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An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy

Book 1...
By Sir James Steuart, 1767

Critique by Punkerslut

From RadicalGraphics.org
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Start Date: January 25, 2004
Finish Date: January 27, 2004


     In this book by James Steuart, comparable in length to The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, and only ten or twenty years older, the primary course of discussion revolves around economics. One might look at it and feel that the study of economics -- the causes of an increase or decrease in rent or price of commodities or labor -- and they may feel that is dry, and uninteresting. Admittedly so, and the greatest cause of this is the dry and mundane language used. Words and phrases are used by economists which could easily be replaced with normal words. For this reason, I believe that James Maynard Keynes had an unhealthy obsession with the usage of the word "aggregate." Asside from the downfalls of the study of economics, I find that this book by James is -- remarkably -- one of the better reads. He's not only interested in the causes of economic fluctuation. Rather, he is interested in what brought about the process of economy altogether, of which his entire first book is based upon. Through the rest of the work, he investigates the principle causes, instrumental and intrinsic, which relate to the development of civilization. In the first book, there are some remarks of his which I feel are deserving of a critique...

Agriculture and Farming in Regard to Labor

This last species of subordination [slavery] may, I think, have taken place, the moment man became obliged to labour for subsistence, but no sooner. [Chapter 4.]

     In the beginning of the book on agriculture, Steuart makes a very wise observation: that the surplus of food is what led to slavery. Those whose work produced for them their sustenance, as well as a surplus, are able to demand what they want from those who do not produce their sustenance. As Steuart put it very well, the abundance of food creates free hands, who must not labor for their subsistence. These free hands, then, become slaves of their own desire to eat, of their own need to eat -- without which, they would die. That is an explanation, not so much a defense, of Steuart's claims. He does not believe in primitivism, or at least does not assert the idea that agriculture, farming, civilization, and technology are inherent evils -- in fact, he makes some defending remarks upon those subjects.

     When considering the idea that the surplus of food created by the farmers and those tending to agriculture, it does seem very oblivious that the free hands are -- actually -- completely dependent upon someone else for subsistence. However, I do not believe that they are inherently or intrinsically tied to that position, nor must they be, nor have they. The road to slavery started on this step: a surplus in food created by one class. However, it did not necessarily have to go that far. For example, imagine there is a farmer, whose labor is enough to feed two people, himself and a free hand. Imagine that he works 10 hours a day to achieve this. Society did not necessarily need to progress to the situation where there would be a free hand. The free hand could labor as a farmer, meaning that each person still received the same amount of food, but the farmer's labor would be cut in half. There are some dilemmas with this, though. The other part of the day, they would be appeasing their other interests, whether it is procuring other forms of subsistence (clothing and housing) or arts and recreation. So, though both farmers would be equal in their ability to sow and harvest, their ability to produce clothing wouldn't be equal. An individual who specializes in one form of productivity, or a group of individuals working together, each specializing in a single particular aspect of the product of their labor, can produce more than each person in an equal sized group acting without accord to the others. For these two farmers, for example, they each spend 5 hours farming, and then 5 hours attending to their other needs, a total of 10 hours. However, if each farmer specialized in their own activity, and just that activity alone, and producing a surplus for the other part, then they would work less. The one farming would, for example, spend 8 hours farming, and the one producing clothing would only spend 8 hours doing that, thus, reducing each work load's by the other's ability. That is the concept of mutual aid.

From RadicalGraphics.org
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Machinery in Regard to Labor

If you can imagine a country peopled to the utmost extent of the fertility of the soil, and absolutely cut off from any communication with other nations; all the inhabitants fully employed in supplying the wants of one another, the circulation of money going forward regularly, proportionally, and uniformly through every vein, as I may call it, of the political body; no sudden or extraordinary demand at any time for any branch of industry; no redundancy of any employment; no possibility of increasing either circulation, industry, or consumption. In such a situation as this, I should disapprove of the introduction of machines, as I disapprove of taking physic in an established state of perfect health. I disapprove of a machine for no other reason but because it is an innovation in a state absolutely perfect in these branches of its political oeconomy: and where there is perfection there can be no improvement. I farther disapprove of it because it might force a man to be idle, who would be found thereby in a physical impossibility of getting his bread, in any other way than that in which he is supposed to be actually employed. [Chapter 19.]

