P R E F A C E .


 

THE subject of the following Dissertation is generally allowed to be one, both of high importance and of great difficulty.

“From no source,” says Mr. Ricardo, “do so many errors, and so much difference of opinion in the science of political economy proceed, as from the vague ideas which are attached to the word value.” And the same eminent writer, in the preface to the third edition of the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, emphatically terms it a difficult subject. “In this edition,” says he, “I have endeavoured to explain more fully than in the last, my opinion on the difficult subject of VALUE.”

[iv] It is remarked by another author, that “he who is fully master of the subject of Value is already a good political economist.” “Even for its own sake,” be adds, “the subject is a matter of curious speculation: but in relation to Political Economy it is all in all: for most of the errors (and, what is much worse than errors, most of the perplexity) prevailing in this science take their rise from this source*.”

Although much has been written and many efforts have been made to overcome the obstacles, which present themselves in this part of economical science, it may be affirmed with little risk of contradiction, that the success has not been in proportion to the labour bestowed. There appears to have been too little circumspection at the outset. The groundwork of the subject has not been examined [v] with that minuteness and closeness of attention which are due to its importance. Writers on political economy have generally contented themselves with a short definition of the term value, and a distinction of the property denoted by it into several kinds, and have then proceeded to employ the word with various degrees of laxity. Not one of them has brought into distinct view and discussion the nature of the idea represented by this term, or the inferences which a full perception of its meaning immediately suggests; and the neglect of this preliminary labour has created differences of opinion and perplexities of thought, which otherwise could never have existed.

There has been still more laxity, both of thought and expression, regarding the measurement of value. The vague manner in which the word measure, necessarily of frequent occurrence in the pages of the political [vi] economist, is constantly employed, would surprise even the metaphysician, who is well aware of the extensive prevalence and unbounded influence of the chameleon-like properties of language. No writer (as far as the author of the following pages is acquainted with works on economical science) has ever taken the trouble to analyse the meaning involved in the phrase. To measure value is an expression apparently so simple, so precise, so free from obscurity, that it seems superfluous to bestow a single inquiry on its import. The consequence has been what it generally proves on such occasions: the term has been used without any clear perception of a definite sense; several ideas have been unconsciously and indiscriminately interchanged, and analogies, which had merely an imaginary existence, have been assumed as incontrovertible premises or universally conceded postulates.

[vii] The causes of value have been also too negligently passed over. Little inquiry has been made into the nature of these causes, or their mode of operation, and to this slightness of examination may be attributed several important errors, manifested in attempts at undue generalization, in perversions of language, and in the rejection of circumstances which have a real and permanent effect

A singular confusion has also prevailed with regard to the ideas of measuring and causing value, and in the language employed to express them. The perpetual shifting from one notion to the other, the use of common terms for both ideas, and the consequent ambiguity, vacillation, and perplexity, exhibit a remarkable picture of the difficulty of thinking with closeness, as well as of the defects of language as an instrument of reasoning.

The confusion and obscurity, which mark the [viii] works of some of the most celebrated writers on these momentous topics, are sufficient to make the student abandon his inquiries on the very threshold of the science. Words used without determinate ideas, terms introduced without proper explanations, definitions abandoned almost as soon as enunciated, principles assumed without first being examined, verbal instead of real simplifications — such are the obstacles which everywhere meet him.

That defects of this kind disfigure the science of political economy, no one acquainted with the most recent works on the subject will probably deny, although a difference of opinion may exist regarding the extent to which they prevail. It would be presumptuous in the author of the following treatise to suppose, that he had completely removed them from that part of the science which he has attempted to examine. He trusts, nevertheless, that he has [ix] done something if not towards directly effecting that object, at least towards opening the way for subsequent endeavours. If he has not succeeded in putting all his propositions in a clear light, and finally settling the various controverted questions which he brings under review, yet he may hope that he has introduced them in such a manner as will excite in others the interest and attention requisite for their ultimate determination. Free, on his own part, from particular attachment to any of the positions which he has maintained, although impressed with that clear conviction of their soundness, without which it would be absurd to intrude them on public notice; and sensible of the thousand ways in which error imposes itself on the understanding in the character of truth, he will be glad of an opportunity of reconsidering his opinions, under the guidance of a mind which has reached a higher point of [x] view than his own; nor will it greatly surprise him to discover, that he has fallen into error and misconceptions as deep and as radical a., any of those which he has found or fancied in the speculations of others.

