ACCORDING to the common conception, political economy is held to deal with material forces only; with land, labor and capital; with the production, distribution and consumption of the materials of human existence. These are food, clothing and shelter. It, therefore, bears the aspect of a purely material study of material forces. Yet no more purely metaphysical science exists, and there can be, in my view of the subject, no more ideal conceptions than those which are derived from the study of these purely material forces. Many of the errors commonly presented under the name of the 'claims of labor' have arisen from the limited and partial conception of the function of economic science.
We have become accustomed to deal with the so-called material forces of nature and with the physical work and labor of man under the general term of 'Energy'. What man does by his own labor or physical energy is to convert the products of land and sea, of mine and forest, into new forms from which he derives shelter, food and clothing. In a material sense all that any one can get in or out of life, be he rich or poor, is what we call our board and clothing. Such being the fact, what a man consumes is his cost to the community; what he spends yields to others the means of buying the supplies for their own wants; their consumption is then their cost to the community.
The physical forces of nature are limited. The earth is endowed with a fixed quantity of materials that we call gaseous, liquid and solid. It receives a certain amount of heat from the sun which, for all practical purposes, may be considered a fixed quantity of energy, even if in eons it may be exhausted. The physical energy of man is devoted to the transformation of these physical forces under the law of conservation; he can neither add to nor diminish the quantity. He can transform solid into gas and gas into liquid. He can, according to common speech, consume some of these products, but his consumption is only another transformation. His own body is but one of the forms of physical energy on the way toward another form. These elements of nature, formerly limited to earth, air and water, are now listed under many titles of what are called elements; I believe over sixty that have not yet been differentiated, but all may yet be resolved into a unit of force.
- Presented before the New York meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.