Principles of Economics

Marshall, Alfred
Display paragraphs in this book containing:
First Pub. Date
London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd.
Pub. Date
8th edition
25 of 71




§ 1. Writers on social science from the time of Plato downwards have delighted to dwell on the increased efficiency which labour derives from organization. But in this, as in other cases, Adam Smith gave a new and larger significance to an old doctrine by the philosophic thoroughness with which he explained it, and the practical knowledge with which he illustrated it. After insisting on the advantages of the division of labour, and pointing out how they render it possible for increased numbers to live in comfort on a limited territory, he argued that the pressure of population on the means of subsistence tends to weed out those races who through want of organization or for any other cause are unable to turn to the best account the advantages of the place in which they live.


Before Adam Smith's book had yet found many readers, biologists were already beginning to make great advances towards understanding the real nature of the differences in organization which separate the higher from the lower animals; and before two more generations had elapsed, Malthus' historical account of man's struggle for existence started Darwin on that inquiry as to the effects of the struggle for existence in the animal and vegetable world, which issued in his discovery of the selective influence constantly played by it. Since that time biology has more than repaid her debt; and economists have in their turn owed much to the many profound analogies which have been discovered between social and especially industrial organization on the one side and the physical organization of the higher animals on the other. In a few cases indeed the apparent analogies disappeared on closer inquiry: but many of those which seemed at first sight most fanciful, have gradually been supplemented by others, and have at last established their claim to illustrate a fundamental unity of action between the laws of nature in the physical and in the moral world. This central unity is set forth in the general rule, to which there are not very many exceptions, that the development of the organism, whether social or physical, involves an increasing subdivision of functions between its separate parts on the one hand, and on the other a more intimate connection between them*101. Each part gets to be less and less self-sufficient, to depend for its wellbeing more and more on other parts, so that any disorder in any part of a highly-developed organism will affect other parts also.


This increased subdivision of functions, or "differentiation," as it is called, manifests itself with regard to industry in such forms as the division of labour, and the development of specialized skill, knowledge and machinery: while "integration," that is, a growing intimacy and firmness of the connections between the separate parts of the industrial organism, shows itself in such forms as the increase of security of commercial credit, and of the means and habits of communication by sea and road, by railway and telegraph, by post and printing-press.


The doctrine that those organisms which are the most highly developed, in the sense in which we have just used the phrase, are those which are most likely to survive in the struggle for existence, is itself in process of development. It is not yet completely thought out either in its biological or its economic relations. But we may pass to consider the main bearings in economics of the law that the struggle for existence causes those organisms to multiply which are best fitted to derive benefit from their environment.


The law requires to be interpreted carefully: for the fact that a thing is beneficial to its environment will not by itself secure its survival either in the physical or in the moral world. The law of "survival of the fittest" states that those organisms tend to survive which are best fitted to utilize the environment for their own purposes. Those that utilize the environment most, often turn out to be those that benefit those around them most; but sometimes they are injurious.


Conversely, the struggle for survival may fail to bring into existence organisms that would be highly beneficial: and in the economic world the demand for any industrial arrangement is not certain to call forth a supply, unless it is something more than a mere desire for the arrangement, or a need for it. It must be an efficient demand; that is, it must take effect by offering adequate payment or some other benefit to those who supply it*102. A mere desire on the part of employees for a share in the management and the profits of the factory in which they work, or the need on the part of clever youths for a good technical education, is not a demand in the sense in which the term is used when it is said that supply naturally and surely follows demand. This seems a hard truth: but some of its harshest features are softened down by the fact that those races, whose members render services to one another without exacting direct recompense are not only the most likely to flourish for the time, but most likely to rear a large number of descendants who inherit their beneficial habits.


§ 2. Even in the vegetable world a species of plants, however vigorous in its growth, which should be neglectful of the interests of its seeds, would soon perish from the earth. The standard of family and race duty is often high in the animal kingdom; and even those predatory animals which we are accustomed to regard as the types of cruelty, which fiercely utilize the environment and do nothing for it in return, must yet be willing as individuals to exert themselves for the benefit of their offspring. And going beyond the narrower interests of the family to those of the race, we find that among so-called social animals, such as bees and ants, those races survive in which the individual is most energetic in performing varied services for the society without the prompting of direct gain to himself.


