The Science of Free Society

Sunday, April 14th, 2013

Political economy is the science of free society, Fitzhugh says — disapprovingly:

Its theory and its history alike establish this position. Its fundamental maxim Laissez-faire and “Pas trop gouverner,” are at war with all kinds of slavery, for they in fact assert that individuals and peoples prosper most when governed least. It is not, therefore, wonderful that such a science should not have been believed or inculcated whilst slavery was universal. Roman and Greek masters, feudal lords and Catholic priests, if conscientious, must have deemed such maxims false and heretical, or if unconscientious, would find in their self-interest sufficient reasons to prevent their propagation. Accordingly we find no such maxims current, no such science existing, until slavery and serfdom were extinct and Catholicism maimed and crippled, in the countries that gave them birth. Men belonging to the higher classes of society, and who neither feel nor apprehend the ills of penury or privation, are very apt to think little of those ills, and less of the class who suffer them. Especially is this the ease with unobservant, abstract thinkers and closet scholars, who deal with little of the world and see less of it. Such men judge of mankind, their progress and their happiness, by the few specimens subjected to the narrow range of their experience and observation. After the abolition of feudalism and Catholicism, an immense amount of unfettered talent, genius, industry and capital, was brought into the field of free competition. The immediate result was, that all those who possessed either of those advantages prospered as they had never prospered before, and rose in social position and intelligence. At the same time, and from the same causes, the aggregate wealth of society, and probably its aggregate intelligence, were rapidly increased. Such was no doubt part of the effects of unfettering the limbs, the minds and consciences of men. It was the only part of those effects that scholars and philosophers saw or heeded. Here was something new under the sun, which refuted and rebuked the wisdom of Solomon. Up to this time, one-half of mankind had been little better than chattels belonging to the other half. A central power, with branches radiating throughout the civilized world, had trammeled men’s consciences, dictated their religious faith, and prescribed the forms and modes of worship. All this was done away with, and the new world just started into existence was certainly making rapid progress, and seemed to the ordinary observer to be very happy. About such a world, nothing was to be found in books. Its social, its industrial and its moral phenomena, seemed to be as beautiful as they were novel. They needed, however, description, classification and arrangement. Men’s social relations and moral duties were quite different under a system of universal liberty and equality of rights, from what they had been in a state of subordination and dependence on the one side, and of power, authority and protection on the other. The reciprocal duties and obligations of master and slave, of lord and vassal, of priest and layman, to each other, were altogether unlike those that should be practiced between the free and equal citizens of regenerated society. Men needed a moral guide, a new philosophy of ethics; for neither the sages of the Gentiles, nor the Apostles of Christianity, had foreseen or provided for the great light which was now to burst upon the world. Moses, and Solomon, and Paul, were silent as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, as to this social Millenium, and the moral duties and obligations it would bring in its train.

Until now, industry had been controlled and directed by a few minds. Monopoly in its every form had been rife. Men were suddenly called on to walk alone, to act and work for themselves without guide, advice or control from superior authority. In the past, nothing like it had occurred; hence no assistance could be derived from books. The prophets themselves had overlooked or omitted to tell of the advent of this golden era, and were no better guides than the historians and philosophers. Philosophy that should guide and direct industry was equally needed with a philosophy of morals. The occasion found and made the man. For writing a one-sided philosophy, no man was better fitted than Adam Smith. He possessed extraordinary powers of abstraction, analysis and generalization. He was absent, secluded and unobservant. He saw only that prosperous and progressive portion of society whom liberty or free competition benefitted, and mistook its effects on them for its effects on the world. He had probably never heard the old English adage, “Every man for himself, and Devil take the hindmost.” This saying comprehends the whole philosophy, moral and economical, of the “Wealth of Nations.” But he and the political economists who have succeeded him, seem never to have dreamed that there would have been any “hindmost.” There can never be a wise moral philosopher, or a sound philosophy, till some one arises who sees and comprehends all the “things in heaven and earth.” Philosophers are the most abstracted, secluded, and least observant of men. Their premises are always false, because they seebut few facts; and hence their conclusions must also be false. Plato and Aristotle have to-day as many believers as Smith, Paley or Locke, and between their times a hundred systems have arisen, flourished for a time, and been rejected. There is not a true moral philosophy, and from the nature of things there never can be. Such a philosophy has to discover first causes and ultimate effects, to grasp infinitude, to deal with eternity at both ends. Human presumption will often attempt this, but human intellect can never achieve it. We shall build up no system, attempt to account for nothing, but simply point out what is natural and universal, and humbly try to justify the ways of God to man.

