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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/April 1890/Editor's Table

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 36‎ | April 1890



AMONG the regularly constituted sciences that claim the attention of the world to-day, it can scarcely be said that political economy has an undisputed place. Fourteen years ago, in an article on the centenary of the "Wealth of Nations" (which fell in the same year as the centenary of our Declaration of Independence), the late Prof. Jevons acknowledged that there was then far less agreement among teachers of political economy, in regard to the fundamentals of their subject, than there had been fifty years earlier. He acknowledged, also, how little interest was taken in lectures on political economy at the universities, and how little weight was attached by practical men to propositions or principles put forth as the result of studies in that field. Row does the matter stand now that fourteen years more have flown? Has the credit of the economists of the generation that has passed away—the Mills, the McCullochs, the Seniors, the Says—been in any degree rehabilitated? Scarcely. As time goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that the whole work of these writers was carried on too much in the region of abstractions, and was too little vivified by direct contact with facts. Bacon long ago remarked on the error of those who supposed in nature a greater simplicity than really exists; and this error was abundantly exemplified by the classical or "orthodox" economists. It was to certain minds, no doubt, a fascinating pursuit to seize upon two or three general principles, and by their help to interpret and methodize all the complex phenomena of economic production, distribution, and exchange; but the process was hazardous in the extreme, and much that passed for brilliant philosophizing fifty or even thirty years ago is now regarded as little better than obsolete sophistry. Two of the latest works that have fallen into our hands—Mr. Wordsworth Donisthorpe's "Individualism; a System of Politics," and Prof. Thorold Rogers's "Economic Interpretation of History"—illustrate this very strongly."Practical men," says the former, "have long since ceased to attach any importance to the slipshod twaddle of those who pose as the theorists of the art of wealth-producing." The latter, referring, as it would seem, particularly to Mill, says: "The political economist of the later school has thoroughly carried out in his own person the economical law which he sees to be at the bottom of all industrial progress—that of obtaining the largest possible result at the least possible cost of labor. He has, therefore, rarely been at the trouble of verifying his conclusions by the evidence of facts. He has, therefore, constantly exalted into the domain of natural law what is, after all, and at the best, a very dubious tendency, and may be a perfectly baseless hypothesis. His conclusions have been rejected by workmen and flouted by statesmen."

We quote these passages not as fully indorsing them, but simply as showing to what extent the authority of a school that once was dominant is to-day called in question, if not discredited. At the same time, we fully believe that, before political economy can be a science in any satisfactory sense of the term, it has to be reconstructed and rewritten in the light of careful inductions from vast collections of facts. The basis of the "orthodox" economy was too narrow, while its method was too deductive and dogmatic. Mr. Mill was a man of a mind at once acute and candid; but he had not received the education that fitted him for the vast task which he assumed of reviewing the whole field of economics and enlarging its boundaries.

In his youth he was overdrilled by a stern and remorselessly logical father. His attention was largely turned to classical, historical, and mathematical studies. In the region of natural science he never acquired any real competency. His tendency was, therefore, rather to read theories into facts than to make facts point the way to theories. His mind was extremely hospitable to new ideas, and his sympathies were quick and warm; upon the whole, few truer or better men have ever lived; but he had only a kind of literary acquaintance with economic facts, and it is not surprising that much of the reasoning in which he indulged is now seen to have been concerned rather with fanciful abstractions than with real things.

