Causes of Confusion

Epigraphs to Book II

Definitions are the basis of systematic reasoning.

-- Aristotle

The mixture of those things by speech which are by nature divided is the mother of all error.

-- Hooker

Bacon made us sensible of the emptiness of the Aristotelian philosophy; Smith, in like manner, caused us to perceive the fallaciousness of all the previous systems of political economy; but the latter no more raised the superstructure of this science, than the former created logic.... We are, however, not yet in possession of an established text-book on the science of political economy, in which the fruits of an enlarged and accurate observation are referred to general principles that can be admitted by every reflecting mind; a work in which these results are so complete and well arranged as to afford to each other mutual support, and that many everywhere and at all times be studied with advantage.

-- J.B. Say, 1803

We may cite as examples of such inchoate but yet incomplete discoveries the great Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith -- a work which still stands out, and will ever stand out, as that of a pioneer, and the only book on political economy which displays its genius to every kind of intelligent reader. But among the specialists and the schools, this work of genius which swayed all Europe in its day, is laid upon the shelf as an antiquated affair, superseded by the smaller and duller men who have pulled his system to pieces and are offering us the fragments as a science most of whose first principles are still under dispute.

-- Professor (Greek) J.P. Mahaffy, "The Present Position of Egyptology," "Nineteenth Century," August, 1894.

Henry George
The Science of Political Economy

Book II, The Nature of Wealth

Chapter II
Causes of Confusion as to the Meaning of Wealth

Showing the Real Difficulty that Besets the Economic Definition of Wealth

Effect of slavery on the definition of wealth -- Similar influences now existing -- John Stuart Mill on prevalent delusions -- Genesis of the protective absurdity -- Power of special interests to mold common opinion -- Of injustice and absurdity, and the power of special interests to pervert reason -- Mill an example of how accepted opinions may blind men -- Effect upon a philosophical system of the acceptance of an incongruity -- Meaning of a saying of Christ -- Influence of a class profiting by robbery shown in the development of political economy -- Archbishop Whately puts the cart before the horse -- The power of a great pecuniary interest to affect thought can be ended only by abolishing that interest -- This shown in American slavery 01

The neglect of political economy in the classical world has been explained by modern economists as due to the effect of slavery in causing labor to be regarded as degrading.*


But in this a quicker and more direct effect of slavery in preventing the cultivation of political economy has been overlooked.


Except perhaps as the crucified fomenter of a servile rebellion, the only class in which any philosopher of the ancient world might have got a hearing that could have brought his name and teachings down to us, was that wealthy class, whose riches were largely in their slaves. For in any social condition in which privilege and wealth are inequitably distributed, what Jefferson said of Jesus** must be true of all moral or economic teachers -- "All the learned of His country, entrenched in its power and riches, were opposed to Him, lest His labors should undermine their advantages."


The first question which a coherent political economy must answer is, what is wealth? This, in a state of society in which the ruling class were universally slaveholders, was too delicate a question for any accredited philosopher to have fairly met. Even the most astute among them could go no further than to say, with the intellectual giant Aristotle, that wealth "is all things whose value is measured by money," or with the Roman jurist Ulpian, "that is wealth which can be bought and sold." From this point, the very point to which our modern political economy has in current scholastic teachings now come again, though there may be economies of finance and economies of exchange and economies of agriculture (there were many such among the Greeks and Romans, their agricultural economy even teaching how slaves should be sold as soon as age and infirmity began to lessen the work that could be extorted from them), there was and could be no political economy.


But this indisposition to recognize the distinction between what may be wealth to the individual and what is wealth to the society, which has prevented the growth of any science of political economy wherever, either in the ancient or the modern world, the ownership of human beings has been an important element in the wealth of the wealthy class, has not entirely ceased to show itself with the abolition of chattel slavery. Even the men who have seen that there was a connection between the failure of the restless and powerful thinkers of the classic world to develop a political economy and their acceptance of slavery, have in their own development of political economy been unconsciously affected by a similar retarding and aberrating influence. Chattel slavery is only one of the means by which individuals become wealthy without increase in the general wealth, and as in modern civilization it has lost importance, other means to the same end have taken its place. But wherever and from whatever causes society is divided into the very rich and the very poor, the primary question of political economy, what is wealth? must be a delicate one to men sensibly or insensibly influenced by the feelings and opinions of the dominating class. For in such social conditions much that commonly passes for wealth must really be only legalized robbery, and nothing can be more offensive to those enjoying the profit of robbery than to call it by its true name.


