Are we really certain that the mechanism of society, like the mechanism of the heavenly bodies or the mechanism of the human body, is subject to general laws? Are we really certain that it is a harmoniouslyorganized whole? Or is it not true that what is most notable in society is the absence of all order? And is it not true that a social order is the very thing that all men of good will and concern for the future are searching for most avidly, the thing most in the minds of all forward-looking commentators on public affairs, and of all the pioneers of the intellectual world? Are we not but a mere confused aggregation of individuals acting disconcertedly in response to the caprices of our anarchical liberty? Are our countless masses, now that they have painfully recovered their liberties one by one, not expecting some great genius to come and arrange them into a harmonious whole? Now that we have torn down, must we not begin to build anew?∗
If the import of these questions were simply whether society can dispense with written laws, with regulations, with repressive measures, whether each man can make unlimited use of his faculties, even when he might infringe on another's liberties or do damage to the community as a whole—whether, in a word, we must see in the doctrine of laissez faire, laissez passer,∗ the absolute formula of political economy; the answer could be doubtful to no one. Political economists do not say that a man may kill, pillage, burn, that society has only to let him alone; they say that society's resistance to such acts would manifest itself in fact even if specific laws against them were lacking; that, consequently, this resistance is a general law of humanity. They say that civil or criminal laws must regularize, not contravene, these general laws on which they are predicated. It is a far cry from a social order founded on the general laws of humanity to an artificial, contrived, and invented order that does not take these laws into account or denies them or scorns them—an order, in a word, such as some of our modern schools of thought would, it seems, impose upon us.
For if there are general laws that act independently of written laws, and whose action needs merely to be regularized by the latter, we must study these general laws; they can be the object of scientific investigation, and therefore there is such a thing as the science of political economy. If, on the contrary, society is a human invention, if men are only inert matter to which a great genius, as Rousseau says, must impart feeling and will, movement and life, then there is no such science as political economy: there is only an indefinite number of possible and contingent arrangements, and the fate of nations depends on the founding father to whom chance has entrusted their destiny.
I shall not indulge in lengthy dissertations to prove that society is subject to general laws. I shall confine myself to pointing out certain facts that, though somewhat commonplace, are nonetheless important.
Rousseau said, “It requires a great deal of scientific insight to discern the facts that are close to us.”†
Such is the case with the social phenomena in the midst of which we live and move. Habit has so familiarized us with these phenomena that we never notice them until, so to speak, something sharply discordant and abnormal about them forces them to our attention.
Let us take a man belonging to a modest class in society, a village cabinetmaker, for example, and let us observe the services he renders to society and receives in return. This man spends his day planing boards, making tables and cabinets; he complains of his status in society, and yet what, in fact, does he receive from this society in exchange for his labor? The disproportion between the two is tremendous.
Every day, when he gets up, he dresses; and he has not himself made any of the numerous articles he puts on. Now, for all these articles of clothing, simple as they are, to be available to him, an enormous amount of labor, industry, transportation, and ingenious invention has been necessary. Americans have had to produce the cotton; Indians, the dye; Frenchmen, the wool and the flax; Brazilians, the leather; and all these materials have had to be shipped to various cities to be processed, spun, woven, dyed, etc.
Next, he breakfasts. For his bread to arrive every morning, farm lands have had to be cleared, fenced in, ploughed, fertilized, planted; the crops have had to be protected from theft; a certain degree of law and order has had to reign over a vast multitude of people; wheat has had to be harvested, ground, kneaded, and prepared; iron, steel, wood, stone have had to be converted by industry into tools of production; certain men have had to exploit the strength of animals, others the power of a waterfall, etc.—all things of which each one by itself alone presupposes an incalculable output of labor not only in space, but in time as well.
In the course of the day this man consumes a little sugar and a little olive oil, and uses a few utensils.
He sends his son to school to receive instruction, which, though limited, still presupposes on the part of his teachers research, previous study, and a store of knowledge that startles one's imagination.
He leaves his house: he finds his street paved and lighted.
His ownership of a piece of property is contested: he finds lawyers to plead his rights, judges to reaffirm them, officers of the law to execute the judgment. These men, too, have had to acquire extensive and costly knowledge in order to defend and protect him.
He goes to church: it is a prodigious monument, and the book that he brings with him is perhaps an even more prodigious monument of human intelligence. He is taught morals, his mind is enlightened, his soul is elevated; and for all this to be done, still another man has had to have professional training, to have frequented libraries and seminaries, to have drawn knowledge from all the sources of human tradition, and to have lived the while without concerning himself directly with his bodily needs.
If our artisan takes a trip, he finds that, to save him time and lessen his discomfort, other men have smoothed and leveled the ground, filled in the valleys, lowered the mountains, spanned the rivers, and, to reduce their friction, placed wheeled cars on blocks of sandstone or iron rails, tamed horses or steam, etc.