But when we come to human beings, endowed with reason and speech, the influence of a tribal sense of duty in strengthening the tribe takes a more varied form. It is true that in the ruder stages of human life many of the services rendered by the individual to others are nearly as much due to hereditary habit and unreasoning impulse, as are those of the bees and ants. But deliberate, and therefore moral, self-sacrifice soon makes its appearance; it is fostered by the far-seeing guidance of prophets and priests and legislators, and is inculcated by parable and legend. Gradually the unreasoning sympathy, of which there are germs in the lower animals, extends its area and gets to be deliberately adopted as a basis of action: tribal affection, starting from a level hardly higher than that which prevails in a pack of wolves or a horde of banditti, gradually grows into a noble patriotism; and religious ideals are raised and purified. The races in which these qualities are the most highly developed are sure, other things being equal, to be stronger than others in war and in contests with famine and disease; and ultimately to prevail. Thus the struggle for existence causes in the long run those races of men to survive in which the individual is most willing to sacrifice himself for the benefit of those around him; and which are consequently the best adapted collectively to make use of their environment.


Unfortunately however not all the qualities which enable one race to prevail over another benefit mankind as a whole. It would no doubt be wrong to lay very much stress on the fact that warlike habits have often enabled half-savage races to reduce to submission others who were their superiors in every peaceful virtue; for such conquests have gradually increased the physical vigour of the world, and its capacity for great things, and ultimately perhaps have done more good than harm. But there is no such qualification to the statement that a race does not establish its claim to deserve well of the world by the mere fact that it flourishes in the midst or on the surface of another race. For, though biology and social science alike show that parasites sometimes benefit in unexpected ways the race on which they thrive; yet in many cases they turn the peculiarities of that race to good account for their own purposes without giving any good return. The fact that there is an economic demand for the services of Jewish and Armenian money-dealers in Eastern Europe and Asia, or for Chinese labour in California, is not by itself a proof, nor even a very strong ground for believing, that such arrangements tend to raise the quality of human life as a whole. For, though a race entirely dependent on its own resources can scarcely prosper unless it is fairly endowed with the most important social virtues; yet a race, which has not these virtues and which is not capable of independent greatness, may be able to thrive on its relations with another race. But on the whole, and subject to grave exceptions, those races survive and predominate in which the best qualities are most strongly developed.


§ 3. This influence of heredity shows itself nowhere more markedly than in social organization. For that must necessarily be a slow growth, the product of many generations: it must be based on those customs and aptitudes of the great mass of the people which are incapable of quick change. In early times when religious, ceremonial, political, military and industrial organization were intimately connected, and were indeed but different sides of the same thing, nearly all those nations which were leading the van of the world's progress were found to agree in having adopted a more or less strict system of caste: and this fact by itself proved that the distinction of castes was well suited to its environment, and that on the whole it strengthened the races or nations which adopted it. For since it was a controlling factor of life, the nations which adopted it could not have generally prevailed over others, if the influence exerted by it had not been in the main beneficial. Their pre-eminence proved not that it was free from defects, but that its excellences, relatively to that particular stage of progress, outweighed its defects.


Again we know that an animal or a vegetable species may differ from its competitors by having two qualities, one of which is of great advantage to it; while the other is unimportant, perhaps even slightly injurious, and that the former of these qualities will make the species succeed in spite of its having the latter: the survival of which will then be no proof that it is beneficial. Similarly the struggle for existence has kept alive many qualities and habits in the human race which were in themselves of no advantage, but which are associated by a more or less permanent bond with others that are great sources of strength. Such instances are found in the tendency to an overbearing demeanour and a scorn for patient industry among nations that owe their advance chiefly to military victories; and again in the tendency among commercial nations to think too much of wealth and to use it for the purposes of display. But the most striking instances are found in matters of organization; the excellent adaptation of the system of caste for the special work which it had to do, enabled it to flourish in spite of its great faults, the chief of which were its rigidity, and its sacrifice of the individual to the interests of society, or rather to certain special exigencies of society.


Passing over intermediate stages and coming at once to the modern organization of the Western world, we find it offering a striking contrast, and a no less striking resemblance, to the system of caste. On the one hand, rigidity has been succeeded by plasticity: the methods of industry which were then stereotyped, now change with bewildering quickness; the social relations of classes, and the position of the individual in his class, which were then definitely fixed by traditional rules, are now perfectly variable and change their forms with the changing circumstances of the day. But on the other hand, the sacrifice of the individual to the exigencies of society as regards the production of material wealth seems in some respects to be a case of atavism, a reversion to conditions which prevailed in the far-away times of the rule of caste. For the division of labour between the different ranks of industry and between different individuals in the same rank is so thorough and uncompromising, that the real interests of the producer are sometimes in danger of being sacrificed for the sake of increasing the addition which his work makes to the aggregate production of material wealth.


