Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 79.djvu/598

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THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY

A BUGBEAR OF ECONOMICS
By Professor HERBERT ADOLPHUS MILLER

OLIVET COLLEGE

IT seems to be peculiarly difficult for men, whether in science, politics or religion, to give up a law or doctrine which has become a slogan to them, after it can no longer be justified. This is true of the law of diminishing returns which economists have considered to be fundamental to much of their reasoning. I have been able to find but one prominent economist of the present day who has made any definite attack upon this "law."

Simon N. Patten, in the "New Basis of Civilization" says:

The law of diminishing returns was discovered by the most stupid body in England—a committee of the House of Lords. English agriculture at the close of the Napoleonic wars was so abnormal that any one could see how the high price of food brought poor land into cultivation. A committee, even if it was stupid, could not but stumble on the pertinent facts that formulated the law. But their perception of it does not account for its subsequent vogue. The real question of control is, Why did a nation, naturally optimistic and in a period of rapid industrial advance, accept the hopeless doctrine and permit it to curb their thinking for generations? Why also do teachers in America, where notoriously it never has been in operation, hold devoutly to it and spend their time expounding a lame philosophy to their classes?

Professor Patten does not follow this statement with a specific discussion as to his reasons, although his whole book is based on the principle of increasing returns.

I have looked through many books of modern writers on economics and find that all lay much emphasis on this law. The following are typical definitions from prominent economists. Seligman in his "Principles of Economics" says that "The law of diminishing returns is. . . the foundation of the law of rent. A farmer will some time reach a point where it will not pay him to add another laborer or another machine to his land because beyond the margin of profitable expenditure every additional 'dose' of capital or labor will mean a return insufficient to cover cost. . . . The law of diminishing returns is universal and applies to everything that possesses value." Professor Seager in his "Introduction to Economics" says, "After a certain point has been reached in the cultivation of an acre of land or exploitation of a mine increased applications of labor and capital yield less than proportionate returns in product, it being understood, of course, that no important change is