand; an ordinary person cannot get rid of them without receiving for them less—often much less—than he gave. But money is never ‘second-hand;’ it will always fetch itself, and it loses nothing by keeping. No doubt modern civilisation has invented some other forms of property which are almost as good to hold as money. Some interest-bearing securities, like Exchequer bills, are so, and pay an interest besides. But these are the creatures of money, so to say, and based upon it; they presuppose it, and would not be possible without it. A community of pure barter, even if it could reckon and compare profits, would not be able to move capital accurately from one trade to another, for it possesses no commodity which could, without risk of loss that could not be calculated, be held idle during the computation.
The refined means by which the movement is now effected is one of the nicest marvels of our commercial civilisation. The three principal of them are as follows:—
First:—There is the whole of the loan fund of the country lying in the hands of bankers and bill-brokers, which moves in an instant towards a trade that is unusually profitable, if only that trade can produce securities which come within banking rules. Supposing the corn trade to become particularly good, there are immediately twice the usual number of corn bills in the bill-brokers’ cases; and if the iron trade, then of iron bills. You could almost see the change of capital, if you could look into the bill cases at different times. But what you could not see is the mental skill and knowledge which have made that transfer, and without which it could not have been made safely. Probably it would be new to many people if stated plainly; but a very great many of the strongest heads in England spend their minds on little else than on thinking whether other people will pay their debts. The life of Lombard Street bill-brokers is almost exclusively so spent. Mr. Chapman, one of the partners in Overend, Gurney, and Co., once rather amused a parliamentary committee by speaking with unction and enthusiasm of ‘paper of the very finest quality,’ by which he meant paper on which the best promises were written. Bills of exchange are only undertakings to pay money, and the most likely to be paid are, in the market phrase, of the ‘finest quality,’ and the less likely of inferior quality. The mind of a man like Mr. Chapman, if it could be looked into, would be found to be a graduating machine marking in an instant the rises and falls of pecuniary likelihood. Each banker in his own neighbourhood is the same; he is a kind of ‘solvency-meter,’ and lives by estimating rightly the ‘responsibility of parties,’ as he would call it. And the only reason why the London bill-broker has to do it on a greater scale is that, being in the great centre, he receives the surplus savings not of one district but of many, which find no means of employment there. He is thus become the greatest and most just measurer of moneyed means and moneyed probity which the world has ever seen;—to reduce it to its lowest terms, he knows that more people will pay more debts than anyone who now is, or ever before was, in the world. And the combined aggregate of these persons is a prepared machine ready to carry capital in any direction. The moment any set of traders want capital, the best of them, those whose promises are well known to be good, get it in a minute, because it is lying ready in the hands of those who know, and who live by knowing that they are fit to have it.
Secondly,—In modern England, there is a great speculative fund which is always ready to go into anything which promises high profits. The largest part of this is composed of the savings of men of business. When, as in 1871, the profits of many trades suddenly become much greater than usual, the Stock Exchange instantly becomes animated; there is at once a market for all kinds of securities, so long as they promise much, either by great interest or by rise of prices. Men of business who are used to a high percentage of profit in their own trade despise 3 or 4 per cent., and think that they ought to have much more. In consequence there is no money so often lost as theirs; there is an idea that it is the country clergyman and the ignorant widow who mostly lose by bad loans and bad companies. And no doubt they often do lose. But I believe that it is oftener still men of business, of slight education and of active temperament, who have made money rapidly, and who fancy that the skill and knowledge of a special trade which have enabled them to do so, will also enable them to judge of risks, and measure contingencies out of that trade; whereas, in fact, there are no persons more incompetent, for they think they know everything, when they really know almost nothing out of their little business, and by habit and nature they are eager to be doing. So much of their money as comes to London is in greater jeopardy almost than any other money. But there is a great deal which never comes there, and which those who make it are able to put out in pushing their own trade and in extending allied trades. The very defects which make the trader so bad a judge of other things make him an excellent judge of these, and he is ready and daring, and most quick to make use of what he knows. Each trade in modern commerce is surrounded by subsidiary and kindred trades, which familiarise the imagination with it, and make its state known; as soon, therefore, as the conspicuous dealers in that trade are known to be doing particularly well, the people in the surrounding trades say, ‘Why should not we do as well too?’ and they embark their capital in it—sometimes, of on course, wrongly, but upon the whole wisely and beneficially. In an animated business world like ours, these inroads into the trades with largest gains by the nearest parts of the speculative fund are incessant, and are a main means of equalising profits.
Lastly,—There is the obvious tendency of young men starting in business to go into the best-paying business, or what is thought to be so at that time. Thus, in the best cases, also acts mainly on the allied and analogous trades. Little good, for the most part, comes of persons who have been brought up on one side of the business world going quite to the other side—of farmers’ sons going to cotton-spinning, or of lacemakers’ sons going into shipping. Each sort of trade has a tradition of its own, which is never written, probably could not be written, which can only be learned in fragments, and which is best taken in early life, before the mind is shaped and the ideas fixed. From all surrounding trades there is an incessant movement of young men with new money into very profitable trades, which steadily tends to reduce that profitableness to the common average.
