George Watson
The English Ideology

It is not implausible to suggest that some economic realities are what they are independently of whether they are seen to be so or not, willed to be so or not. Macaulay remarked contemptuously to a friend in 1848 that the revolutionaries in Paris were 'refuting the doctrines of political economy in a way a man would refute the doctrine of gravitation by jumping off the Monument.' Such arguments as Macaulay's readily excite hostility, and it is easy to allege that those who use them are disingenuous conservatives offering pseudo-scientific justifications for the status quo. That is undoubtedly the dark suspicion that underlies the growing dislike of political economy in the works of late Victorian critics like Toynbee and Dicey. But, justified as their criticisms sometimes are in individual instances, they do not dispose of the view that economic realities are what they are. It was the object of the classical economists to describe those realities; and modern economics, while overturning some of their results and qualifying others, have not demonstrated the undertaking itself to have been an absurdity.

There can be no doubt, in any case, that a conservative interpretation of classical economics is a perversion. The economists themselves saw their proposals as a means not only of increasing the wealth of a whole society, but of lessening the differences of wealth between individuals as well. The imminent prospect of democracy, in any case, made the cause of general improvement prudent as well as enlightened; but Adam Smith and his successors defend it on grounds of simple justice. Since workmen are always in a majority, Smith argues in The Wealth of Nations:
what improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconveniency to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, cloath and lodge the whole body of the people should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed and lodged (I. viii).
The prosperity of the workers is no mere practical consideration: it is a matter of equity too. Ricardo develops the theme forty years later in his Principles: 'The friends of humanity cannot but wish that in all countries the labouring classes should have a taste for comforts and enjoyments, and that they should be stimulated by all legal means in their exertions to procure them,' adding that the consideration is not only humane, but may also help to prevent overpopulation. Shortly afterwards McCulloch, in his Principles of Political Economy (1825), argued in favour of high wages on social and human grounds as well as economic:
The example of such individuals, or bodies of individuals, as submit quietly to have their wages reduced, and who are content if they get only the mere necessaries of life, ought never to be held up for public imitation. On the contrary, every thing should be done to make such apathy esteemed disgraceful. The best interests of society require that the rate of wages should be elevated as high as possible,
and he goes on to advocate a popular taste for comfort, enjoyment and even luxury. These positions were altogether a familiar aspect of political economy before the reign of Victoria began. It may have been a dry science, but it was not a gloomy one. Years later, Acton saw the long-term political effects of Adam Smith's insistence on freedom of contract in the most radical light:
We are forced, in equity, to share the government with the working class by considerations which were made supreme by the awakening of political economy. Adam Smith set up two propositions—that contracts ought to be free between capital and labour, and that labour is the source, he sometimes says the only source, of wealth. If the last sentence, in its exclusive form, was true, it was difficult to resist the conclusion that the class on which national prosperity depends ought to control the wealth it supplies, that is, ought to govern instead of the useless unproductive class, and that the class which earns the increment ought to enjoy it.
Abroad, Acton goes on, Adam Smith's doctrine has found its effects in the French Revolution and in socialism, creeds equally alien to Englishmen.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.