     In this part, Steuart asserts that the application of machinery to a state of society that is absolutely perfect (hypothetically, anyway), would be destructive, in that it would rob men of their jobs and their wages. Of course, this is assuming that the introduction of machinery would mean an increase in manufacturing ability. However, the idea that it would be destructive, by robbing men of their livelihood, can only be certified if the economy that the machinery was entering was Capitalist. In such a state, where each person labors their own lot, or some (the Capitalist class) become wealthy by the labor of others, cost production would be decreased (since the people on payroll would decrease) and misery would ensue. Thus, a Capitalist system in inherently brutal, cruel, and vindictive, lest we are to change the nature of humans. However, in a Communist system, the application of machinery would improve the happiness of all. A person charged with producing shoes would be working 10 hours a day with simple tools, but he could produce twice as much in one hour if he had machinery at his aid. His blessing would become the blessing of all society, as their shoes increase in quality, and, cobblers would be laid off, and their labor applied to other fields not yet blessed with technology. So, though agriculture may not have had any improvement or additional technology, it would have more workers, meaning each person would be working less.

The Wealth of the Rich and the Industry of the Poor

But in our days the principal object is to support the lower classes from their own multiplication; and for this purpose, an unequal division of property seems to me the more favourable scheme; because the wealth of the rich among us, falls naturally into the pockets of our industrious poor; whereas the produce of a very middling fortune does little more than feed the children of the proprietor, who in course become very commonly and very naturally an useless burthen upon the land. [Chapter 20.]

     I do not believe, according to the evidence, that an increase in the wealth of the rich, in any way, implies that there will be an increase in the wealth of the poor. One of the most basic and elementary principles of economics is that people have a self-interest and that they follow this self interest. Of what use, then, are those living in absolute poverty, of uncultivated and arid land, of the natural resources that lay deep within that land, to a Capitalist? Those in absolute poverty cannot be seen as consumers, for they have no means of purchasing the products of the Capitalist. Since they are living on bare sustinance with a hand-to-mouth existence, they will frequently be refused employment because of their unstable living conditions (as can be demonstrated in any of our major urban centers). Asside from that, it cannot be believed that they can produce anything more than what is currently being produced by the current workers of the system -- who, up to that point of time, are producing and sufficing all the needs of the consumers in society. And once these barriers have been overcome, the workers work with an understanding in their mind that they must work to survive, that their paycheck is equivalent to their bread, that their labor is necessary that they may eat, drink, and sleep. Since it is hardly arguable, that workers of any amount of wealth are at a significant disadvantage when bargaining with a Capitalist, there should be no doubt at all that those who are stricken with horrific poverty will be at the greatest disadvantage. To feed themselves, they must accept the standards set by the Capitalist, whether it is 16 or 18 hours of work a day, with the payment only being enough food to feed themselves.

     Thus, the new economy has new elements added to it: new workers, a new product, and a new industry. The consumers who are going to buy it are not making any more money to suffice their desires, except the workers producing it, and they certainly cannot be the only ones buying it, nor even a tenth of it. Unless the other members of society increase their workload, so they can have the money to buy this emerging product, the new industry will not turn a profit. If, in fact, the new consumers, do not increase their work load, then they must not be buying the normal products they are, and those industries will go under, leaving a great deal unemployed. (For example, if the new industry is a beer, with a higher quality than the beer that most consumers purchase, then they may start spending and buying from the new distributor, as the old distributor loses sales and finally goes bankrupt.) One must understand, of course, that a new industry, labored by practically slave labor, replacing an industry that has been sustained by those well provided for, is always negative and harmful to the economy. Forty wage workers, each working 16 hours a day, under hazardous and brutal conditions, with outrageous quotas, will be producing several times more than a workers who work only 8 hours a day, under safe and fair conditions, with reasonable quotas. If the new industry is labored by 400 workers in bad conditions, and if they beat their competitors, then 1,200 workers in good conditions will have lost their wages and livelihoods. Profit, the wealth of the Capitalist, will soar, while poverty, the misery of the worker, will increase to absurd proportions, as all that was won slowly over years of struggle will be lost. And yet, Steuart feels confident to assert... that to increase the wealth of the Capitalist class, the wealth will trickle down to the poorest. This is nothing but an utter lie. I can find nothing that would promote this, other than those classist interests of the Capitalist class.

     Then we have the question of the land. If it is undeveloped, but holding some potential for natural resources, then it will be striped of its natural resources to feed the needs of already existing manufacturies. Once that is done, the Capitalist will be very much less likely to develop the land to anything beyond that. Such an investment would require a great deal of capital, to the point where the risk increases, proportionally to the reward. However, this last bit of information on an increase on the profits of investment, will only cite the Capitalist's interest if they know that they can be secure in their investment. Just as it is true, that people have a self-interest, so it is true that they follow this self-interest with a certain degree of reason and logic. They will not blindly invest every penny into an industry with an uneven chance of success.


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