I am more careful than might seem necessary to describe the entire process of equalisation at length, because it is only by so doing that we can see how complex it is, and how much development in society it requires; but as yet the description is not complete, or nearly so. We have only got as far as the influx of money into new trades, but this is but a small part of what is necessary. Trades do not live by money alone; money by itself will not make anything. What, then, do we mean when we speak of ‘capital’ as flowing from employment to employment?
Some writers speak as if the only thing which transfers of capital effect is a change in the sort of labour that is set in motion; and no doubt this is so far true, that all new employments of capital do require new labour. Human labour is the primitive moving force, and you must have more of it if you want more things done; but the description, though true, is most incomplete, as the most obvious facts in the matter prove. When new capital comes into cotton-spinning, this means not only that new money is applied to paying cotten operatives, but also that new money is applied to buying new spinning machines; these spinning machines are made by other machines, as well as labour; and the second lot of machines again by a third set, as well as other labour. In the present state of the world, nothing is made by brute labour; everything is made by aids to labour; and when capital goes from trade to trade, it settles not only which sort of labour shall be employed, but which sort of existing machines should be first used up, which sort of new ones made, and how soon those new ones shall be worn out, not only in the selected trade, but in an endless series subsidiary to it.
To understand the matter fully, we must have a distinct view of what on this occasion and on this matter we mean by ‘capital.’ The necessity of a science like Political Economy is that it must borrow its words from common life, and therefore from a source where they are not used accurately, and cannot be used accurately. When we come to reason strictly on the subjects to which they relate, we must always look somewhat precisely to their meaning; and the worst is that it will not do, if you are writing for the mass of men, even of educated men, to use words always in the same sense. Common words are so few, that if you tie them down to one meaning they are not enough for your purpose; they do their work in common life because they are in a state of incessant slight variation, meaning one thing in one discussion and another a little different in the next. If we were really to write an invariable nomenclature in a science where we have so much to say of so many things as we have in Political Economy, we must invent new terms, like the writers on other sciences. Mr. De Morgan said (in defence of some fresh-coined substantive), ‘Mathematics must not want words because Cicero did not know the differential calculus.’ But a writer on Political Economy is bound—not perhaps by Cicero—but by his readers. He must not use words out of his own head, which they never heard of; they will not read him if he does. The best way, as we cannot do this, is to give up uniform uses—to write more as we do in common life, where the context is a sort of unexpressed ‘interpretation clause,’ showing is what sense words are used; only, as in Political Economy we have more difficult things to speak of than in common conversation, we must take more care, give more warning of any change and at times write out the ‘interpretation clause’ for that page or discussion, lest there should be any mistake. I know that this is difficult and delicate work; and all I have to say in defence of it is that in practice it is safer than the competing plan of inflexible definitions. Anyone who tries to express varied meanings on complex things with a scanty vocabulary of fastened senses, will find that his style grows cumbrous without being accurate, that he has to use long periphrases for common thoughts, and that after all he does not come out right, for he is half his time falling back into the senses which fit the case in hand best, and these are sometimes one, sometimes another, and almost always different from his ‘hard and fast’ sense. In such discussions we should learn to vary our definitions as we want, just as we say, ‘let
x, y, z mean’ now this, and now that, in different problems; and this, though they do not always avow it, is really the practice of the clearest and most effective writers.
By capital, then, in this discussion, we mean an aggregate of two unlike sorts of artificial commodities—co-operative things which help labour, and remunerative things which pay for it. The two have this in common, that they are the produce of human labour, but they differ in almost everything else if you judge of them by the visual appearance. Between a loaf of bread and a steam-engine, between a gimlet and a piece of bacon, there looks as if there were really nothing in common, except that man manufactured both. But, though the contrast of externalities is so great, the two have a most essential common property which is that which Political Economy fixes upon; the possible effect of both is to augment human wealth. Labourers work because they want bread; their work goes farther if they have good tools; and therefore economists have a common word for both tools and bread. They are both capital, and other similar things are so too.
And here we come across another of the inevitable verbal difficulties of Political Economy. Taking its words from common life, it finds that at times and for particular discussions it must twist them in a way which common people would never think of. The obvious resemblances which we deal with in life dictate one mode of grouping objects in the mind, and one mode of speaking of them; the latent but more powerful resemblance which science finds would dictate another form of speech and mental grouping. And then what seems a perverse use of language must be made. Thus, for the present discussion, the acquired skill of a labourer is capital, though no one in common life would call it so. It is a productive thing made by man, as much as any tool; it
is, in fact, an immaterial tool which the labourer uses just as he does a material one. It is co-operative capital as much as anything can be. And then, again, the most unlikely-looking and luxurious articles are capital if they reward and stimulate labour. Artisans like the best of rabbits, the best bits of meat, green peas, and gin; they work to get these; they would stay idle if they were not incited by these, and therefore those are ‘capital.’ Political Economy (like most moral sciences) requires not only to change its definitions as it moves from problem to problem, but also for some problems to use definitions which, unless we see the motive, seem most strange; just as in Acts of Parliament the necessity of the draftsman makes a very technical use of words necessary if he is to do his work neatly, and the reader will easily be most mistaken and confused if he does not heed the dictionary which such Acts contain.
