Fundamental Law of Political Economy

Epigraph to Book I

Though but an atom midst immensity,
  Still I am something, fashioned by Thy hand

I hold a middle rank 'twixt heaven and earth --
  On the last verge of mortal being stand

Close to the realms where angels have their birth
  Just on the boundaries of the spirit land!

The chain of being is complete in me --
  In me is matter's last gradation lost,

And the next step is spirit -- Diety!
  I can command the lightning, and am dust!

-- Bowring's translation of Dershavin

Henry George
The Science of Political Economy

Book I, The Meaning of Political Economy

Chapter XII
Fundamental Law of Political Economy

Showing That the Law from which Political Economy Proceeds Is That Men Seek to Satisfy Their Desires with the Least Exertion

Exertion followed by weariness -- The fact that men seek to satisfy their desires with the least exertion -- Meaning and analogue -- Exemplified in trivial things -- Is a law of nature and the fundamental law of political economy -- Substitution of selfishness for this principle -- Buckle quoted -- Political economy requires no such assumption -- The necessity of labor not a curse 01

The only way man has of satisfying his desires is by action.


Now action, if continued long enough in one line to become really exertion, a conscious putting forth of effort, produces in the consciousness a feeling of reluctance or weariness. This comes from something deeper than the exhaustion of energy in what we call physical labor; for whoever has tried it knows that one may lie on his back in the most comfortable position and by mere dint of sustained thinking, without consciously moving a muscle, tire himself as truly as by sawing wood; and that the mere clash and conflict of involuntary or undirected thought or feeling, or its continuance in one direction, will soon bring extreme weariness.


But whatever be its ultimate cause, the fact is that labor, the attempt of the conscious will to realize its material desire, is always, when continued for a little while, in itself hard and irksome. And whether from this fact alone, or from this fact, conjoined with or based upon something intuitive to our perceptions, the further fact, testified to both by observation of our own feelings and actions and by observation of the acts of others, is that men always seek to gratify their desires with the least exertion.


This, of course, does not mean that they always succeed in doing so, any more than the physical law that motion tends to persist in a straight line means that moving bodies always take that line. But it does mean the mental analogue of the physical law that motion seeks the line of least resistance -- that in seeking to gratify their desires men will always seek the way which under existing physical, social and personal conditions seems to them to involve the least expenditure of exertion.


Whoever would see this disposition of human nature exemplified in trivial things has only to watch the passers-by in a crowded street, or those who enter or depart from a frequented house. He will be instructed and perhaps not a little amused to note how slight the obstruction or semblance of obstruction that will divert their steps, and will see the principle observed by saint and sinner -- by "wicked man on evil errand bent," and "Good Samaritan intent on works of mercy."


Whether it proceed from experience of the irksomenes of labor and the desire to avoid it, or further back than that, have its source in some innate principle of the human constitution, this disposition of men to seek the satisfaction of their desires with the minimum of exertion is so universal and unfailing that it constitutes one of those invariable sequences that we denominate laws of nature, and from which we may safely reason. It is this law of nature that is the fundamental law of political economy -- the central law from which its deductions and explanations may with certainty be drawn, and, indeed, by which alone they become possible. It holds the same place in the sphere of political economy that the law of gravitation does in physics. Without it there could be no recognition of order, and all would be chaos.


Yet the failure clearly to apprehend this as the fundamental law of political economy has led to very serious and wide-spread mistakes as to the nature of the science; and has indeed, in spite of the vigorous assertions and assumptions of its accredited professors, prevented it from truly taking in popular esteem the place of a real science, or from long holding in scholastic circles the credit it had for a while gained. For the principle that men always seek to satisfy their desires with the least exertion, there has been substituted, from the time that political economy began to claim the attention of thoughtful men, the principle of human selfishness. And with the assumption that political economy takes into its account only the selfish feelings of human nature, there have been linked, as laws of political economy, other assumptions as destitute of validity.


To show how completely the idea has prevailed that the foundation of political economy is the assumption of human selfishness, I shall not stop to quote from the accredited writers on the subject, nor yet from those who have made of it a ground of their repugnance to the political economy that has been with justice styled "the dismal science" -- such as Carlyle, Dickens or Ruskin. I take for that purpose a writer who, while he fully accepted what was at his time (1857 -- 60) the orthodox political economy, deeming it "the only subject immediately connected with the art of government that has yet been raised to a science," and was well conversant with its literature, was not concerned with it as a controversialist, but only as a historian of the development of thought.


