Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/May 1890/Editor's Table

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IN last month's Table we had a few words upon the discredit into which what is sometimes called the "orthodox" political economy has fallen among practical men. It is a pleasure to be able to call attention to a book which furnishes a signal example of the way in which economical studies should be pursued. We refer to the volume brought out a few months ago by Mr. D. A. Wells, under the title of Recent Economic Changes. Mr. Wells is not a dogmatist, though it is evident he has sufficiently definite opinions of his own. He conceives it to be his main business to marshal the facts that seem to him capable of explaining the present material condition of society, and of indicating the course that things are likely to take in the future. He has no special theory to advocate, and he promises no speedy renovation of society if only his advice be taken. He knows too much to be a visionary; he has too firm a hold on the actual to be carried away by the merely ideal or fanciful. He finds no fatal flaw in the present social system; he does not see, in fact, how, given human nature as it is, things could be very different from what they are. At the same time he is an earnest believer in progress; but he thinks that progress depends more upon individual adaptation to necessary conditions of existence than upon any cunningly contrived devices for an improved distribution of the products of industry. In a word, he is a man whom the devourer of contemporary socialistic romances would find a little dull, but whom the practical man of business would find both interesting and instructive in the highest degree. As a large part of Mr. "Wells's book appeared originally in the pages of this magazine, we may presume that many of our readers have a more or less vivid recollection of the course of his argument. What Mr. "Wells set himself chiefly to do was to trace to its cause or causes the present disturbed condition of the world from an economic point of view. Given such a problem, a writer who wished to create an immediate sensation would bring forward some theory about the land, or about the currency, or about monopolies, or about the waste involved in competition, and would declare with much emphasis and vainglory that he alone had the true key to the whole situation. Mr. Wells is more modest. All he professes to see is that the rapid pace of invention and discovery in the modern world is sufficient to account for enormous vicissitudes both in the money market and in the labor market. Capital has been destroyed in huge blocks and recreated by new methods; labor has been forced to quit one employment after another and find new openings for itself. The course of business has become more and more difficult to calculate, and only the stronger heads and more resolute wills have been able to hold their own amid the changes and chances of the hour.

Mr. Wells does not deal in mere generalities. He treats separately each aspect of his subject, and under every head gives facts in abundance—"modern instances," as Shakespeare expresses it. He shows what has been done in the way of opening new routes; and, in the case of the Suez Canal, he traces to that one cause the most momentous results as regards the course of trade. He discusses very fully the effects of the cheapening of transportation by land and by sea, showing how, to this cause, must be attributed much of the agricultural depression existing in different parts of the world. He dwells on the inventions and discoveries by which manufactures have been cheapened, and labor constantly displaced and again provided for. He shows how improved methods of farming render less efficient ones unprofitable, and how little good has been done to the farming population by the homestead and other exceptional laws passed for their benefit—nay, how they have been injured by the overzeal of their friends in the Legislature. He discusses the effect of restrictions on trade, and shows in what idle fashion the governments of the world, with one or two exceptions, handicap their own commerce in the effort to injure that of their neighbors, and how the effect of the whole protectionist madness is simply to place a heavy drag upon the industrial energy, not to say upon the conscience, of mankind. We can not pretend, however, in this place to give even the most rapid summary of the contents of Mr. Wells's volume. Suffice it at present to say that he has described with great fullness and, so far as we can judge, with great accuracy, the conditions under which the business of the world is now being carried on, and the circumstances that have concurred to make the present epoch one of peculiar commercial and industrial unrest.

What is the lesson, then, we are to draw from Mr. Wells's pages, so far as the social problems of our own time are concerned? We learn from it that there is nothing radically unsound in our social system; and, further, that the total effect of all the changes of the last twenty-five or thirty years has been to improve materially the condition of the working classes. Hours of labor are not as long on the whole as they used to be; wages are higher; and the purchasing power of money is greater. What is the case, however, is that, in the rush of change which has marked recent years, there is a constant selection and reselection of the better men, and that the worse—the less competent, the less efficient in every way—find themselves relegated to poorer conditions of life. There is an upward current and there is a downward current: those who move up do not spend much time or energy in singing the beauties of the present system; but those who are moving down waste no small amount of the little energy they have in bewailing its defects, and, with the help of a few literary gentlemen of lively sympathies and facile speech, manage to create a widespread impression that a world in which they do not get all they would like must be a very badly governed world indeed. The whole social question seems to lie here, that some, through natural deficiencies of one kind or another, can not, in any satisfactory degree, adapt themselves to the world as it is. We should be sorry to profess, or to feel, indifference to the problem even as thus stated; but what are we going to do about it? The true methods of reform are of slow application; and immediate suffering it is impossible altogether to prevent. The path of social reform, we are strongly persuaded, lies mainly along these three lines:

1. Diminution of state interference with private liberty, including state restrictions on trade and state encouragement of trade.