Remembering all this, we see at once that it is principally remunerative capital which is transferable from employment to employment. Some tools and instruments are, no doubt, used in many trades, especially the complex ones; knives, hammers, twine, and nails can be used, are used, in a thousand. The existing stock of these is transferred bodily when capital migrates from an employment. But, in general, as I have said before, the effect of the migration on co-operative capital is to change the speed with which the existing machines are worked out, and the nature of the new machines which are made; the ‘live skill’ of an artisan being treated as a machine. On remunerative capital the effect is simpler. As a rule, much the same commodities reward labour in different trades, and if one trade declines and another rises, the only effect is to change the labourer who gets these commodities; or, if the change be from a trade which employs little skilled labour to one which employs much, then the costly commodities which skilled labour wants will be in demand, more of them will be made, and there will be an increase of animation in all the ancillary trades which help their making.
We see also more distinctly than before what we mean by an ’employment.’ We mean a group of persons with fitting tools and of fitting skill paid by the things they like. I purposely speak of ‘tools’ to include all machines, even the greatest, for I want to fix attention on the fact that everything depends on the effort of man,—on the primary fruit of human labour. Without this to start with, all else is useless. And I use it out of brevity to include such things as coal and materials, which for any other purpose no one would call so, but which are plainly the same for what we have now to do with.
And ’employment’ in any large trade implies an ’employer.’ The capitalist is the motive power in modern production, in the ‘great commerce.’ He settles what goods shall be made, and what not; what brought to market, and what not. He is the general of the army; he fixes on the plan of operations, organises its means, and superintends its execution. If he does this well, the business succeeds and continues; if he does it ill, the business fails and ceases. Everything depends on the correctness of the unseen decisions, on the secret sagacity of the determining mind. And I am careful to dwell on this, though it is so obvious, and though no man of business would think it worth mentioning, because books forget it,—because the writers of books are not familiar with it. They are taken with the conspicuousness of the working classes; they hear them say, it is we who made Birmingham, we who made Manchester, but you might as well say that it was the ‘compositors’ who made the ‘Times’ newspaper. No doubt the craftsmen were necessary to both, but of themselves they were insufficient to either. The printers do not settle what is to be printed; the writers even do not settle what is to be written. It is the editor who settles everything. He creates the ‘Times’ from day to day; on his power of hitting the public fancy its prosperity and power rest; everything depends on his daily bringing to the public exactly what the public wants to buy; the rest of Printing-House Square—all the steam-presses, all the type, all the staff, clever as so many of them are,—are but implements which he moves. In the very same way the capitalist edits the ‘business;’ it is he who settles what commodities to offer to the public; how and when to offer them, and all the rest of what is material. This monarchical structure of money business increases as society goes on, just as the corresponding structure of war business does, and from the same causes. In primitive times a battle depends as much on the prowess of the best fighting men, of some Hector or some Achilles, as on the good science of the general. But now-a-days it is a man at the far end of a telegraph wire—a Count Moltke, with his head over some papers,—who sees that the proper persons are slain, and who secures the victory. So in commerce. The primitive weavers are separate men with looms apiece, the primitive weapon-makers separate men with flints apiece; there is no organised action, no planning, contriving, or foreseeing in either trade, except on the smallest scale; but now the whole is an affair of money and management; of a thinking man in a dark office, computing the prices of guns or worsteds. No doubt in some simple trades these essential calculations can be verified by several persons—by a board of directors, or something like it. But these trades, as the sagacity of Adam Smith predicted, and as painful experience now shows, are very few; the moment there comes anything difficult or complicated, the Board ‘does not see its way,’ and then, except it is protected by a monopoly, or something akin to monopoly, the individual capitalist beats it out of the field. But the details of this are not to my present purpose. The sole point now material is that the transference of capital from employment to employment involves the pre-existence of employment, and this pre-existence involves that of ’employers:’ of a set of persons—one or many, though usually one—who can effect the transfer of that capital from employment to employment, and can manage it when it arrives at the employment to which it is taken.
And this management implies knowledge. In all cases successful production implies the power of adapting means to ends, of making what you want as you want it. But after the division of labour has arisen, it implies much more than this: it then requires, too, that the producer should know the wants of the consumer, a man whom mostly he has never seen, whose name probably he does not know, very likely even speaking another language, living according to other habits, and having scarcely any point of intimate relation to the producer, except a liking for what be produces. And if a person who does not see is to suit another who is not seen, he must have much head-knowledge,—an acquired learning in strange wants as well as of the mode of making things to meet them. A person possessing that knowledge is necessary to the process of transferring capital, for he alone can use it when the time comes, and if he is at the critical instant not to be found, the change fails, and the transfer is a loss and not a gain.
This description of the process by which capital is transferred and of what we mean by it, may seem long, but it will enable us to be much shorter in showing the conditions which that transfer implies. First, it presupposes the existence of transferable labour, and I showed before how rare transferable labour is in the world, and how very peculiar are its prerequisites. You cannot have it unless you have a strong government, which will keep peace in the delicate line on which people are moving. You must not have fixed castes in inherited occupations, which at first are ways and means to do without a strong government, but which often last on after it begins; you must not have a local army which roots men to fixed spots for military purposes, and therefore very much to fixed pursuits; and you must not have slavery, for this is an imperfect substitute for free transferable labour, which effectually prevents the existence of it. Complete freedom of capital presupposes complete freedom of labour, and can only be attained when and where this exists.