From the defects here imputed to the science, it is evident that in any work, which professes to examine and remove them, the points discussed must be questions as to the use of terms, the distinction of ideas, the logical dependence of arguments, rather than questions of fact or evidence, and that its character will be essentially critical, and even polemic. In endeavouring to define the nature of ideas, to fix the meaning of terms, to investigate first principles, and to determine the real objects and results of inquiry, it was impossible, it would have been worse than useless, not to advert to the works of preceding writers, although at the expense perhaps of [xi] that neatness and elegance of deduction, of which the subject is susceptible; and certainly at the risk of incurring, if not hostility, at least the utmost severity of examination from the talents and acumen, which such a course necessarily puts on the defensive. In the present state of political economy, however, a critical reference to the doctrines of preceding and contemporary economists cannot be avoided, and ought not to be avoided if it could. A mere direct expository treatise would be of far inferior utility. However true a doctrine may be, it is of little service until its relation to other doctrines, and its connection with knowledge already extant, has been shown. Embarrassed as the science is with difficulties on which opinion is divided, it is of the utmost importance for its future progress, not only to explain and establish correct principles, but to expose the de-[xii]lusion which has formerly misled to trace the process of error, to mark the particular point where inquiry departed from the right path, or where the unperceived fallacy, which has vitiated a train of reasoning, first insinuated itself into the argument. The science cannot yet be exhibited as a regular and perfect structure. The rubbish must be removed, the ground cleared, the scaffolding taken down, and all unnecessary and cumbrous appendages must be discarded, before the building can rise upon the eye in that simple beauty in which it is destined hereafter to appear.

The writer, on whose doctrines the following treatise principally animadverts, is generally regarded as the ablest economist of his day. It has been unfortunate, perhaps, for Mr. Ricardo's ultimate reputation, and certainly for the science which he cultivated, that his admirers have extolled him beyond the sobriety [xiii] of truth. Strong powers of mind he unquestionably possessed; otherwise, he could neither have produced the works which have associated his name with the political measures of the age, nor could he have inspired those sentiments of admiration and deference, which have been so warmly manifested by men, themselves of no common talents. It is probable, however, that the excess of their admiration has blinded them to his defects ; that they have been too much occupied with the excellence of his speculations to note the errors by which they are disfigured. It would be difficult, on any other supposition, to account for the extravagant praises which have been heaped on his Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. One of our most distinguished living economists designates it as a “work rivalling the ' Wealth of Nations' in importance, and excelling it in profoundness and originality*.” [xiv] “The powers of mind,” says the same writer, “displayed in these investigations — the dexterity with which the most abstruse and difficult questions are unravelled — the unerring sagacity with which the operation of general and fixed principles is investigated — the skill with which they are separated and disentangled from such as are of a secondary and accidental nature — and the penetration with which their remotest consequences are perceived and estimated — have never been surpassed; and will for ever secure the name of Ricardo a high and conspicuous place in the list of those, who have done most to unfold the complex mechanism of society, and to carry this science to perfection.”

Conceding that Mr. Ricardo has displayed considerable originality and power of intellect, we may yet be permitted to doubt, whether this, splendid eulogium, is not far beyond his real deserts. It is not easy to conceive by what process [xv] a superiority above Adam Smith, as a profound and original thinker, can be inferred from their respective works. To raise the science from the condition in which it was found by the latter, to that state of dignity and importance in which it appeared in the Wealth of Nations, seems to an ordinary view to have required a far more comprehensive mind, and greater powers of skilful disquisition, than to discover and to follow out to their consequences the original truths, few or many, which distinguish the pages of the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. The praise, too, of dexterity in unravelling difficult questions is surely misapplied. The obscurity which is almost universally felt, and felt even by readers accustomed to closeness of reasoning, and not sparing of vigorous attention, in many of Mr. Ricardo's discussions, incontestably proves, even on the supposition of their perfect accuracy, a want of skill in the ma-[xvi]nagement of his materials, a defect either in the disposition of his ideas or the employment of his terms. It is the triumph of dexterity in dissertation to present every proposition in such due order and such perspicuous language, as to lead the reader to imagine, that he should himself have expressed the meaning nearly in the same manner and in the same words. There is scarcely a single train of thought in the Wealth of Nations, which a mere tyro would feel it difficult to follow, and of which the aim and connection with the subject would not be perfectly intelligible : but there are many observations in the writings of Mr. Ricardo, which it requires the effort of a vigorous mind to connect with the other propositions amongst which they stand. His ideas are often imperfectly developed, and his reasoning appears elliptical and disjointed ; defects, indeed, which have possibly elevated rather [xvii] than lowered his standing in general estimation. The

“ omne ignotum pro magnifico” 

is not without its exemplifications in the field of science, and the reputation of an author for profundity is sometimes enhanced by an intermixture of the unintelligible, many readers tacitly ascribing unusual sagacity to one, who is able to understand what is incomprehensible to themselves ; while a lucid arrangement of ideas, a manifest dependence of arguments, and a perspicuity of language, such as mark a complete mastery of the subject, appear too easy and natural to infuse the slightest suspicion of the depth and vigour of intellect from which they proceed, and of which they are the surest indications.