In the preliminary remarks to his Principles of Political Economy John Stuart Mill says:


    It often happens that the universal belief of one age of mankind -- a belief from which no one was, nor without an extraordinary effort of genius and courage, could at that time be free -- becomes to a subsequent age so palpable an absurdity, that the only difficulty then is to imagine how such a thing can ever have appeared credible. It has so happened with the doctrine that money is synonymous with wealth. The conceit seems too preposterous to be thought of as a serious opinion. It looks like one of the crude fancies of childhood, instantly corrected by a word from any grown person. But let no one feel confident that he should have escaped the delusion if he had lived at the time when it prevailed.

Let no one be confident indeed!


Yet it is a mistake to liken the absurdities of the mercantile or protective system to the crude fancies of childhood. This has never been their origin or their strength. In the petty commerce in marbles and tops that goes on among school-boys no boy ever imagined that the more he gave and the less he got in such exchange the better off he should be. No primitive people were ever yet so stupid as to suppose that they could increase their wealth by taxing themselves. Any child that could understand the proposition would see that a dollar's worth of gold could not be more valuable than a dollar's worth of anything else, as readily as it would see that a pound of lead could not be heavier than a pound of feathers. Such ideas are not the fancies of childhood. Their growth, their strength, their persistence, as we may clearly see in the newer countries of America and Australia, where they have appeared and gathered force since Adam Smith's time, is due to the growth of special interests in artificial restrictions on trade as a means of increasing individual wealth at the expense of the general wealth.


The power of a special interest, though inimical to the general interest, so to influence common thought as to make fallacies pass as truths, is a great fact without which neither the political history of our own time and people nor that of other times and peoples can be understood. A comparatively small number of individuals brought into virtual though not necessarily formal agreement of thought and action by something that makes them individually wealthy without adding to the general wealth, may exert an influence out of all proportion to their numbers. A special interest of this kind is, to the general interests of society, as a standing army is to an unorganized mob. It gains intensity and energy in its specialization, and in the wealth it takes from the general stock finds power to mold opinion. Leisure and culture and the circumstances and conditions that command respect accompany wealth, and intellectual ability is attracted by it. On the other hand, those who suffer from the injustice that takes from the many to enrich the few, are in that very thing deprived of the leisure to think, and the opportunities, education and graces necessary to give their thought acceptable expression. They are necessarily the "unlettered," the "ignorant," the "vulgar," prone in their consciousness of weakness to look up for leadership and guidance to those who have the advantages that the possession of wealth can give.


Now, if we consider it, injustice and absurdity are simply different aspects of incongruity. That which to right reason is unjust must be to right reason absurd. But an injustice that impoverishes the many to enrich the few shifts the centers of social power, and thus controls the social organs and agencies of opinion and education. Growing in strength and acceptance by what it feeds on, it has only to continue to exist to become at length so vested or rooted, not in the constitution of the human mind itself, but in that constitution of opinions, beliefs and habits of thought which we take, as we take our mother tongue, from our social environment, that it is not perceived as injustice or absurdity, but seems even to the philosopher an integral part of the natural order, with which it were as idle if not as impious to quarrel as with the constitution of the elements. Even that highest gift, the gift of reason, is in its bestowal on man subjected to his use, and the very mental qualities that enable us to discover truth may be perverted to fortify error, and are always so perverted wherever an anti-social special interest gains control of the thinking and teaching functions of society.


In this lies the explanation of the fact that looking through the vista of what we know of human history we everywhere find what are to us the most palpable absurdities enshrining themselves in the human mind as unquestionable truths -- whole nations the prey of preposterous superstitions, abasing themselves before fellow-creatures, often before idiots or voluptuaries, whom their imagination has converted into the representatives of Deity; the great masses toiling, suffering, starving, that those they bear on their shoulders may live idly and daintily. Wherever and whenever what we may now see to be a palpable absurdity has passed for truth, we may see if we look close enough that it has always been because behind it crouched some powerful special interest, and that the man has hushed the questioning of the child.


