Meaning of Distribution

Epigraph to Book IV

For "Mars is a tyrant," as Timotheus expresses it; but justice, according to Pindar, "is the rightful sovereign of the world." The things which Homer tells us kings receive from Jove are not machines for taking towns or ships with brazen beaks, but law and justice; these they are to guard and cultivate. And it is not the most warlike, the most violent and sanguinary, but the justest of princes, whom he calls the disciple of Jupiter. -- Plutarch, Demetrius

Henry George
The Science of Political Economy

Book IV, The Distribution of Wealth

Chapter I
The Meaning Of Distribution

Showing The Meaning And Uses Of The Word Distribution; The Place And Meaning Of The Economic Term; And That It Is Concerned Only With Natural Laws

Derivation and uses of the word -- Exchange, consumption and taxation not proper divisions of political economy -- Need of a consideration of distribution -- It is the continuation and end of what begins in production, and thus the final division of political economy -- The meaning usually assigned to distribution as an economic term, and its true meaning. 01

The word distribution comes from the Latin, dis, asunder, and tribuo, to give, or tribuere, to allot.


The common meaning of distribution differs from that of division by including with the idea of a separation into parts the idea of an apportionment or allotment of these parts, and is that of a division into or a division among.


Thus the distribution of work, or duty, or function is the assignment to each cooperator of a separate part in securing an aggregate result; the distribution of food, or alms, or of a trust fund, involves the allotment of a proper portion of the whole to each of the beneficiaries; the distribution of gas, or water, or heat, or electricity, through a building or city, means the causing of a flow to each part of its proper quota; the distribution of rocks, plants or animals over the globe involves the idea of causes or laws which have brought them to the places where they are found; the distribution of weight or strain in a building or structure involves the idea of a division of the aggregate mass or pressure among the various parts; distribution in logic is the application of a term to all members of a class taken separately, so that what is affirmed or denied of the whole is not merely affirmed or denied of them all collectively, but of each considered independently; the distribution of things into categories, or species, or genera, in the sciences is the cataloguing of them with reference to their likeness or unlikeness in certain respects of form, origin or quality.


What is called the distribution of mail in a post-office is the reverse, or complement, of what is called the collection of mail. It consists of the separation into pouches or bags according to the common destination of the mail matter brought in for transmission, or of a similar separation of the mail matter received for delivery.


What is called the distribution of type in a printing-office is the reverse, or the complement, of what is called the composition of type. In composition the printer places into a "stick" the letters and spaces in the sequence that forms words. One line composed and "justified" by such changes in spacing as bring it to the exact "measure," he proceeds to compose another line. When his stick contains as many lines as it will conveniently hold he "empties" it on a "galley," from which this "matter" is finally "imposed" in a "form." As many impressions as are desired having been made from the "form" upon paper (or upon a "matrix" if any process of stereotyping is used) what until put to its destined use of printing was "live matter" becomes in the terminology of the printing-office "dead matter," and that the movable types may be used again in composition the printer proceeds to distribute them. If the matter has been thrown into "pi" by an accident which disarranges the order of the letters in words, "distribution" is a very tedious operation, since each letter has to be separately noted. But if not, the compositor, now become distributor, takes in his left hand so that he can read as much of the "dead matter" as he can conveniently hold, and beginning at the right end of the upper line lifts with the forefinger and thumb of his right hand a word or words, reading with a quick glance as he does so, and moving his hand over the case, releases each letter or space or "quad" (blank) over its appropriate box, from which they may be readily taken for renewed composition.


This is the system of composing and distributing type in use from the time of Gutenberg to the present day. But printing-machines are now (1896) rapidly beginning to supersede hand-work. In these, composition takes place by touches on a keyboard, like that of a typewriter. In the type-using machines the touch on a key brings the letter into place, justification is made afterwards by hand, and distribution is accomplished by revolving the type around a cylinder where by nicks on its body it is carried to its appropriate receptacle. In the type-casting machines, each type is cast as the key is touched, and instead of being distributed is re-melted. In the line-making machines, or linotypes, the composition is of movable matrices, the line is automatically justified by wedges which increase or diminish the space between the words, and is cast on the face of a "slug" by a jet of molten metal. In these there is no distribution; the slugs when no longer needed being thrown into the melting-pot.


