Political Economy as science and art
Epigraph to Book I
Though but an atom midst immensity,
Still I am something, fashioned by Thy hand
I hold a middle rank 'twixt heaven and earth --
On the last verge of mortal being stand
Close to the realms where angels have their birth
Just on the boundaries of the spirit land!
The chain of being is complete in me --
In me is matter's last gradation lost,
And the next step is spirit -- Diety!
I can command the lightning, and am dust!
-- Bowring's translation of Dershavin
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The Science of Political Economy
Book I, The Meaning of Political Economy
Political Economy as Science and as Art
Showing That Political Economy Is Properly a Science, and the Meaning It Should Have If Spoken of As Art
Science and art -- There must be a science of political economy, but no proper art -- What must be the aim of an art of political economy -- White art and black art -- Course of further investigation.
There is found among economic writers much dispute not only as to the proper method of political economy, but also as to whether it should be spoken of as a science or as an art. There are some who have styled it a science, and some who have styled it an art, and some who speak of it as both science and art. Others again make substantially the same division, into abstract or theoretical or speculative political economy, on the one side, and concrete or normative or regulative or applied political economy, on the other side.
Into this matter, however, it is hardly worthwhile for us to enter at any length, since the reasons for considering a proper political economy as a science rather than an art have been already given. It is only necessary to observe that where systematized knowledge may be distinguished, as it sometimes is, into two branches, science and art, the proper distinction between them is that the one relates to what we call laws of nature; the other to the manner in which we may avail ourselves of these natural laws to attain desired ends.
This first branch of knowledge, it is clear, is in political economy the primary and most important. It is only as we know the natural laws of the production and distribution of wealth that we can previse the result of the adjustments and regulations which human laws attempt. And as whoever wishes to understand and treat the diseases and accidents of the human frame would properly begin by studying it in its normal condition, noting the position, relation and functions of the organs in a state of perfect health; so any study of the faults, aberrations and injuries which occur in the economy of society comes best after the study of its natural and normal condition.
There may be disputes as to whether there is yet a science of political economy, that is to say, whether our knowledge of the natural economic laws is as yet so large and well digested as to merit the title of science. But among those who recognize that the world we live in is in all its spheres governed by law, there can be no dispute as to the possibility of such a science.
And as there can be only one science of chemistry, one science of astronomy and one science of physiology, which, in so far as they are really sciences, must be true and invariable, so, while there may be various opinions, various teachings, various hypotheses (or in a loose and improper but exceedingly common use of the word, various theories), of political economy, there can be only one science. And it, in so far as it is really a science -- that is to say, in so far as we have really discovered and related the natural laws which are within its province -- must in all times and places be true and invariable. For we live in a world where the same effects always follow the same causes and where nothing is capricious, unless indeed it be that something within us which desires, wills and chooses. But this man, that seems, to a certain extent at least, independent of the external nature that is recognized by our senses, can manifest itself only in accordance with natural laws, and can accomplish its external purposes only by using those laws.
When we shall have worked out the science of political economy -- when we shall have discovered and related the natural laws which govern the production and distribution of wealth, we shall then be in position to see the effect of human laws and customs. But it does not seem to me that a knowledge of the effect which natural laws of the production and distribution of wealth bring about in the outcome of human laws, customs and efforts, can be properly spoken of as an art of political economy, or that the knowledge properly classified under the term political economy, can be divided, as some writers have attempted to divide it, into a science and an art. There is a science of astronomy, which has its applications in such arts as those of navigation and surveying; but no art of astronomy. There is a science of chemistry, which has its applications in many arts; but no art of chemistry. And so the science of political economy finds its applications in politics and its various subdivisions. But these applications can hardly be spoken of as constituting an art of political economy.
Yet if we choose, as some have done, to speak of political economy as both science and art, then the art of political economy is the art of securing the greatest production and the fairest distribution of wealth; the art whose proper object it is to abolish poverty and the fear of poverty, and so lift the poorest and weakest of mankind above the hard struggle to live. For if there be an art of political economy, it must be the noble art that has for its object the benefit of all members of the economic community.
But just as when men believed in magic they held that there was both a white magic and a black magic -- an art which aimed at alleviating suffering and doing good, and an art which sought knowledge for selfish and evil ends -- so, in this view, it may be said that there is a white political economy and a black political economy. Where a knowledge of the laws of the production and distribution of wealth is used to enrich a few at the expense of the many, or even where a reputed knowledge of those laws is used to bolster up such injustice, and by darkening counsel to prevent or delay the reform of it, such art of political economy, real or reputed, is truly a black art. This is the art of which the great Turgot spoke.
For our part, having seen the nature and scope of the science of political economy, for which we adopt the older definition -- the science that investigates the nature of wealth and the laws of its production and distribution -- let us proceed in this order, endeavoring to discover: (1) the nature of wealth; (2) the laws of its production; and then (3) the laws of its distribution. When this is done we shall have accomplished all that is necessary for a true science of political economy, as I understand it. It will not be necessary for us to consider the matter of the consumption of wealth; nor, indeed, as I shall hereafter show, is a true political economy concerned with consumption, as many of the minor economic writers have assumed it to be.
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