Buckle's understanding of political economy was that it eliminated every other feeling than selfishness. In his "Inquiry into the Influence Exercised by Religion, Literature and Government" (Vol. I, Chapter V, of his History of Civilization in England), he says that in the Wealth of Nations, which he regards as "probably the most important book which has ever been written," Smith "generalizes the laws of wealth, not from the phenomena of wealth, nor from statistical statements, but from the phenomena of selfishness; thus making a deductive application of one set of mental principles to the whole set of economical facts."


And in his Examination of the Scotch Intellect during the Eighteenth Century(Vol. II, Chapter VI), he returns in greater detail to the same subject. Adam Smith, he says, wrote two great books, with an interval of seventeen years between them. In both he employed the same method, that form of deduction "which proceeds by an artificial separation of facts in themselves inseparable." In the first of these, the Theory of Moral Sentiments, he "so narrowed the field of inquiry as to exclude from it all consideration of selfishness as a primary principle, and only to admit its great antagonist, sympathy." In the second, the Wealth of Nations, which Buckle regards as a correlative part of Smith's one great scheme, though still greater than its predecessor, Smith, on the contrary, "assumes that selfishness is the main regulator of human affairs, just as in his previous work he had assumed sympathy to be so." Or, as Buckle, later on, repeats:


    He everywhere assumes that the great moving power of all men, all interests and all classes, in all ages and in all countries, is selfishness. The opposite power of sympathy he entirely shuts out; and I hardly remember an instance in which even the word occurs in the whole course of his work. Its fundamental assumption is, that each man exclusively follows his own interest, or what he deems to be his own interest. . . . In this way Adam Smith completely changes the premises he had assumed in his earlier work. Here, he makes men naturally selfish; formerly, he had made them naturally sympathetic. Here, he represents them pursuing wealth for sordid objects, and for the narrowest personal pleasures; formerly, he represented them as pursuing it out of regard to the sentiments of others, and for the sake of obtaining their sympathy. In the Wealth of Nations we hear no more of this conciliatory and sympathetic spirit; such amiable maxims are altogether forgotten, and the affairs of the world are regulated by different principles. It now appears that benevolence and affection have no influence over our actions. Indeed, Adam Smith will hardly admit common humanity into his theory of motives. If a people emancipate their slaves, it is a proof, not that the people are acted on by high moral considerations, nor that their sympathy is excited by the cruelty inflicted on these unhappy creatures. Nothing of the sort. Such inducements to conduct are imaginary and exercise no real sway. All that the emancipation proves, is, that the slaves were few in number, and, therefore, small in value. Otherwise they would not have been emancipated.
    So, too, while in his former work he had ascribed the different systems of morals to the power of sympathy, he, in this work, ascribes them entirely to the power of selfishness.


This presumption, so well stated and defended by Buckle, that political economy must eliminate everything but the selfish feelings of mankind, has continued to pervade the accredited political economy up to this time, whatever may have been the effects upon the common mind of the attacks made upon it by those, who, not putting their objections into logical and coherent form, could be spoken of as sentimentalists, but not political economists. Yet, however generally the accepted writers on political economy may have themselves supposed the assumption of universal selfishness to be the fundamental principle of political economy, or how much ground they may have given for such a supposition on the part of their readers, a true political economy requires no such assumption. The primary postulate on and from which its whole structure is built is not that all men are governed only by selfish motives, or must for its purposes be considered as governed only by selfish motives; it is that all men seek to gratify their desires, whatever those desires may be, with the least exertion. This fundamental law of political economy is, like all other laws of nature, so far as we are concerned, supreme. It is no more affected by the selfishness or unselfishness of our desires than is the law of gravitation. It is simply a fact.


The irksomeness or weariness that inevitably attends all continued exertion caused earlier men to look on the necessity of labor to production as a penalty imposed upon our kind by an offended Deity. But in the light of modern civilization we may see that what they deemed a curse is in reality the impulse that has led to the most enormous extensions of man's power of dealing with nature. So true is it that good and evil are not in external things or in their laws of action, but in will or spirit.