The political economy of the future will be of comparatively slow growth, but it will deal with men as creatures of flesh and blood; not as automata moved by a few ticketed wires. The materials for the rising science are being laboriously gathered by many earnest investigators, who are fully alive to the errors of their predecessors, and who mean, therefore, to let the facts as much as possible speak for themselves. To the new political economy many independent lines of inquiry will contribute. The biologist, the moralist, the statesman, the lawyer, will all bring their stores of carefully assorted data; and, when these have been further arranged and correlated by minds of competent scope and grasp, we shall begin to see the outlines of a much more comprehensive theory of economics than any that has heretofore been given to the world. In a word, science will undertake to organize a region that in the past has been too much given over to a priori speculation, with its natural accompaniment of presumptuous dogmatism. In future our concern will be not with the opinions of individual writers, but with their demonstrations; mere hypotheses will carry no more weight in this field than in any recognized department of natural science. What the effect upon social order and progress ot a really well-constituted science of political economy will be it is not difficult to foresee. It will act as the great harmonizer of conflicting claims, and a most potent aid to the realization of justice in all human relations. And once more it will be proved that the only way to know things is to know them practically, and that the only way to build up a science is to bring the facts together, and all the facts.



Oue correspondent, who writes on "Moral Instruction in our Public Schools," in this number of the "Monthly," points out an influence that profoundly affects the education of American youth. What Mr. Meredith states in modern scientific language—that man is an imitative creature—had been learned generations ago from the experience of practical men, and applied to education in the terse maxim, "Example is better than precept." Who that has had the care of children does not know how readily they do what they have seen older children and grown people do, and how hard it is to make them remember what they are told to do! This should be a sufficient reason to make every person so order his daily life that it shall be an improving objectlesson to his own children and to the children who are to be the associates of his own. It should be a sufficient reason, also, as our correspondent points out, for elevating only men of high integrity to positions of trust and power. In a country where it is possible for any native-born boy to become the head of the nation, youthful ambition has free scope. In order to satisfy this desire, the means by which public officials have risen to power are copied, the traits of successful men are imitated, even the manners and habits of those whom the people honor are adopted by the young. Hence it is extremely important that these means and traits and habits should be worthy of imitation. A determined effort should be made to check the demoralizing influence at present exerted by American public life. If this is not done speedily, the evil will grow as slavery grew, till it finally challenges the nation to a life-and-death struggle whose outcome no one can foresee. The example set by the present generation will determine whether the children now growing up shall be arrayed on the side of virtue and honor, or shall swell the ranks of corruption and crime.

We emphatically dissent, however, from Mr. Meredith's proposition that all is being done in the public schools that can be done, in the line of moral instruction. There is probably not a city or town in the country where morality is a recognized subject of instruction in the common schools, standing on the same footing as spelling or geography. Our schools give only information that will serve business purposes or discipline the mind, and utterly neglect training in right conduct. Their aim is to turn out money-getters, rather than to produce good citizens. If our schools were to give as much attention to judicious instruction in ethics as they now devote to the teaching of arithmetic, for instance, we believe that they would come much nearer to exerting the beneficial influence that is claimed for them than they do at present.



The "Chautauquan" is a magazine published for the benefit of what is known as the "Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle." It is religious in its general character. It contains "Sunday Readings" which are noted as "selected by Bishop Vincent." In one of these we lately read the following: "Some counselors, like Herbert Spencer, advise us to follow our own self-interest, without concern for others, with the assurance that. all will be thus happier, because more independent." Now, why a statement like this, which is absolutely without foundation and entirely misleading, should be considered as particularly suitable for Sunday reading, we, who are not of the "Circle," can not in the least divine. It is given to the members of the Circle, however, as the utterance of a leading educator, Dr. Hill, President of the Baptist University of Rochester, and with the indorsement of Bishop Vincent, who, by selecting it, stamped it with his approval. The ordinary members of the Circle will, therefore, feel justified in accepting it without hesitation or reserve, and will form their opinion of Herbert Spencer accordingly. The wrong is done, not so much to Mr. Spencer, whose reputation is established in the world of philosophy and science, as to the members of the Circle, who are made to receive a false impression of his moral teaching. If Bishop Vincent is not too busy with work of more importance, we would earnestly invite him to do one of two things—either justify the above statement in regard to Mr. Spencer or withdraw it, and that in the same columns in which the statement appeared. We affirm most emphatically that it does entire injustice to Mr. Spencer's teaching.