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erty grew slowly, but steadily; the arts of life made constant progress; plunder ceased to be the only source of accumulation; and feudal Europe ripened into commercial and manufacturing Europe. In the latter part of the Middle Ages, the towns of Italy and Flanders, the free cities of Germany, and some towns of France and England, contained a large and energetic population of artisans, and many rich burghers, whose wealth had been acquired by manufacturing industry, or by trading in the produce of such industry. The Commons of England, the Tiers-Etat of France, the bourgeoisie of the Continent generally, are the descendants of this class. As these were a saving class, while the posterity of the feudal aristocracy were a squandering class, the former by degrees substituted themselves for the latter as the owners of a great proportion of the land. This natural tendency was in some cases retarded by laws contrived for the purpose of detaining the land in the families of its possessors, in other cases accelerated by political revolutions. Gradually, though more slowly, the immediate cultivators of the soil, in all the more civilized countries, ceased to be in a servile or semi-servile state; though the legal position, as well as the economical condition attained by them, vary extremely in the different nations of Europe, and in the great communities which have been founded beyond the Atlantic by the descendants of Europeans.
The world now contains several extensive regions, provided with the various ingredients of wealth in a degree of abundance of which former ages had not even the idea. Without compulsory labor, an enormous mass of food is annually extracted from the soil, and maintains, besides the actual producers, an equal, sometimes a greater number of laborers, occupied in producing conveniences and luxuries of innumerable kinds, or in transporting them from place to place; also a multitude of persons employed in directing and superintending these various labors; and over and above all these, a class more numerous than in the most luxurious ancient societies, of persons whose occupations are of a kind not directly productive, and of persons who have no occupation at all. The food, thus raised, supports a far larger population than had ever existed (at least in the same regions) on an equal space of ground; and supports them with certainty, exempt from those periodically recurring famines so abundant in the early history of Europe, and in Oriental countries even now not unfrequent. Besides this great increase in the quantity of food, it has greatly improved in quality and variety; while convenience and luxuries, other than food, are no longer limited to a small and opulent class, but descend, in great abundance, through many widening strata in society, whatever doubt may exist as to the amount of improvement effected in the condition of the lowest of all. The collective resources of one of these communities—when it chooses to put them forth for any unexpected purpose ; its ability to maintain fleets and armies, to execute public works, either useful or ornamental, to perform national acts of beneficence like the ransom of the West India slaves; to found colonies, to have its people taught, to do anything, in short, which requires expense, and to do it with no sacrifice of the necessaries or even the substantial comforts of its inhabitants—are such as the world never saw before.
But in all these particulars, characteristic of the modern industrial communities, those communities differ widely from one another. Though abounding in wealth, as compared with former ages, they do so in very different degrees. Even of the countries which are justly accounted the richest, some have made a more complete use of their productive resources, and have obtained, relatively to their territorial extent, a much larger produce than others; nor do they differ only in amount of wealth, but also in the rapidity of
its increase. The diversities in the distribution of wealth are still greater than in the production. There are great differences in the condition of the poorest class in different countries; and in the proportional numbers and opulence of the classes which are above the poorest. The very nature and designation of the classes who originally share among them the produce of the soil, vary not a little in different places. In some, the land-owners are a class in themselves, almost entirely separate from the classes engaged in industry; in others, the proprietor of the land is almost universally its cultivator, owning the plough, if not himself holding it. Where the proprietor himself does not cultivate, there is sometimes, between him and the laborer, an intermediate agency, that of the farmer, who advances the subsistence of the laborers, supplies the implements of production, and receives, after paying a rent to the land-owner, all the produce: in other cases, the landlord, his paid agents, and the laborers, are the only sharers. Manufactures, again, are sometimes carried on by scattered individuals, who own or hire the tools or machinery they require, and employ little labor beside that of their own family; in other cases, by large numbers working together in one building, with expensive and complex machinery, owned by rich manufacturers. The same difference exists in the operations of trade. The wholesale operations indeed are everywhere carried on by large capitals, where such exist; but the retail dealings, which collectively occupy a very great amount of capital, are sometimes conducted in small shops, chiefly by the personal exertions of the dealers themselves, with their families, and perhaps an apprentice or two; and sometimes in large establishments, of which the funds are supplied by a wealthy individual or association, and the agency is that of numerous salaried shopmen or shopwomen. Beside these differences in the economical phenomena presented by different parts of what is usually called the civilized world,
all those earlier states which we previously passed in review, have continued in some part or other of the world, down to our own time. Hunting communities still exist in America, nomadic in Arabia and the steppes of Northern Asia; Oriental society is in essentials what it has always been; Russia and Hungary are even now, in many respects, the scarcely modified image of feudal Europe. Every one of the great types of human society, down to that of the Esquimaux or Patagonians, is still extant.
These remarkable differences in the state of different portions of the human race, with regard to the production and distribution of wealth, must, like all other phenomena, depend on causes. And it is not a sufficient explanation to ascribe them exclusively to the degrees of knowledge, possessed at different times and places, of the laws of nature and the physical arts of life. Many other causes co-operate; and that very progress and unequal distribution of physical knowledge, are partly the effects, as well as partly the causes, of the state of the production and distribution of wealth.
In so far as the economical condition of nations turns upon the state of physical knowledge, it is a subject for the physical sciences, and the arts founded on them. But in so far as the causes are moral or psychological, dependent on institutions and social relations or on the principles of human nature, their investigation belongs not to physical, but to moral and social science, and is the object of what is called Political Economy.
The production of wealth, the extraction of the instruments of human subsistence and enjoyment from the materials of the globe, is evidently not an arbitrary thing. It has its necessary conditions. Of these, some are physical, depending on the properties of matter. These, Political Economy does not investigate, but assumes; referring for proof to physical science or common experience. Combining with these facts of outward nature other truths which are laws of human nature, it attempts to trace the secondary or derivative laws, by which the production of wealth is determined ; and in which must lie the explanation of the diversities of riches and poverty in the present and past, and the ground of whatever progress in wealth is reserved for the future.
Unlike the laws of Production, those of distribution are partly of human institution; since the manner in which wealth is distributed in any given society, depends on the statutes or usages therein prevalent. But though governments or nations can in some measure determine what institutions shall be established, they cannot arbitrarily determine how those institutions shall work. The conditions on which the power they possess over the distribution of wealth is dependent, and the manner in which the distribution is affected by the various modes of conduct which society may think fit to adopt, are determined by laws as rigid as those of Production itself.
The laws of Production and Distribution, and some of the practical consequences deducible from them, are the subject of the following treatise.