Adam Smith’s philosophy is simple and comprehensive, (teres et rotundus.) Its leading and almost its only doctrine is, that individual well-being and social and national wealth and prosperity will be best promoted by each man’s eagerly pursuing his own selfish welfare unfettered and unrestricted by legal regulations, or governmental prohibitions, farther than such regulations may be necessary to prevent positive crime. That some qualifications of this doctrine will not be found in his book, we shall not deny; but this is his system. It is obvious enough that such a governmental policy as this doctrine would result in, would stimulate energy, excite invention and industry, and bring into livelier action, genius, skill and talent. It had done so before Smith wrote, and it was no doubt the observation of those effects that suggested the theory. His friends and acquaintances were of that class, who, in the war of the wits to which free competition invited, were sure to come off victors. His country, too, England and Scotland, in the arts of trade and in manufacturing skill, was an over-match for the rest of the world. International free trade would benefit his country as much as social free trade would benefit his friends. This was his world, and had it been the only world his philosophy would have been true. But there was another and much larger world, whose misfortunes, under his system, were to make the fortunes of his friends and his country. A part of that world, far more numerous than his friends and acquaintance was at his door, they were the unemployed poor, the weak in mind or body, the simple and unsuspicious, the prodigal, the dissipated, the improvident and the vicious. Laissez-faire and pas trop gouverner suited not them; one portion of them needed support and protection; the other, much and rigorous government. Still they were fine subjects out of which the astute and designing, the provident and avaricious, the cunning, the prudent and the industrious might make fortunes in the field of free competition. Another portion of the world which Smith overlooked, were the countries with which England traded, covering a space many hundred times larger than England herself. She was daily growing richer, more powerful and intellectual, by her trade, and the countries with which she traded poorer, weaker, and more ignorant. Since the vast extension of trade, consequent on the discoveries of Columbus and Vasco de Gama, the civilized countries of Europe which carried on this trade had greatly prospered, but the savages and barbarians with whom they traded had become more savage and barbarous or been exterminated. Trade is a war of the wits, in which the stronger witted are as sure to succeed as the stronger armed in a war with swords. Strength of wit has this great advantage over strength of arm, that it never tires, for it gathers new strength by appropriating to itself the spoils of the vanquished. And thus, whether between nations or individuals, the war of free trade is constantly widening the relative abilities of the weak and the strong. It has been justly observed that under this system the rich are continually growing richer and the poor poorer. The remark is true as well between nations as between individuals. Free trade, when the American gives a bottle of whiskey to the Indian for valuable furs, or the Englishman exchanges with the African blue-beads for diamonds, gold and slaves, is a fair specimen of all free trade when unequals meet. Free trade between England and Ireland furnishes the latter an excellent market for her beef and potatoes, in exchange for English manufactures. The labor employed in manufacturing pays much better than that engaged in rearing beeves and potatoes. On the average, one hour of English labor pays for two of Irish. Again, manufacturing requires and encourages skill and intelligence; grazing and farming require none. But far the worst evils of this free trade remain to be told. Irish pursuits depressing education and refinement, England becomes a market for the wealth, the intellect, the talent, energy and enterprise of Ireland. All men possessing any of these advantages or qualities retreat to England to spend their incomes, to enter the church, the navy, or the army, to distinguish themselves as authors, to engage in mechanic or manufacturing pursuits. Thus is Ireland robbed of her very life’s blood, and thus do our Northern States rob the Southern.

Under the system of free trade a fertile soil, with good rivers and roads as outlets, becomes the greatest evil with which a country can be afflicted. The richness of soil invites to agriculture, and the roads and rivers carry off the crops, to be exchanged for the manufactures of poorer regions, where are situated the centres of trade, of capital and manufactures. In a few centuries or less time the consumption abroad of the crops impoverishes the soil where they are made. No cities or manufactories arise in the country with this fertile soil, because there is no occasion. No pursuits are carried on requiring intelligence or skill; the population is of necessity sparse, ignorant and illiterate; universal absenteeism prevails; the rich go off for pleasure and education, the enterprising poor for employment. An intelligent friend suggests that, left to nature, the evil will cure itself. So it may when the country is ruined, if the people, like those of Georgia, are of high character, and betake themselves to other pursuits than mere agriculture, and totally repudiate free trade doctrines. Our friends’ objection only proves the truth of our theory. We are very sure that the wit of man can devise no means so effectual to impoverish a country as exclusive agriculture. The ravages of war, pestilence and famine are soon effaced; centuries are required to restore an exhausted soil. The more rapidly money is made in such a country, enjoying free trade, the faster it is impoverished, for the draft on the soil is greater, and those who make good crops spend them abroad; those who make small ones, at home. In the absence of free trade, this rich region must manufacture for itself, build cities, erect schools and colleges, and carry on all the pursuits and provide for all the common wants of civilized man. Thus the money made at home would be spent and invested at home; the crops would be consumed at home, and each town and village would furnish manure to fertilize the soil around it. We believe it is a common theory that, without this domestic consumption, no soil can be kept permanently rich. A dense population would arise, because it would be required; the rich would have no further occasion to leave home for pleasure, nor the poor for employment.


The centralizing effects of free trade alone would be sufficient to condemn it. The decline of civilization under the Roman Empire was owing solely to centralization. If political science has at all advanced since the earliest annals of history, that advance is the discovery that each small section knows best its own interests, and should be endowed with the most of the functions of government. The ancients, in the days of Herodotus, when the country around the Levant and the Islands in the Mediterranean were cut up into hundreds of little highly enlightened independent States, seem to have understood the evils of centralization quite as well a the moderns. At least their practice was wiser than ours, whatever may have been their theory. Political independence is not worth a fig without commercial independence. The tribute which the centres of trade, of capital, and of mechanical and artistic skill, such as England and the North exact from the nations they trade with, is more onerous and more destructive of civilization than that exacted from conquered provinces. Its effects everywhere are too obvious to need the citation of proofs and instances. Social centralization arises from the laissez-faire system just as national centralization. A few individuals possessed of capital and cunning acquire a power to employ the laboring class on such terms as they please, and they seldom fail to use that power. Hence, the numbers and destitution of the poor in free society are daily increasing, the numbers of the middle or independent class diminishing, and the few rich men growing hourly richer.

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