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multitude tributary to his comforts. The answer may be given in one word; — by exchange. As human labor is the only motive power, so capability of exchange is the sole directing agent, in the great social machine for the production of wealth. The immediate measure of the wealth, when produced, is, not its utility, but its exchangeable value; and Political Economy itself, as I have already remarked, has been denominated Catallactics, or the Science of Exchanges.
We come, then, to an analysis of exchangeable value, in order to find a basis for a theory of wealth. "What is it that constitutes value in exchange, and why do various articles possess it in such unequal proportions? The answer is, that exchangeable value consists of two elements, — utility, and difficulty of attainment. The article valued must in some measure be useful; that is, it must be adapted to satisfy, either directly or indirectly, some natural want or artificial desire of men; and it must also be more or less difficult to be had. These elements may coexist in very different proportions; but in one degree or another they must both be present, or the article has no value in exchange. It may, for instance, be very useful; it may be an article of prime necessity, absolutely essential to the existence of man. Yet if there be no difficulty in the way of its attainment, if, like the air, the water, and the sunlight, the supply of it be inexhaustible and open to all the world, then it has no exchangeable value. It forms no part of what is usually called wealth. Supply the element which was lacking, — only make the article hard to be procured, as water is, in the midst of the sandy desert of Sahara, or as air was to Mr. Holwell and his companions in the Black Hole at Calcutta, and men will give all that they have in the world for a single draught of either. On the other hand, it may be very difficult of attainment; it may, like some of the most refined products of chemical analysis, require the labor of years, the greatest scientific skill, and an expenditure of the most costly materials, before it can be procured. Yet if it be not useful, if it do not satisfy some want or desire, however artificial or irrational that desire may be, it commands no price in the market; it has no exchangeable value.
But we do not here speak of abstract utility, or of that utility which is determined by reason and measured by a philosophical standard. Utility here means nothing but fitness or capability to satisfy any desire of men, however unreasonable, extravagant, or capricious that desire may be. If men are so foolish as to prize highly many articles which answer no purposes but of vain ostentation or gross and sensual enjoyment, it is not for the political economist, who views things only as they are, not as they ought to be, to censure their folly. He leaves this office to the moralist or the preacher. The fact that such articles are coveted, from whatever motive, is enough to bring them within his definition of wealth; which definition, it is evident, only expresses the common sentiment of mankind.
One factitious desire, it is curious to observe, is created solely by the difficulty of obtaining its object. Thus, books, coins, and shells are often prized merely from their rarity, or the difficulty of procuring duplicates of them; and in the case of books this passion has gone so far, that it has been aptly called bibliomania, or book-madness. An old volume, which, for all the proper purposes of a book, is absolutely worthless, since no person in his senses would ever think of reading it, if it happens to be what is called a unique copy, may command a price equal to that of a fine painting by one of the old masters. And this last instance shows also, that the want or taste which the article gratifies, and in gratifying which its utility, and consequently its exchangeable value, consists, may not be a common one, — may be shared, in fact, only by a very few persons in the community. Very few, certainly, are capable of appreciating a Raphael or a Correggio, or of seeing in it those beauties which make it command a price equal to a king's ransom.
As the words value and utility are often used in the moralist's sense, or according to their philosophical import, it is necessary to give this caution once for all; — that whenever in future they are here used, they must be understood only in their politico-economical signification. By value, we mean only exchangeable value; by utility, we mean only that utility which is an element of wealth, and which consists in fitness to satisfy any want or desire, however irrational, that is felt by any number of men.
This analysis of value, this explanation of what wealth is, leads us immediately to an understanding of the manner in which wealth is created. As the essence of value consists in difficulty of attainment, so the labor which overcomes that difficulty is the great means of producing value, or creating wealth; and everything which diminishes that difficulty is to be considered as labor, — is entitled to be called by that name, for it is recognized and compensated as such by the community. And here is the great paradox of Political Economy: — value depends on difficulty of attainment; the only way of creating values is to lessen or overcome that difficulty; but as soon as all difficulty is overcome, when there is no longer any obstacle in the way between man and the gratification of his desire, then value also disappears, and the boundless wealth, which seemed just within our grasp, is suddenly changed, as by a magical incantation, into dross or nothingness. Every step taken towards removing the difficulty is a step in advance, — a production of wealth, — an addition to our individual store and to the national opulence. But just when we have taken the last step, and reached the spot where we had fondly supposed that unbounded riches would be our reward, the vision changes, and all our supposed wealth — both that which we had hoped to gain by this last step, and that which we had previously acquired — becomes an airy nothing. Thus to poor mortals engaged in the pursuit of riches is realized the fable of Sisyphus, and an instructive moral is inculcated.