No doubt capital begins to move much before the movement of labour is perfect. The first great start of it commences with a very unpopular person, who is almost always spoken evil of when his name is could mentioned, but in whom those who know the great things of which he has been the forerunner will always take a great interest. It is the money-lender in a primitive community, whose capital is first transferred readily from occupation to occupation. Suppose a new crop, say cotton, becomes suddenly lucrative, immediately the little proprietors throng to the money-lenders to obtain funds to buy cotton. A new trade is begun by his help, which could not have been begun without him. If cotton ceases to be a good crop, he ceases to lend to grow it, his spare capital either remains idle or goes to some other loan,—perhaps to help some other crop which has taken the place of cotton in profitableness. There is no more useful trade in early civilisation, though there is none which has such a bad name, and not unnaturally, for there is none which then produces more evil as well as good. Securities for loans, such as we have them in developed commerce, are rarely to be met with in early times; the land—the best security as we think it—is then mostly held upon conditions which prevent its being made in that way available; there is little movable property of much value, and peasants who work the land have scarcely any of that little; the only thing they can really pledge is their labour—
themselves. But then when the loan is not paid, ‘realising the security’ is only possible by making the debtor a slave, and as this is very painful, the creditor who makes much use of it is hated. Even when the land can be pledged, peasant proprietors never think that it ought really to be taken if the debt for which it is pledged is not paid. They think that the land is still theirs, no matter how much has been lent them upon it, or how much they have neglected to pay. But odious as the ‘usurer’ thus becomes, he is most useful really, and the beginner of the movement which creates the ‘great commerce.’
Another condition which precedes the free transfer of labour—the first prerequisite of the free transfer of capital—is slavery, and within its limits this is free enough; indeed, more free than anything else similar, for you have not to consult the labourer at all, as in all other organisations you must. The capitalist buys the slave and sets him to do, not what the slave likes, but what he himself likes. I can imagine that a theorist would say beforehand that this was the best way of getting things done, though not for the happiness of the doer. It makes the ‘working group’ into an army where the general is absolute, and desertion penal. But so subtle is the nature of things, that actual trial shows this structure of society not to be industrially superior to all others, but to be very ineffectual indeed, and industrially inferior to most of them. The slave will not work except he is made, and therefore he does little; he is none the better, or little the better, if he does his work well than if he does it ill, and therefore he rarely cares to do it very well. On a small scale, and under careful supervision, a few slaves carefully trained may be made to do very good work, but on any large scale it is impossible. A gang of slaves can do nothing but what is most simple and easy, and most capable of being looked after. The Southern States of America, for some years before their rebellion, were engaged in trying on the greatest scale and the most ample means the world has ever seen the experiment how far slavery would go; and the result is easily-stated; they never could ‘make brute force go beyond brute work.’
Next, in order that capital can be transferred, it must exist and be at the disposal of persons who wish to transfer it. This is especially evident as to remunerative capital, which we have seen to be the most transferable of all capital. But the earliest wages-paying commodities—the food and the necessaries which in simple communities the labourer desires—are accumulated by persons who want them for their own use, and who will not part with them. The ‘untransferable’ labourer—the labourer confined to a single occupation in a primitive society—saves certain things for himself, and needs them for himself, but he has no extra stock. He has no use, indeed, for it. In a society where there is no transferable labour, or need to hire, there is no motive, or almost none, for an accumulation of wages-paying capital which is to buy labour. The idea of it, simple as it seems to us, is one of a much later age, like that in which labour seeking to be hired is the commonest of things, and therefore the commodities needed for hiring it are among the commonest too. The means of buying, and the thing bought, inevitably in such a case as this grow together.
As to the other kind of capital—that which aids labour, the co-operative kind—the scientific study of savage tribes, which is so peculiar a feature of the present world, has brought out its scantiness—I might say its meanness—almost more distinctly than it has brought out anything else. Sir John Lubbock, one of our greatest instructors on this matter, tells us the implements of the Australians are very simple. ‘They have no knowledge of pottery, and carry water in skins, or in vessels made of bark. They are quite ignorant, of warm water, which strikes them with great amazement.’ Some of them carry ‘a small bag about the size of a moderate cabbage net, which is made by laying threads, loop within loop, somewhat in the manner of knitting used by our ladies to make purses. This bag the man carries loose upon his back by a small string, which passes over his head; it generally contains a lump or two of paint and resin, some fish-hooks and lines, a shell or two out of which these hooks are made, a few points of darts and their usual ornaments, which include the whole worldly treasure of the rich richest man among them.’ All travellers say that rude nations have no
stock of anything—no materials lying ready to be worked up, no idle tools waiting to be used; the whole is a ‘hand-to-mouth’ world. And this is but another way of saying that in such societies there is no capital of this kind to be transferred. We said just now that what we meant by transfer in such a case was a change in the sort of stock—the kind of materials, the kind of machines, the kind of living things to be used fastest and worn out quickest. But in these poverty-stricken early societies there is substantially no such stock at all. Every petty thing which there exists is already being used for all its petty purposes, and cannot be worked more quickly than it already is, or be worn out more rapidly than it is being worn out.