The occasional obscurity, which clouds Mr. Ricardo's writings, has sometimes been attributed to his style, and sometimes to his ambition of paradox. But if by style we are to under-[xviii]stand the selection of words, and the mode of combining them into sentences, the former solution is incorrect, for his language is uncommonly precise and perspicuous, and the construction of his periods is simple and compact. The latter explication is, if possible, still more unfounded, there being an evident simplicity of aim and steady pursuit after truth in his writings, such as are natural to a mind of any originality, and which exclude the idea that he indulged the contemptible ambition of perplexing his readers. The defect had a deeper source, and is to be traced, as the following pages will show, to an original perplexity and confusion in some fundamental ideas, from which he was never able to extricate himself. Although Mr. Ricardo possessed remarkable logical powers, he seems to have been less gifted with analytical subtilty; and hence his writings furnish an instance of what the observer of the [xix] human mind must have frequently seen exemplified, that the strongest powers of reasoning are an insufficient security against gross error, if unaccompanied by that incessant analysis of terms and propositions, and that intense consciousness of intellectual operations, which are, the properties of a metaphysical genius. Of this cast of intellect, the most striking instance perhaps which our own times afford is to be found in the writings of the late Professor of Moral Philosophy in the university of Edinburgh, Dr. Thomas Brown; a man who possessed, in an almost unrivalled degree, the capacity of looking into the mechanism of his own mind, and seeing the impalpable phenomena of thought and feeling, as well as the power of flinging to a distance the embarrassing influence of words, and fixing, his eye with keen penetration on the things which they represented, stripped of the covering of language, [xx] and freed from every tinge of feeling and association *.

To judge from his writings, Mr. Ricardo possessed little of this faculty; little consciousness of the nature of the operations in which he excelled, and little familiarity with the analysis of terms. His was a sort of natural vigour of reasoning, exerting itself without the advantages of discipline, without much acquaint-[xxi]ance with the instruments employed, or much thought regarding the methods of applying them: and although his logical powers kept him in general to the employment of a term in one uniform sense when he clearly discerned it, yet, in cases where he happened unconsciously to change the meaning, or to be unaware of an ambiguity, his inaptness at analysis precluded all chance of his subsequently correcting any deviation, and the very strictness of his deductions, only led him further into error. Starting from a given proposition, he would reason from it with admirable closeness, but he seems never to have been sent back, by the strangeness of the results at which he arrived, to a reconsideration of the principle from which he set out, nor to have been roused to a suspicion of some lurking ambiguity in his terms. Hence it might have been predicted, that he would commit oversights in his premises and assumptions, for [xxii] which no subsequent severity of logic could compensate.

Perhaps these remarks will serve to explain how it is, that Mr. Ricardo has been eulogized for his inexorable consistency in the use of words, and particularly for his sternly insisting on the true sense of the word value, and on using it only in one sense*. If the author of the following pages has been at all successful, in establishing the justness of the strictures which he has hazarded, this praise must be allowed to be unfounded; for it will be seen, that in the case of the word value he has almost perpetually forsaken his own definition: yet an inconsistency of this sort is by no means incompatible with a general strictness in the employment of terms. If the preceding observations are correct, a writer may be rigorously consistent in [xxiii] the use of his terms through a long train of reasoning, while the whole of his conclusions may be vitiated by an unperceived transition from one meaning to another in the original adjustment of his premises, or in the first steps of his argument.

Besides Mr. Ricardo, the only writers on whom there are any strictures worthy of' notice in the following work, are Mr. Malthus, Mr. Mill, and the author of the Templars' Dialogues on Political Economy, published in the London Magazine; of whom the two latter may be considered as having adopted the doctrines of Mr. Ricardo with little variation.

Mr. Malthus and Mr. Mill are too well known to the students of political economy, to render it necessary to say any thing in this place as to their general merits, and it can excite no surprise that the writings of either should be subjects of examination in a treatise [xxiv] of this nature. With the Templars' Dialogues on Political Economy, probably fewer are acquainted, from the form in which they came before the public; and on this account, as well as from their state of incompleteness, they would not have occupied so many of the ensuing pages, had not the writer of the present work regarded them as an exposition of several of Mr. Ricardo's principles, peculiarly adapted to try their validity.

Adopting Mr. Ricardo's doctrines, the author of the Dialogues traces them fearlessly to their legitimate consequences, with a directness of logical deduction which nothing diverts; with great copiousness and felicity of illustration, great dexterity in putting forward the different parts of his theme, and an occasional humour, which even on a subject of this kind is irresistible. It must be obvious that a work of this character, pressing intrepidly forward from the [xxv] premises to the conclusion, and flinching from no consequences at which It arrives, forms a sort of experimentum crucis, by which the truth or falsity of the principles maintained will be rendered manifest, and is the very kind of exposition which an examiner of their correctness would desire.

It was in fact the clear, able, and uncompromising manner in which the author of the Dialogues explained the principles of Mr. Ricardo, together with the startling and (the present writer must be permitted to say) the extravagant consequences to which he pushed them, that first suggested the following treatise, the author of which takes this opportunity of expressing his regret (a regret shared by many others), that discussions so valuable for either confirming or disproving the doctrines which they enforced, should not have been conducted to their proper and their promised termination.