It is impossible not to be struck by the disproportion, truly incommensurable, that exists between the satisfactions this man derives from society and the satisfactions that he could provide for himself if he were reduced to his own resources. I make bold to say that in one day he consumes more things than he could produce himself in ten centuries.
What makes the phenomenon stranger still is that the same thing holds true for all other men. Every one of the members of society has consumed a million times more than he could have produced; yet no one has robbed anyone else. If we examine matters closely, we perceive that our cabinetmaker has paid in services for all the services he has received. He has, in fact, received nothing that he did not pay for out of his modest industry; all those ever employed in serving him, at any time or in any place, have received or will receive their remuneration.
So ingenious, so powerful, then, is the social mechanism that every man, even the humblest, obtains in one day more satisfactions than he could produce for himself in several centuries.
Nor is this all. This social mechanism will seem still more ingenious if the reader will consider his own case.
I shall assume that he is simply a student. What is he doing in Paris? How does he live? No one can deny that society puts at his disposal food, clothing, lodging, amusements, books, instruction—such a host of things, in a word, that it would take a long time just to tell how they were produced, to say nothing of actually producing them. And in return for all these things that have demanded so much work, the sweat of so many brows, so much painful toil, so much physical or mental effort, such prodigies of transportation, so many inventions, transactions, what services has our student rendered society? None; but he is getting ready to render them. How, then, can these millions of men who are engaged in positive, effective, and productive work turn over to him the fruit of their labor? Here is the explanation: This student's father, who was a doctor or a lawyer or a businessman, had already rendered services—perhaps to Chinese society—and had received in return, not immediate services, but certificates for services due him on which he could demand payment at the time and place and in the form that he saw fit. Today society is paying for those distant and past services; and, amazingly, if we were to follow in our minds the chain of endless transactions that had to take place before the final result was reached, we should see that each one was paid for his pains; that these certificates passed from hand to hand, sometimes split up into fractions, sometimes combined into larger sums, until by our student's consumption the full account was balanced. Is not this indeed a most remarkable phenomenon?
We should be shutting our eyes to the facts if we refused to recognize that society cannot present such complicated combinations in which civil and criminal law play so little part without being subject to a prodigiously ingenious mechanism. This mechanism is the object of study of political economy.
One other thing worthy of notice is that in this really incalculable number of transactions that have resulted in maintaining a student for a day, not one millionth part, perhaps, was done directly. The things he has enjoyed today, and they are innumerable, are the work of men many of whom have long since disappeared from the face of the earth. And yet they have been paid as they intended to be, although the one who profits from their work today did nothing for them. He did not know them; he will never know them. The person who is reading this page, at the very moment he reads it, has the power, though perhaps he is unaware of it, to set in motion men of all lands, all races, and, I could almost say, of all times, whites, blacks, redskins, men of the yellow race; he makes generations dead and gone and generations still unborn work for his present satisfactions; and this extraordinary power he owes to the fact that his father once rendered services to other men who apparently have nothing in common with those whose labor is being performed today. Yet such balance was effected in time and space that each was remunerated, and each received what he had calculated he should receive.
In truth, could all this have happened, could such extraordinary phenomena have occurred, unless there were in society a natural and wise order that operates without our knowledge?
In our day people talk a great deal about inventing a new order. Is it certain that any thinker, regardless of the genius we grant him and the authority we give him, could invent and operate successfully an order superior to the one whose results I have just described?
What would it be in terms of its moving parts, its springs, and its motive forces?
The moving parts are men, that is, beings capable of learning, reflecting, reasoning, of making errors and of correcting them, and consequently of making the mechanism itself better or worse. They are capable of pain and pleasure, and in that respect they are not only the wheels, but the springs of the machine. They are also the motive forces, for the source of the power is in them. They are more than that, for they are the ultimate object and raison d'être of the mechanism, since in the last analysis the problems of its operation must be solved in terms of their individual pain or pleasure.
Now, it has been observed, and, alas, the observation has not been a difficult one to make, that in the operation, the evolution, and even the progress (by those who accept the idea that there has been progress) of this powerful mechanism, many moving parts were inevitably, fatally, crushed; that, for a great number of human beings, the sum of unmerited sufferings far exceeded the sum of enjoyments.
Faced with this fact, many sincere and generous-hearted men have lost faith in the mechanism itself. They have repudiated it; they have refused to study it; they have attacked, often violently, those who have investigated and expounded its laws; they have risen up against the nature of things; and, in a word, they have proposed toorganize society according to a new plan in which injustice, suffering, and error could have no place.
Heaven forbid that I should raise my voice against intentions so manifestly philanthropic and pure! But I should be going back on my own convictions, I should be turning a deaf ear to the voice of my own conscience, if I did not say that, in my opinion, they are on the wrong track.
In the first place, they are reduced by the very nature of their propaganda to the unfortunate necessity of underestimating the good that society has produced, of denying its progress, of imputing every evil to it, and of almost avidly seeking out evils and exaggerating them beyond measure.