Next, this capital must be concentrated in ‘trades,’ else it cannot be transferred from trade to trade for the sake of profit, and it must be worked by a single capitalist, or little group of capitalists, as the case may be, else the trade will not yield profit. And this, as has been explained, is not a universal feature of all times, but a special characteristic of somewhat advanced eras. And there must be the knowledge capable of employing that capital—a knowledge which altogether differs in different trades. Now-a-days the amount of the difference is a little disguised from us because we see people with ‘capital’ in various pursuits—that is, who are traders in each and all of them. But such persons could not do this unless they were assisted by more specialised persons. The same principle governs political administration. Sir George, Lewis, one of the most capable judges of it in our time, has observed—’The permanent officers of a department are the depositories of its official tradition; they are generally referred to by the political head of the office for information on questions of official practice, and knowledge of this sort acquired in one department would be useless in another. If, for example, the chief clerk of the criminal department of the Home Office were to be transferred to the Foreign Office, or to the Admiralty, the special experience which he has acquired at the Home Office, and which is in daily requisition for the guidance of the Home Secretary, would be utterly valueless to the Foreign Secretary, or to the First Lord of the Admiralty…. Where a general superintendence is required, and assistance can be obtained from subordinates, end where the chief qualifications are judgment, sagacity, and enlightened political opinions, such a change of offices is possible; but as you descend lower in the official scale, the speciality of functions increases. The duties must be performed in person, with little or no assistance, and there is consequently a necessity for special knowledge and experience. Hence the same person may be successively at the head of the Home Office, the Foreign Office, the Colonial Office, and the Admiralty; he may be successively President of the Board of Trade, and Chancellor of the Exchequer; but to transfer an experienced clerk from one office to another would be like transferring a skilful naval officer to the army, or appointing a military engineer officer to command a ship of war.’ And just so in mercantile business—there are certain general principles which are common to all kinds of it, and a person can be of considerable use in more than one kind if he understands these principles, and has the proper sort of mind. But the appearance of this common element is in commerce, as in politics, a sign of magnitude, and primitive commerce is all petty. In early tribes there is nothing but the special man—the clothier, the mason, the weapon-maker. Each craft tried to be and very much was, a mystery except to those who carried it on. The knowledge required for each was possessed by few, kept secret by those few, and nothing else was of use but this monopolised and often inherited acquirement; there was no ‘general’ business knowledge. The idea of a general art of money-making is very modern; almost everything ancient about it is individual and particular. Distance helped much in this kind of speciality. ‘To the great fair of Stourbridge,’ in the south of England, there came, we are told, besides foreign products, ‘the woolpacks, which then formad the riches of England, and were the envy of outer nations. The Cornish tin-mine sent its produce, stamped with the sign of the rich earl who bought the throne of the German Empire, or of the warlike prince who had won his spurs at Crecy, and captured the French king at Poitiers…. Thither came also salt from the springs of Worcestershire, as well as that which had been gathered under the summer sun from the salterns of the eastern coasts. Here, too, might be found lead from the mines of Derbyshire, and iron, either raw or manufactured, from the Sussex forges.’ In an age when locomotion was tedious and costly, the mere distance, of the separate seats of industry tended to make separate monopolies of them. Other difficulties of transferring capital were aggravated by the rarity and the localisation of the knowledge necessary for carrying it on.
Next, as we have seen, for the attraction of capital from trade to trade, there must be a money in which to calculate such profits, and a good money too. Many media of interchange which have been widely used in the world, and which are quite good enough for many purposes, are quite unfit for this. Cattle, for instance, which were certainly one of the first-used kinds of money, and which have been said to have been that most used, because what we call the primitive ages lasted so long, are quite inadequate. They are good enough for present bargains, but not for the forward and backward-looking calculations of profit and loss. The notation is not distinct enough for accuracy. One cow is not exactly like another; a price list saying that so much raw rotten was worth 20 cows, and so much cotton worth 30 cows, would not tell much for the purpose; you could not be sure what cows you would have to give or you would get. There might be a ‘loss by exchange’ which would annihilate profit. Until you get good coined money, calculations of profit and loss that could guide capital are impossible.
Next, there must be the means of shifting ‘money,’ which we analysed—the loan fund, the speculative fund, and the choice of employment by young capitalists, or some of them. The loan fund on a small scale is, as we have seen, a very early institution; it begins in the primitive village almost as soon as any kind of trade begins at all, and a perception of its enormous value is one of the earliest pieces of true economical speculation. ‘In the Athenian laws,’ says Demosthenes, ‘are many well-devised securities for the protection of the creditor; for commerce proceeds not from the borrowers, but from the lenders, without whom no vessel, no navigator, no traveller could depart from port.’ Even in these days we could hardly put the value of discounts and trade loans higher. But though the loan fund begins so early in civilisation, and is prized so soon, it grows very slowly; the full development, modern banking such as we are familiar with in England, stops where the English language ceases to be spoken. The peculiarity of that system is that it utilises all the petty cash of private persons down nearly to the end of the middle class. This is lodged with bankers on running account, and though incessantly changing in distribution, the quantity is nearly fixed on the whole, for most of what one person pays out others almost directly pay in; and therefore it is so much added to the loan fund which bankers have to use, though, as credit is always precarious, they can, of course, only use it with caution. Besides this, English bankers have most of the permanent savings of little persons deposited with them, and so have an unexampled power of ready lending. But ages of diffused confidence are necessary to establish such a system, and peculiar circumstances in the banking history of England, and of Scotland still more, have favoured it. Our insular position exempting us from war, and enabling our free institutions to develop both quietly and effectually, is at the very root of it. But here until within a hundred year, there was no such concentration of minute moneys, no such increment to the loan fund, and abroad there is nothing equal to it now. Taking history as a whole, it is a rare and special phenomenon. Mostly the loan fund of a country consists of such parts of its moneyed savings as those who have saved them are able to lend for themselves. As countries advance banking slowly begins, and some persons who are believed to have much, are entrusted with the money of others, and become a sort of middlemen to put it out; but almost everywhere the loan fund is very small to our English notions. It is a far less efficient instrument for conveying capital from trade to trade everywhere else than here; in very many countries it is only incipient; in some it can hardly be said to exist at all.
