Physical Laws & Moral Laws

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 IV
The Real Difference Between Laws of Production and of Distribution

Showing That Distribution Has Reference to Ethics, While Production Has Not

The laws of production are physical laws; the laws of distribution moral laws, concerned only with spirit -- This the reason why the immutable character of the laws of distribution is more quickly and clearly recognized 01

Mill is clearly wrong in the distinction which he seeks to draw between the production of wealth and the distribution of wealth with regard to the kind of laws which it is the proper business of these departments of political economy to discover.


But there is an important difference between them which, although he has failed to distinguish it, probably lies in vague way at the bottom of the notion that the laws of production and the laws of distribution are different kinds of laws. It is, that the branch of the science which treats of the distribution of wealth is that in which the relations of political economy to ethics are clearer and closer than in that branch which treats of production.


In short, the distinction between the laws of production and the laws of distribution is not, as is erroneously taught in the scholastic political economy, that the one set of laws are natural laws, and the other human laws. Both sets of laws are laws of nature. The real distinction is pointed out in the last chapter, that the natural laws of production are physical laws and the natural laws of distribution are moral laws. And it is this that enables us to see in political economy more clearly than in any other science, that the government of the universe is a moral government, having its foundation in justice. Or, to put this idea into terms that fit it for the simplest comprehension, that the Lord our God is a just God.


In considering the production of wealth we are concerned with natural laws of which we can only ask what is, without venturing to raise the question of what ought to be. Even if we can imagine a world in which beings like ourselves could maintain an existence and satisfy their material desires in any other way than by the application of labor to land under relations of uniform sequence not substantially different from those invariable sequences of matter and motion and life and being which we denominate physical laws, we cannot venture to apply to these physical laws, of which we can primarily say only that they exist, any idea of ought. Even in matters as to which we can imagine considerable differences between the physical uniformities that we observe in this world and those that might exist in a world in other respects resembling this -- such for instance as might be brought about by a change in the distance of our earth from the sun, or in the inclination of its axis to the ecliptic, or in the density of its atmospheric envelop; or even by a change in such uniformities as seem to us to involve exceptions to a more general uniformity, like that exception to the general law of the contraction of water in cooling which causes it at the freezing-point to expand -- there is nothing that has any reference to right or justice, or that arouses in us any perception of ought or duty.


For the perception of right or justice, the recognition of ought or duty, has no connection with or relation to two of the three elements or categories into which we may by analysis resolve the world as it is presented in consciousness to our reasoning faculties. That is to say, right or justice, ought or duty, do not and cannot have any relation either to matter or to energy, but only to spirit. They presuppose conscious will, and cannot be extended beyond the limits in which we recognize or assume a will having freedom to act. Thus is it that in considering the nature of wealth or the production of wealth we come into no direct and necessary contact with the ethical idea, the idea of right or justice. It is only when and as we endeavor to pierce behind the invariable uniformities of matter and motion to which we give the name of laws of nature and recognize them in our thought as manifestations of an originating or creative spirit, for which our common name is God, in its dealing with other, and though inferior, essentially spiritual beings, that the idea of right or justice can have any place in that branch of political economy which deals with the nature of wealth or the laws of its production.


But the moment we turn from a consideration of the laws of the production of wealth to a consideration of the laws of the distribution of wealth the idea of ought or duty becomes primary. All consideration of distribution involves the ethical principle; is necessarily a consideration of ought or duty -- a consideration in which the idea of right or justice is from the very first involved. And this idea cannot be truly conceived of as having limits or being subject to change, for it is an idea or relation, like the idea of a square or of a circle or of parallel lines, which must be the same in any other world, no matter how far separated in space or time, as in this world. It is not without reason that in our colloquial use of the words we speak of a just man as "a square man" or "a straight man." As Montesquieu says:


    Justice is a relation of congruity which really subsists between two things. This relation is always the same, whatever being considers it, whether it be God, or an angel, or lastly a man.

This I take to be the reason of the fact which in Chapter II of this Book was referred to -- that the immutable character of the laws of distribution is even more quickly and clearly recognized than the immutable character of the laws of production. Princes, politicians and legislatures attempt to influence distribution, but they always try to do it, not by aiming at distribution directly but by aiming at distribution indirectly, through laws that directly affect production.