This is of human nature. The world is so new to us when we first come into it; we are so compelled at every turn to rely upon what we are told rather than on what we ourselves can discover; what we find to be the common and respected opinion of others has with us such almost irresistible weight, that it becomes possible for a special interest by usurping the teaching province to make to us black seem white and wrong seem right.


Let no one indeed feel confident that he could have escaped any delusion, no matter how preposterous, that has ever prevailed among men, if he had lived when and where it was accepted. From as far back as we can see, human nature has not changed, and we have but to look around us to discover in operation today the great agency that has made falsehood seem truth.


Of the fact of which, in what I have quoted, John Stuart Mill speaks with reference to the doctrine that money is synonymous with wealth -- the fact that accepted opinion may blind even able and courageous men -- he himself, in the same book and almost in the same paragraph, gives unconscious illustration, in the timidity with which he touches the question of the nature of wealth, when it leads beyond what Adam Smith had already shown, that it was not synonymous with money. He recognizes, indeed, that what is wealth to an individual is not therefore wealth to the community or nation, and definitely states, or rather concedes, that debt, even funded debt, is no part of the wealth of the society. But the way in which he does this is suggestive. He says:


    The canceling of the debt would be no destruction of wealth, but a transfer of it; a wrongful abstraction of wealth from certain members of the community, for the profit of the government or of the taxpayers.

The gratuitous word "wrongful" shows the bias. And even this recognition that debt cannot be wealth in the economic sense is ignored in the subsequent definition of wealth.


So strongly indeed was John Stuart Mill, who seems to me a very type of intellectual honesty, under the influence of the accustomed ideas of his time and class, that although he saw with perfect clearness that the wealth that comes to individuals by reason of their monopoly of land really comes to them through force and fraud, yet he seemingly never dreamed that land was no part of national wealth. Nor yet, does he seem even to dream that the people of a country, once they had been forcibly deprived of it, could recover what he saw to be their natural right. In all the history of dead absurdities there can be no sentence more strikingly illustrative of the power of accepted opinion to hide absurdity than this of his:


    The land of Ireland, the land of every country, belongs to the people of that country. The individuals called landowners have no right in morality and justice to anything but rent, or compensation for its salable value.

This is simply to say that the ownership of the land of Ireland gave the people who morally owned it the right to buy it from those who did not morally own it.


What was it that hid from this trained logician and radically minded man the patent absurdity of saying that the individuals called landowners had no right to land, except that which is the sum and expression of all exchangeable rights to land -- rent?


Whoever will examine his writings will see that it was his previous acceptance of certain doctrines -- doctrines with which a succession of ingenious men had endeavored to bring into semblance of logical coherence a political economy vitally defective, and which resembled the elaborate system of cycles and epicycles with which the ingenuity of astronomers previous to Copernicus had endeavored to account for the movements of the heavenly bodies.


When an incongruous substance, such for instance as a bullet, is implanted in the human body, the physical system, as soon as it despairs of its removal, sets about the endeavor to accommodate itself to the incongruity, frequently with such success that at length the incongruity is not noticed. The stout, masterful man with whom I have just now been talking, and whom you might liken to a bull if it were not for the intelligence of his face, has long carried a bullet under his skin. And men have even been known to live for years with bullets in their brains.


So, too, with philosophical systems. When an incongruity is accepted in a philosophical system, the abilities of its professors are at once set to work to accommodate other parts of the system to the incongruity, frequently with such success that philosophical systems containing fatal incongruities have been known to command acceptance for long generations. For the mind of man is even more plastic than the body of man, and the human imagination, which is the chief element in the building up of philosophical systems, furnishes a lymph more subtle than that which the blood supplies to the bodily system.


Indeed, the artificialities and confusions by which an incongruity is made tolerable to a philosophic system, for the very reason that they cannot be understood except by those who have submitted their minds to a special course of cramping, become to them a seeming evidence of superiority, gratifying a vanity like that of the contortionist who has painfully learned to walk a little way on his hands instead of his feet and to twist his body into unnatural and unnecessary positions; or like that of the conveyancer or lawyer, who has in the same way painfully learned to perform such tricks with language.