The speculative fund, as I have called it, has also but a bounded range of action. The number of persons who have large moneyed savings who are willing to invest them in new things is in England considerable, but in most countries it is small. Such persons fear the unknown; they have a good deal to lose, and they do not wish to lose it. In most communities there is not even the beginning of a settled opinion to tell them which undertaking is likely to be good, and which bad. In the industrial history of most countries, the most marked feature is an extreme monotony; enterprises are few; the same things continue for ages to be done in the same way. The
data which should guide original minds are few and insufficient; there was not such a thing as a ‘price list’ in any ancient community. No Athenian merchant could, by looking over a file of figures, see which commodities were much lower in their average price, and which therefore might be advantageously bought with money that he could not employ in his usual trade. Even for so simple a speculation as this, according to our present notions, the
data did not exist, and for more complex ones the knowledge was either altogether wanting or confined to a few persons, none of whom might have the idle capital. The speculative fund does not become a force of first-rate magnitude till we have in the same community a great accumulation of spare capital, and a wide diffusion of sound trade knowledge,—and then it does.
The free choice by young men of the mode in which they will invest the capital which they possess is also in the early times of trade much hindered and cramped, and it only gains anything near the effective influence which it now has with us in quite late times. For a long period of industrial history special associations called ‘guilds’ prohibited it; these kept each trade apart, and prevented capital from going from one to the other. They even kept the trade of city A quite apart from the same trade in city B; they would not let capital or labour flow from one to the other. These restrictive hedges grew up naturally, and there was no great movement to throw them down. They strengthened what was already strong, and that which was weak made no protest. The general ignorance of trade matters in such communities made it seem quite reasonable to keep each trade to those who understood it; other people going into it would, it was imagined, only do it ill, lose their money, and hurt those who did it well by a pernicious competition. We now know that this is a great error, that such guilds did far more harm than good, that only experiment can show where capital will answer in trade, that it is from the outsider that the best improvements commonly come. But these things, which are now commonplaces after experience, were paradoxes before it. The first deduction of the uninstructed mind was and is the other way. Nor is it dispelled by mere argument. Civilisation must increase, trade ideas must grow and spread, and idle capital waiting to change must accumulate. Till these things have happened, the free choice by a young man how he will invest his capital is not the common rule, but the rare exception; it is not what mostly happens, though it may be resisted, but what happens only where it is unusually helped. Even where there is no formal guild, the circumstances which have elsewhere created so many, create an informal monopoly, mostly much stronger than any force which strives to infringe it.
None, therefore, of the three instruments which now convey capital from employment to employment can in early times be relied on for doing so, even when that capital exists, and when some labour at least is available to be employed by it; neither the loan fund, nor the speculative fund, nor the free choice of a trade by young men, is then a commonly predominant power; nor do the whole three taken together commonly only come to much in comparison with the forces opposed to them.
And even if their intrinsic strength had been far greater than it was, it would often have been successfully impeded by the want of a final condition to the free transfer of capital, of which I have not spoken yet. This is a political condition. We have seen that for the free transfer of labor from employment to employment a strong government is necessary. The rules regulating the inheritance of trades and the fixed separations of labour were really contrivances to obtain some part of the results of the division of labour, when for want of an effectual government, punishing quarrels and preserving life, free competition and movement in labour were impossible. And this same effectual government is equally necessary, as need not be explained, for the free migration of money. That migration needs peace and order quite as obviously as the migration of labour; and those who understand the delicacy of the process will need no proof of it. But though a strong government is required, something more is waited too; for the movement of capital we need a
fair government. If capital is to be tempted from trade to trade by the prospect of high profits, it must be allowed to keep those profits when they have been made. But the primitive notion of taxation is that when a government sees much money it should take some of it, and that if it sees more money it should take more of it. Adam Smith laid down, as a fundamental canon, that taxes ought to be levied at the time when, and in the manner in which, it is most easy for the taxpayer to pay them. But the primitive rule is to take them when and how it is most easy to find and seize them. Under governments with that rule persons who are doing well shrink from showing that they are doing well; those who are making money refuse to enjoy themselves, and will show none of the natural signs of that money, lest the tax-gatherer should appear and should take as much as he likes of it. A socialist speaker once spoke of a
‘healthy habit of confiscation,’ and that habit has been much diffused over the world. Wherever it exists it is sure exceedingly to impede the movements of capital, and where it abounds to prevent them.