As has already been observed, the distribution of wealth in political economy does not include transportation and exchange, as most of the standard economic writers assume. Nor yet is there any logical reason for treating exchange as a separate department in political economy, as is done by those writers who define political economy as the science which teaches of the laws which regulate the production, distribution and exchange of wealth, or as they sometimes phrase it, of the production, exchange and distribution of wealth. Transportation and exchange are properly included in production, being a part of the process in which natural objects are by the exertion of human labor better fitted to satisfy the desires of man.


Nor yet again is there any logical reason in the division of the field of the science of political economy for following that department which treats of the distribution of wealth with other departments treating of the consumption of wealth or of taxation, as is done by some of the minor and more recent writers. Taxation is a matter of human law, while the proper subject of science is natural law. Nor does the science of political economy concern itself with consumption. It is finished and done -- the purpose for which production began is concluded when it reaches distribution.


The need of a consideration of the distribution of wealth in political economy comes from the cooperative character of the production of wealth in civilization. In the rudest state of humanity, where production is carried on by isolated human units, the product of each unit would in the act of production come into possession of that unit, and there would be no distribution of wealth and no need for considering it.* But in that higher state of humanity where separate units, each moved to action by the motive of satisfying its individual desires, cooperate to production, there necessarily arises when the product has been obtained, the question of its distribution.


Distribution is in fact a continuation of production -- the latter part of the same process of which production is the first part. For the desire which prompts to exertion in production is the desire for satisfaction, and distribution is the process by which what is brought into being by production is carried to the point where it yields satisfaction to desire -- which point is the end and aim of production.


In a logical division of the field of political economy, that which relates to the distribution of wealth is the final part. For the beginning of all the actions and movements which political economy is called on to consider is in human desire. And their end and aim is the satisfaction of that desire. When this is reached political economy is finished, and this is reached with the distribution of wealth. With what becomes of wealth after it is distributed political economy has nothing whatever to do. It can take any further account of it only should it be reentered in the field of political economy as capital, and then only as an original and independent entry. What men choose to do with the wealth that is distributed to them may be of concern to them as individuals, or it may be of concern to the society of which they are a part, but it is of no concern to political economy. The branches of knowledge that consider the ultimate disposition of wealth may be instructive or useful. But they are not included in political economy, which does not embrace all knowledge or any knowledge, but has as a separate science a clear and well-defined field of its own.


If, moved by a desire for potatoes, I dig, or plant, or weed, or gather them, or as a member of the great cooperative association, the body economic, in which civilization consists, I saw or plane, or fish or hunt, or play the fiddle, or preach sermons for the satisfaction of other people who in return will give me potatoes or the means of getting potatoes, the whole transaction originating in my desire for potatoes is finished when I get the potatoes, or rather when they are put at my disposal at the place contemplated in my desire. Whether I then choose to boil, bake, roast or fry them, to throw them at dogs or to feed them to hogs, to plant them as seed, or to let them decay; to trade them off for other food or other satisfactions, or to transfer them to some one else as a free gift or under promise that by and by he will give me other potatoes or other satisfactions, is something outside of and beyond the series of transactions which originating in my desire for potatoes was ended and finished in my getting potatoes.


As a term of political economy, distribution is usually said to mean the division of the results of production among the persons or classes of persons who have contributed to production. But this as we shall see is misleading, its real meaning being the division into categories corresponding to the categories or factors of production.


In entering on this branch of our inquiry, it will be well to recall what, in Book I, I have dwelt upon at length, and what is here particularly needful to keep in mind, that the laws which it is the proper purpose of political economy to discover are not human laws, but natural laws. From this it follows that our inquiry into the laws of the distribution of wealth is not an inquiry into the municipal laws or human enactments which either here and now, or in any other time and place, prescribe or have prescribed how wealth shall be divided among men. With them we have no concern, unless it may be for purposes of illustration. What we have to seek are those laws of the distribution of wealth which belong to the natural order -- laws which are a part of that system or arrangement which constitutes the social organism or body economic, as distinguished from the body politic or state, the Greater Leviathan that makes its appearance with civilization and develops with its advance. These natural laws are in all times and places the same, and though they may be crossed by human enactment, can never be annulled or swerved by it.


It is more needful to call this to mind, because in what have passed for systematic treatises on political economy the fact that it is with natural laws, not human laws, that the science of political economy is concerned, has in treating of the distribution of wealth been utterly ignored, and even flatly denied.

* Book I, Chapter I