Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/February 1894/The Relation of Evolution to Political Economy

1220210Popular Science Monthly Volume 44 February 1894 — The Relation of Evolution to Political Economy1894Charles Sumner Ashley Sr.



IF the reader will call to mind the great work of John Stuart Mill, which still contains the best exposition extant of the whole subject of political economy, he will remember that Mill considers it by an analysis of production, distribution, and exchange, to which he adds a book on the influence of the progress of society on production and distribution, and another on the influence of government.

The first three books are devoted, as Mill himself says, to an examination of the "statics" of the subject. They are an analysis of the phenomena mentioned as exhibited at a given time; or, more accurately speaking. Mill's work is really an analysis of the manner in which products are distributed throughout society under a single set of social conditions.

To an evolutionist accustomed to seeing in industrial society an organism which grows and changes like all others. Mill's omissions, including those of his fourth book, are more striking than his inclusions. There is, indeed, a bare mention of the fact that the progress of society is accompanied by increased security and co-operation. But the evolutionary conception that industrial society, like all other organisms, begins with a simple germlike state and by constant changes increases its structures and its functions, nowhere occurs. Political economy is considered without material reference to time or environment. And it is treated as if industrial society were only to be considered with reference to the way in which social sustenance, however obtained, is distributed along the social alimentary canal. Processes of production, changes in methods caused by inventions, and changes of conditions are ignored, and the formation of industrial organizations of men engaged in common works, corresponding to organic structures, is passed by. Included in this is the all-important subject of the division of labor, the examination of the conditions under which it takes place, and the like. Strange as it may seem to one who looks on industrial society from a standpoint of facts rather than books, the functions performed by railroads, by banks, by boards of trade, and by telegraphs, without which existing society would instantly dissolve, are nowhere set forth. And likewise the great subject of industrial disorders, their origins, progress, and decline, a subject which promises so much to scientific study, is not even hinted at. In a word, the conception of industrial society as an organism, subject to the same laws of evolution as others, and like other organisms having its structures and functions, its changes in response to environment, its health and disease, is entirely absent.

It is the province of evolution to introduce these ideas into political economy; to point out the harmony of the evolution of industrial society with that of universal Nature. Evolutionary political economy begins with the formation of those simple social groups whose members lived by hunting and fishing, and the first step in industrial life is shown to be the selection of a member surpassing the rest as a maker of weapons and implements for that duty. This step increases the strength of the group and leads to a further increase in size. Presently, by the interaction of this and other factors, the size of the group becomes such that it is partly encouraged, partly forced into the pastoral and then into the agricultural state.

And, however blended and complicated with other social phenomena industrial evolution may be, no one who has once fixed his eye on the cardinal principles of evolution will fail to see how strikingly they reveal themselves in economic history. As the yolk slowly divides and again divides until head and limbs and stomach and feathers faintly appear, and finally the chick steps forth, so industrial society, impelled by an indwelling force, evolves from time to time as conditions permit the organizations of men necessary for the better supply of social wants, and also the functions they perform and the processes by which they work.

To me the supreme lesson evolution has to offer to students of political economy is the automatic and irresistible nature of the process by which society evolves the functions and structures needful for its betterment. No philosopher or statesman invented boards of trade or foresaw their indispensable necessity as the social agents for the distribution of grain throughout the world, for the steadying of prices, and for the guaranty they afford of a close approximation of the prices paid the producer to that paid by the consumer. No economist established banks or conceived the vast uses they would subserve. No human mind foresaw the uses of the railroad, the steamboat, or the telegraph, nor were any of these created with much thought as to such uses. Gunpowder had accomplished its mission of establishing the physical supremacy of intelligence before anybody understood what that mission was. The same may be said of the alphabet and printing. If one reads the vivid account Lord Macaulay gives of the founding of the Bank of England, of the debates thereon, and the still more violent debates on the usefulness or danger of the goldsmiths who originated banking, he will get a good illustration of the utter unconsciousness with which social improvements are made, and the universality with which they arise from a desire for the attainment of some immediate individual end. The great financial invention of our own day—building and loan associations—has begun in the desire of wage-earners, who never heard of Mill, or Spencer, or Das Kapital, to get homes for themselves and each other, and has been perfected in humble and unknown hands till now, having built a million homes, earned a high rate of interest for millions of members, they have grown to hold more money than the savings banks, and may at length aspire to engage the notice of Chauncey M. Depew when next he tells the public what to do with a thousand dollars of savings. Industrial improvements unfold as silently and modestly as the leaf on the tree. New structures, for new uses, do not spring from old structures, fixed in other uses, but from the undeveloped part of the organism, and gradually by inconsidered increments the mightiest economic changes are made. These characteristics of social evolution give us greater faith in the natural progress of society, and have a most important and decisive bearing upon many of the questions agitating social philosophers so much and the rest of the world so little.

Evolution teaches us to expect further changes to be additions to the present state rather than anything like subversions. There will be a continual increase in division of labor, increased social stability, and we may expect increased industrial co-operation by means of market reports, by which production in the various trades will be kept more perfectly equilibrated than at present, and the overproduction of any one product prevented. All labor will become more and more specialized, and unskilled labor will have a continual tendency to disappear.

Perhaps the most important and interesting topic that evolution brings into political economy is the vast subject of industrial disorders. That these are capable of scientific treatment no evolutionist will deny, because they are essentially like all other ills of humankind. What are industrial disorders? How do they originate? What course do they run? How and when do they subside? Evolution can and will treat these great questions in a comprehensive way, and when it does we shall for the first time have clear ideas on the most engrossing subject of our own day. That evolution has a panacea to offer I do not believe, for it reminds us at every turn that pain and suffering are an inseparable accompaniment of organic growth and development. But it will at least teach us not to aggravate social ills by quack nostrums interfering with Nature's laws.

Finally, evolution will rescue political economy from the mist of words and disputation which now surrounds it by reason of the narrow basis on which it has rested. It will bring us back from the uncertainties of analysis and inference from insufficient data to the clear light of universal history—to the experience of great Nature's self, and will for the first time raise political economy from empiricism to science.