These reasononings give us a conception of a ‘pre-economic’ era when the fundamental postulates of Political Economy, of which we have spoken, were not realised, and show us that the beginnings of all wealth were made in that era. Primitive capital accumulated in the hands of men who could neither move it nor themselves—who really never thought of doing either—to whom either would often have seemed monstrous if they could have thought of it, and in whose case either was still more often prevented by insuperable difficulties. And this should warn us not to trust the historical retrospect of economists, merely because we see and know that their reasonings on the events and causes of the present world are right. Early times had different events and different causes. Reasoners like economists, and there are many others like them, are apt to modify the famous saying of Plunket; they turn history not into an old almanac, but into a new one. They make what happens now to have happened always, according to the same course of time.
And these reasonings also enable us to explain what is so common in all writing concerning these early and pre-economic times. One of the commonest phenomena of primitive trade is ‘fixed’ prices, and the natural inquiry of everyone who is trained in our Political Economy is, how could these prices be maintained? They seem impossible according to the teaching which he has received, and yet they were maintained for ages; they lasted longer than many things now-a-days which we do not reckon short-lived. One explanation is that they were maintained by custom; but this fails at the crisis, for the question is, how could the custom be maintained? The unchanging price could not always be right under changing circumstances. Why did not capital and labour flow into the trades which at the time had more than their ‘natural’ price, desert those which had less, and so disturb the first with a plethora, and the second with a scarcity? The answer we now see is that what we have been used to call ‘natural’ is not the first but the second nature of men; that there were ages when capital and labour could not migrate, when trade was very much one of monopoly against monopoly. And in such a society, fixing a price is a primitive way of doing what in after ages we do as far as we can; it is a mode of regulating the monopoly—of preventing the incessant dissensions which in all ages arise about what is a just price and what is not, when there is no competition to settle that price. The way in which ‘custom’ settles prices, how it gradually arrives at what is right and proper, or at least at what is endurable, one cannot well say; probably many incipient customary prices break down before the one which suits and lasts is stumbled upon. But defects of this rule-of-thumb method are no reproach to primitive times. When we try to regulate monopolies ourselves we have arrived at nothing better. The fares of railways—the fixed prices at which these great monopolies carry passengers—are as accidental, as much the rough results of inconclusive experiments, as any prices can be.
And this long analysis proves so plainly, that it would be tedious to show it again, that the free movement of capital from employment to employment within a nation, and the consequent strong tendency to an equality of profits there, are ideals daily becoming truer as competition increases and capital grows, that all the hindrances are gradually diminishing, all the incentives enhancing, and all the instruments becoming keener, quicker, and more powerful.
But it is most important to observe that this ideal of English Political Economy is not like most of its ideals, an ultimate one. In fact the ‘great commerce’ has already gone beyond it; we can already distinctly foresee a time when that commerce will have merged it in something larger. English Political Economy, as we know, says that capital fluctuates from trade to trade within a nation, and it adds that capital will not as a rule migrate beyond that nation. ‘Feelings,’ says Ricardo, ‘which I should be sorry to see weakened, induced most men of property to be satisfied with a low rate of profits in their own country, rather than seek a more advantageous employment for their wealth in foreign nations.’ But these feelings are being weakened every day. A class of cosmopolitan capitalists has grown up which scarcely feels them at all. When Ricardo wrote, trade of the modern magnitude was new: long wars had separated most nations from most others, and especially had isolated England is habit and in feeling. Ricardo framed, and others have continued, a theory of foreign trade in which each nation is bounded by a ring-fence, through which capital cannot pass in or out. But the present state of things is far less simple, and much of that theory must be remodelled. The truth is that the three great instruments for transferring capital within a nation, whose operation we have analysed, have begun to operate on the largest scale between nations. The ‘loan fund,’ the first and most powerful of these, does so most strikingly. Whenever the English money market is bare of cash it can at once obtain it by raising the rate of interest. That is to say, it can borrow money to the extent of millions at any moment to meet its occasions: or what is the same thing, can call in loans of its own. Other nations can do so too, each in proportion to its credit and its wealth—though none so quickly as England, on account of our superiority in these things. A cosmopolitan loan fund exists, which runs everywhere as it is wanted, and as the rate of interest tempts it.
A new commodity, one of the greatest growths of recent times, is used to aid these operations. The ‘securities’ of all well-known countries, their national debts, their railway, shares, and so on (a kind of properties peculiar to the last two centuries, and increasing now most rapidly), are dealt in through Europe on every Stock Exchange. If the rate of interest rises in any one country the price of such securities falls; foreign countries come in and buy them; they are sent abroad and their purchase-money comes here. Such interest-bearing documents are a sort of national ‘notes of hand’ which a country puts out when it is poor, and buys back when it is rich.