"With many a weary step and many a groan,
This paradox is not created merely by an abuse of abstract definitions and theoretical reasoning. The seeming contradiction is a literal fact, as may be clearly shown by a practical illustration. And that I may not be accused of bringing an obscure or far-fetched example, I will take that which, in all ages and all countries, has been recognized as preeminently an article of value, and identified with wealth itself. Gold surely possesses the highest value in exchange, and is eminently difficult of attainment. The story, first promulgated in the winter of 1848-9, that it abounded in the soil of California, caused as much excitement and agitation in this country, and indeed throughout the civilized world, as would have been created by another battle of Waterloo, or by the reappearance of Napoleon from the tomb. The story proved to be well founded; and the consequence was, that within six months tens of thousands of our enterprising countrymen were either wending their toilsome way over the great steppes of our Western desert, and through the frightful passes of the Sierra Nevada, where the route was strewed with the whitened bones of their predecessors who had perished of starvation, or were encountering the manifold perils of a four months' voyage round Cape Horn, in the hope of making their fortunes in this new El Dorado. Did it ever occur to one of them, that their hopes would be just as much frustrated by finding that the precious metal there was too plentiful, as by ascertaining that it was not to be found at all? But suppose that the most exaggerated reports had been correct, — that all the rocks of the Sierra Nevada itself were composed in great part of gold, — that there were gold mountains in California, just as there are iron mountains in Missouri. Is it not certain, that the value of gold all over the world, almost at once, would sink to about the same point with iron? Then carry the supposition one step farther, — the last step that I have spoken of. Imagine that it is not necessary to go to California for this metal, but that our own streets are paved and our gutters lined with gold, which also, in lumps, strews the whole face of the country. Is it not evident, that it would instantly become as valueless as the stones and dirt which now cover our streets and roads?
How vain, then, is it to expect that wealth can ever be created without labor, which is its natural and necessary price! Gold is now so precious precisely because so much labor is required to obtain it. What a pity it is that the old alchemists, many of whom were the most learned men of their times, and who wasted fortune and life in their vain pursuit, could not have foreseen that the philosopher's stone, when discovered, would be as worthless as another stone, which should have the property of turning everything it touched into granite!
The useful metals, generally, possess value just in proportion to the fewness and unproductiveness of the mines whence they are obtained, and to the labor required for bringing them to market and giving them the forms and qualities that fit them for use. Iron in this country owes nearly all its value to the labor expended in extracting it from the ore and manufacturing it; for iron ore is so plentiful, that, except in a few favorable localities, where fuel is abundant and transportation easy, an acre of ground with iron ore for its surface is worth hardly as much as the same extent of fertile land. Yet fine steel cutlery and wTatch-springs, which are only iron in a highly finished state, sell at a high price by the ounce. Copper, again, being more rare, and the mines of it less productive, owes its value chiefly to its scarcity, or the labor required for finding it and bringing it from a distance. The chief fear for our copper miners on the shores of Lake Superior is, lest they should find the metal too abundant. Yet it is so natural an illusion to believe that the high value of these metals in their manufactured state attaches to them also when they are in the bre, that a mining mania is more easily excited in the community than any other speculative bubble. The dupes are satisfied by the full proof which is offered them, that the ore is very abundant. They had better also count the cost of the labor required for extracting it and bringing it to market. The most productive mine which a man can work is situated on his own farm.
What I have called the paradox of political economy, like the hydrostatic paradox, is really very simple, and admits of an easy explanation. In proportion as the labor required for obtaining any useful article is diminished, and the article itself consequently becomes very common, in that proportion it approximates the character of those invaluable gifts of Providence, the air, the water, and the sunlight, which, because they are common and inexhaustible, have natural, but no exchangeable, value. They become natural wealth, they cease to be artificial wealth. Man does not, in the economical sense, value them, or consider them as wealth, because he is not able to exchange them for other things which can only be procured by labor; or in other words, he cannot purchase labor with them. The possession of them conveys no distinction, does not exalt one above his fellows, gives no power over other men. Each of them satisfies one imperative want, and in this respect is truly mvaluable; but it does not possess that quality which is characteristic of all articles that are usually considered as wealth; — any one of these may be bartered for more or less