2. Constant inculcation of the doctrine of individual responsibility, and constant effort to mold better individuals.

3. An honest, vigorous, and simple administration of justice.

These three conditions (to which many minor but still important ones might be added) are all intimately connected. For example, how can we preach the doctrine of individual responsibility with any success, if the individual is daily surrounded by a closer and closer network of arbitrary enactments, designed at once to abridge his liberty and to relieve him of the exercise of judgment and caution? And how can we have a really efficient administration of law, till law itself undergoes a pruning, and is brought down to its necessary elements?

To return, however, to Mr. Wells's book. We are glad to see its merits very frankly acknowledged in an article published in the March number of Macmillan's Magazine, the writer declaring that Mr. Wells deals with his subject "in a manner altogether superior to anything which this country (England) can show." We shall only say in conclusion that the book is an eminently useful one to-day and will remain so for many years to come. A careful perusal of its pages would clear infected brains of many sickly fancies.


It is a long time since an earnest thinker proclaimed that wisdom was the principal thing, and that with all a man's gettings he should strive to get understanding; but whether the world to-day—even those who regard the utterance as carrying with it more than human authority—can be said to pay due heed to the maxim is more than doubtful. Instead of wisdom, men exalt opinion, and traditions are taught where truth should be explored. We have large and influential schools decrying the use of reason, and we have millions of people to-day trying to think true what their common sense tells them is not true. All this does not make for the world's peace or stability. It will not be really well with society until men generally are brought to recognize that there is such a thing as truth, and that its claims upon them are paramount. Our systems of education need to be revolutionized. When a young person leaves school or college nowadays, do we expect to find that his or her judgment has been developed in practical things? Do we expect to find a keen sense of what is true, a quickness in distinguishing shams from realities, and a well-established habit of yielding, upon all disputed questions, to the greater weight of evidence? Nothing of the kind. We look for a little knowledge of arithmetic and mathematics generally, a modicum of geography and grammar, a smattering of literature, a few confused notions of natural science, a discontinuous skeleton of historical knowledge, and not much else. The judgment has not been trained, the sense of truth has not been trained, nor has any insight worth mentioning been given into the realities of life and duty. We do not blame the teaching fraternity for this; society as a whole is responsible. The want of interest in truth as truth, the lack of perception of its importance, is a broad social characteristic of the time, and floods the schools just as it floods the market-place, the press, and the pulpit. But, while we do not in any special manner blame the teaching profession, we feel like summoning all serious men to consider whether a very decided and vigorous effort should not be made to place our schools upon a higher level in this respect. No one can doubt that, if our minds were set upon it, a simple gymnastic might be devised which would, from the outset, train childish minds in the perception of truth and lead them on from stage to stage in the acquisition, not of sham but of real knowledge. A child in course of education should never be removed from actual contact with the world about him. He should be made to feel that every general rule given to him is merely a summary expression of a number of concrete examples. He should be early familiarized with the method of proof, and in every possible way encouraged to ask for proofs. He should be made to realize the activity of his own senses; to feel that knowledge is coming to him through those avenues; and that, only as it so comes, is it entitled to be considered real knowledge.

Such a system of education as we have hinted at would banish the intellectual poverty and squalor of our time; and this could not be done without an immense improvement of general social conditions. The sentimentalists of our day bestow a huge amount of sympathy upon the victims of poor wages; but they do not grieve as they might over the victims of poor thoughts and disordered imaginations. The dust and dirt heaps that obstruct the entrance to thousands of minds are not visible as material masses; but they are there all the same, and the injury they cause is greater than any due to mere limitation of material conditions. The land is full of delusions, and scarcely anywhere do we see any clear consciousness of the grand possibility open to the human race of co-operating in the discovery and application of truth, including, of course, and in the first place, the laws of social well-being. We too readily resign ourselves to the idea that men's opinions must differ by the whole circle of possible thought, and that a common standard of truth is unattainable. Well might the reproach be launched against this generation, "O ye of little faith!" Amid the manifold and ever-widening discoveries of science we resign ourselves to intellectual chaos, as if there were no common heritage of truth for us all, or as if human minds were not all made essentially on the same pattern. What the times seem to call for is some association of men and women bent on nothing else than the introduction, primarily into our educational systems, but as much as possible into social life generally, of a supreme regard for that which is real.