And just as the long toleration by the physical system of such an incongruity as a bullet, a tumor or a dislocation, by reason of the efforts which the system has made to reconcile to it other parts and functions, renders it more difficult of removal or remedy, so the toleration in a philosophical system of an incongruity makes its removal or remedy far more difficult to those who have bent their minds to the system as it has by ingenious men been adapted to the incongruity, than it is to those who approach the subject from first principles, and who if they may have more to learn have less to unlearn. For it is true, as Bacon said, that "a cripple in the right way may beat a racer in the wrong one. Nay, the fleeter the racer is who has once missed his way, the farther he leaves it behind."


This, I think, is what was meant in the concise but deep philosophy of Christ by such sayings as that the Kingdom of Heaven, or system of right-doing, though revealed unto babes, is hidden from those deemed wise and prudent, and that what the common people heard gladly was foolishness to the learned scribes and pharisees. With illustrations of this principle the history of accepted opinion in every time and place abounds.


It is not to the fancies of childhood that we must look for an explanation of the strength of long dominant absurdities. Michelet (The People) truly says: "No consecrated absurdity would have stood its ground in this world if the man had not silenced the objection of the child."


But not to depart from the matter in hand: It is evident that the existence of a powerful class whose incomes could not fail to be endangered by a recognition of the fact that what makes them individually wealthy is not any part of the wealth of society, but only robbery, must from the beginning of the cultivation of political economy in modern times have beset its primary step, the determination of what the wealth of society consists of, with something of the same difficulty that prevented its development in classic times. And when the development commenced, and especially after it had been taken charge of by the colleges and universities, which as at present constituted must be peculiarly susceptible to the influence of the wealthy classes, it is evident that the efforts of able men to bring into some semblance of coherency a system of political economy destitute of any clear and coherent definition of wealth must have surrounded the subject with greater perplexities and helped powerfully to prevent the need of a definition of wealth from being felt.


This is precisely what we see when we examine the different attempts to define wealth in the economic sense, and note the increasing confusions that have attended them, culminating in the acceptance of the common meaning of the word wealth -- anything that has exchangeable power -- as the only meaning that can be given to the economic term; and the consequent abandonment of the possibility of a science of political economy.


Archbishop Whately, in the chapter on ambiguous terms appended to his Elements of Logic, says in speaking of one of the ambiguities of the word wealth, that which led to the use of wealth as synonymous with money:


    The results have been fraud, punishment and poverty at home, and discord and war without. It has made nations consider the wealth of their customers a source of loss instead of profit; and an advantageous market a curse instead of a blessing. By inducing them to refuse to profit by the peculiar advantages in climate, soil or industry, possessed by their neighbors, it has forced them in a great measure to give up their own. It has for centuries done more, and perhaps for centuries to come will do more, to retard the improvement of Europe than all other causes put together.

In this, the Archbishop, though famous as a logician, "puts the cart before the horse."


These are not the effects of the confusion of a term. The confusion of the term is one of the effects of the influence upon thought of the same special interest that in its efforts to give wealth to individuals at the expense of the general wealth, has done and is doing all this.


Nor can this power of a great pecuniary interest to affect thought, and especially to affect thought in those circles of society whose opinions are most respected, ever be done away with save by the abolition of its cause -- the social adjustment or institution that gives power to obtain wealth without earning it. The pecuniary interest in the ownership of slaves was never very large in the United States. But it so dominated the thought of the whole country that up to the outbreak of the civil war the term abolitionist was to good, kindly and intelligent people even in the North an expression that meant everything vile and wicked. And whatever else might have been the issue of the war, had the pecuniary interest in the maintenance of slavery remained, it would still have continued to show itself in thought. But as soon as the supplies of the slave-owning interest were cut off by the freeing of the slaves this power upon opinion vanished. Now, no preacher, professor or politician, even in the South, would think of advocating or defending slavery; and in Boston, where he narrowly escaped mobbing, stands a public statue of William Lloyd Garrison.

* See, for instance, McCulloch's "Principles of Political Economy" (1825), Part 1.

** "Syllabus of an estimate of the merits of the doctrines of Jesus." (The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, collected and edited by Paul Leicester Ford, Putnam's Sons, Vol. VIII, p. 227.)