The mode in which the indemnity from France to Germany was paid is the most striking instance of this which ever occurred in the world. The sum of 200,000,000
l. was the largest ever paid by one set of persons to another, upon a single contract, since the system of payments began. Without a great lending apparatus such an operation could not have been effected. The resources of one nation, as nations now are, would not have been equal to it. In fact it was the international loan fund which did the business. ‘We may say,’ M. Say states in his official report, ‘that all the great banking-houses of Europe have concurred in this operation, and it is sufficient to allow the extent and the magnitude of it to say that the number of houses which signed or concurred in the arrangement was fifty-five, and that many of them represented syndicates of bankers, so that the actual number concerned was far more considerable.’ ‘The concentration,’ he adds, ‘of the effects of all the banks of Europe produced results of an unhoped-for magnitude. All other business of a similar nature was almost suspended for a time, while the capital of all the private banks, and of all their friends, co-operated in the success of the French loans, and in the transmission of the money lent from country to country. This was a new fact in the economic history of Europe, and we should attach peculiar importance to it.’ The magnitude of it as a single transaction was indeed very new; but it is only a magnificent instance of what incessantly happens; and the commonness of similar small transactions, and the amount of them when added together, are even more remarkable, and even more important than the size of this one; and similar operations of the international ‘loan fund’ are going on constantly, though on a far less scale.
We must not, however, fancy that this puts all countries on a level, as far as capital is concerned, because it can be attracted from one to another. On the contrary, there will always tend to be a fixed difference between two kinds of countries. The old country, where capital accumulates, will always, on an average, have it cheaper than the new country, which has saved little, and can employ any quantity. The Americans in the Mississippi Valley are naturally a borrowing community, and the English at home are naturally lenders. And the rate of interest in the lending country will of course be less than that in the borrowing country. We see approaches—distant approaches even yet, but still distinct approaches—to a time at which all civilised and industrial countries will be able to obtain a proportionate share of the international loan fund, and will differ only in the rate they have to pay for it.
The ‘speculative fund’ is also becoming common to all countries, and it is the English who have taken the lead, because they have more money, more practical adaptation to circumstances, and more industrial courage than other nations. Some nations, no doubt, have as much or more of one of these singly, but none have as much of the efficiency which is the combined result of all three. The way in which continental railways—the early ones especially, when the idea was novel—were made by English contractors is an example of this. When Mr. Brassey, the greatest of them, was making the line from Turin to to Novara, for the Italian Government, Count Cavour sent one morning for his agent, and said, ‘We are in a difficulty: the public have subscribed for very few shares, but I am determined to carry out the line, and I want to know if Mr. Brassey will take half the deficiency if the Italian Government will take the other half.’ Mr. Brassey did so, and thus the railway was made. This is the international speculative fund in action, and the world is filled with its triumphs.
So large, so daring, and indeed often so reckless is this speculative fund, that some persons have imagined that there was nothing which would seem absurd to it. A very little while ago. a scheme—a fraudulent scheme, no doubt—was gravely brought out, for a ship railway over the Isthmus of Panama; the ships were to be lifted upon the line on one side, and lifted off and returned to the ocean on the other. But even the ‘speculative fund’ would not stand that, and the scheme collapsed. Yet the caricature shows the reality; we may use it to remind ourselves how mobile this sort of money is, and how it runs from country to country like beads of quicksilver.
Young men also now transfer their capital from country to country with a rapidity formerly unknown. In Europe perhaps the Germans are most eminent in so doing. Their better school education, their better-trained habits of learning modern languages, and their readiness to bear the many privations of a residence among foreigners, have gained them a prominence certainly over the English and the French, perhaps above all other nations. But taking the world as a whole the English have a vast superiority. They have more capital to transfer, and their language is the language of ‘the great commerce’ everywhere, and tends to become so more and more. More transactions of the ‘cosmpolitan speculative fund’ are arranged in English, probably, than in all the other languages of the world put together; not only because of the wealth and influence of mere England, though that is not small, but because of the wealth and influence of the other States which speak that language also, the United States, our colonies, and British India, which uses it mostly for its largest trade. The number of English commercial houses all over the world is immense, and of American very many, and yearly a vast number of young Englishmen are sent out to join them. The pay is high, the prospect good, and insular as we are thought to be (and in some respects we are so most mischievously), the emigration of young men with English capital, and to manage English capital, is one of the great instruments of world-wide trade and one of full binding forces of the future.
In this way the same instruments which diffused capital through a nation are gradually diffusing it among nations. And the effect of this will be in the end much to simplify the problems of international trade. But for the present, as is commonly the case with incipient causes whose effect is incomplete, it complicates all it touches. We still have to consider, after the manner Ricardo began, international trade as one between two or more limits which do not interchange their compound capitals, and then to consider how much the conclusions so drawn are modified by new circumstances and new causes. And as, even when conceived in Ricardo’s comparatively simple manner, international trade (as Mr. Mill justly said, and as the readers of his discussion on it well know) is an excessively difficult subject of inquiry, we may expect to find many parts of it very hard indeed to reduce to anything like simplicity when new encumbrances are added. The popular discussion of the subject tends to conceal its difficulties, and indeed is mostly conducted by those who do not see them. Nothing is commoner than to see statements on it put forth as axioms which it would take half a book really to prove or disprove. But with the soundness or unsoundness of such arguments I have at present nothing to do. The object of these papers is not to examine the edifice of our English Political Economy, but to define its basis. Nothing but unreality can come of it till we know when and how far its first assertions are true in matter of fact, and when and how far they are not.