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CHAPTER I.
IS POLITICAL ECONONY A SCIENCE?

THE following pages speak of Practical Political Economy. The expression might seem to denote a particular department of what is called Political Economy, or else a special application of its truths. I do not use the term in either of these senses, I mean by it simply Political Economy itself. The word Practical is added solely in contradistinction to what may be called Scientific Political Economy. It is intended to indicate a mode of treatment which not only does not claim to be scientific, but which supposes the strictly scientific method to be a mistake. It implies that the body of knowledge, summed up under the title of Political Economy, belongs entirely to the every-day practice of human life.

Political Economy finds processes applied all the world over to the satisfaction of the wants of human life in the matter of wealth. It does not invent nor discover them. It does not announce them, like the developments of geometry or the generalisations of physical science, as new discoveries previously unknown, but now revealed by the application of systematic reasoning. The ordinary instincts of human nature have adopted these processes ever since the origin of man with more or less sagacity and intelligence. Political Economy studies them, discerns intellectually in what their essence and vitality consist, explains them to the understandings of common men, and performs the vast service of clearing them from that admixture of error, both of thought and action, which insinuates itself into every department of human existence. But when these processes have been thus explained, and rescued from that evil and indestructible weed, false theory, they are seen to be practices which multitudes of men of all ages of the world have carried out with a full perception that they were the right thing to do. They did not owe them to Political Economy, though Political Economy has strengthened the insight into their rightness, and has saved them from the invasion of arbitrary and erroneous ideas. Indeed it may be almost doubted whether Political Economy ever would have been born, had not the selfishness and folly of men and nations crushed the instinctive impulses of human nature. If the mercantile theory and protection had not weighed heavily on the common sense of mankind, there might have been a Political Economy of the closet or of sociology—and for how much would it have counted amongst the nations ?—a Political Economy for the people would never, probably, have been constructed.

If this conception of Political Economy be correct, it will be perceived at once that its value lies in its being understood by the mass of men. Here is its true field of action and influence. Its aim is to make common sense the supreme ruler of industry and trade. The test of a true Political Economy is that its teaching, its principles, its arguments, and above all its language, shall be intelligible to all. It addresses as its real audience the labourers of the field and of the factories, the manufacturers and the merchants, the shopkeepers and the legislators, in a word the whole community; and it is bound to use language which they can recognise to be true. If it shoots over their heads, it has missed its vocation. It may amuse speculative thinkers, but it ceases to be a power and to have value of any importance.

So wild indeed has been this passion for scientific treatment, that Political Economy has been translated into mathematical formulas. Trade and the practice of traders, written out in the language of the differential calculus, is indeed a masterpiece of scientific achievement. But will mathematical figures ever convince a people that they act foolishly in protecting their native industries with high tariffs, or explain why different prices prevail for the same goods in a single town, or teach labourers whether a strike is likely to bring them better wages, or show why two farms of equal fertility pay very different rents?

Of this practical kind is the Political Economy of "The Wealth of Nations." Adam Smith placed his discussions in the very heart of the every-day life of men. He dealt with the problems which present themselves to the man of business and the workman. His language every merchant and every trader could understand. His reasonings were of a kind with which all are familiar. The thought that he was founding a science is absent from his economical writings. The questions he took up were the blunderings of great merchants and mighty states in matters of commerce and finance. His refutations of their ideas were drawn from a common-sense review of their ideas. Every one could follow them. They required no highly-trained minds, no study of elaborate treatises, to be understood. Yet these unscientific discussions have accomplished almost all the great services which Political Economy has done for mankind. Adam Smith has committed errors in detail, for he was human, but they interfered little with the work and the teaching of one of the greatest benefactors of the human race.

His followers have not been contented with the low level on which their great master stood. They have fretted against the walls of the narrow space in which his Political Economy, as they thought, had confined them. They conceived it to be a science to be treated by the scientific method. Their ambition was to make Political Economy take the form of a strict science. Their language took a highly scientific character. Political economists were teachers of a great science. They spoke of economical laws as astronomers speak ot the law of gravitation, and chemists of chemical affinity. The doctrines which they developed were held to soar far above the ideas of the exchange, the factory or the workshop. They framed elaborate treatises, oi which they required men to become students. Such were not Adam Smith and his ideas: had they reduced him to a mere beginner?

But let us-be just. It is not meant here that any conceit or unworthy passion had seized on political economists. What they did was quite natural. The words of Adam Smith had filled them with enthusiasm.

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