§ 4. Adam Smith, while insisting on the general advantages of that minute division of labour and of that subtle industrial organization which were being developed with unexampled rapidity in his time, was yet careful to indicate many points in which the system failed, and many incidental evils which it involved*103. But many of his followers with less philosophic insight, and in some cases with less real knowledge of the world, argued boldly that whatever is, is right. They argued for instance that, if a man had a talent for managing business, he would be surely led to use that talent for the benefit of mankind: that meanwhile a like pursuit of their own interests would lead others to provide for his use such capital as he could turn to best account; and that his own interest would lead him so to arrange those in his employment that everyone should do the highest work of which he was capable, and no other; and that it would lead him to purchase and use all machinery and other aids to production, which could in his hands contribute more than the equivalent of their own cost towards supplying the wants of the world.


This doctrine of natural organization contains more truth of the highest importance to humanity than almost any other which is equally likely to evade the comprehension of those who discuss grave social problems without adequate study: and it had a singular fascination for earnest and thoughtful minds. But its exaggeration worked much harm, especially to those who delighted most in it. For it prevented them from seeing and removing the evil that was intertwined with the good in the changes that were going on around them. It hindered them from inquiring whether many even of the broader features of modern industry might not be transitional, having indeed good work to do in their time, as the caste system had in its time; but being, like it, serviceable chiefly in leading the way towards better arrangements for a happier age. And it did harm by preparing the way for exaggerated reaction against it.


§ 5. Moreover the doctrine took no account of the manner in which organs are strengthened by being used. Herbert Spencer has insisted with much force on the rule that, if any physical or mental exercise gives pleasure and is therefore frequent, those physical or mental organs which are used in it are likely to grow rapidly. Among the lower animals indeed the action of this rule is so intimately interwoven with that of the survival of the fittest, that the distinction between the two need not often be emphasized. For as it might be guessed a priori, and as seems to be proved by observation, the struggle for survival tends to prevent animals from taking much pleasure in the exercise of functions which do not contribute to their wellbeing.


But man, with his strong individuality, has greater freedom. He delights in the use of his faculties for their own sake; sometimes using them nobly, whether with the abandon of the great Greek burst of life, or under the control of a deliberate and steadfast striving towards important ends; sometimes ignobly, as in the case of a morbid development of the taste for drink. The religious, the moral, the intellectual and the artistic faculties on which the progress of industry depends, are not acquired solely for the sake of the things that may be got by them; but are developed by exercise for the sake of the pleasure and the happiness which they themselves bring: and, in the same way, that greater factor of economic prosperity, the organization of a well-ordered state, is the product of an infinite variety of motives; many of which have no direct connection with the pursuit of national wealth*104.


No doubt it is true that physical peculiarities acquired by the parents during their life-time are seldom if ever transmitted to their offspring. But no conclusive case seems to have been made out for the assertion that the children of those who have led healthy lives, physically and morally, will not be born with a firmer fibre than they would have been had the same parents grown up under unwholesome influences which had enfeebled the fibre of their minds and their bodies. And it is certain that in the former case the children are likely after birth to be better nourished, and better trained; to acquire more wholesome instincts; and to have more of that regard for others and that self-respect, which are the mainsprings of human progress, than in the latter case*105.


It is needful then diligently to inquire whether the present industrial organization might not with advantage be so modified as to increase the opportunities, which the lower grades of industry have for using latent mental faculties, for deriving pleasure from their use, and for strengthening them by use; since the argument that if such a change had been beneficial, it would have been already brought about by the struggle for survival, must be rejected as invalid. Man's prerogative extends to a limited but effective control over natural development by forecasting the future and preparing the way for the next step.


Thus progress may be hastened by thought and work; by the application of the principles of Eugenics to the replenishment of the race from its higher rather than its lower strains, and by the appropriate education of the faculties of either sex: but however hastened it must be gradual and relatively slow. It must be slow relatively to man's growing command over technique and the forces of nature; a command which is making ever growing calls for courage and caution, for resource and steadfastness, for penetrating insight and for breadth of view. And it must be very much too slow to keep pace with the rapid inflow of proposals for the prompt reorganization of society on a new basis. In fact our new command over nature, while opening the door to much larger schemes for industrial organization than were physically possible even a short time ago, places greater responsibilities on those who would advocate new developments of social and industrial structure. For though, institutions may be changed rapidly; yet if they are to endure they must be appropriate to man: they cannot retain their stability if they change very much faster than he does. Thus progress itself increases the urgency of the warning that in the economic world, Natura non facit saltum*106.


Progress must be slow; but even from the merely material point of view it is to be remembered that changes, which add only a little to the immediate efficiency of production, may be worth having if they make mankind ready and fit for an organization, which will be more effective in the production of wealth and more equal in its distribution; and that every system, which allows the higher faculties of the lower grades of industry to go to waste, is open to grave suspicion.

Notes for this chapter

See a brilliant paper by Häckel on Arbeitstheilung in Menschen- und Thierleben and Schäffle's Bau und Leben des socialen Körpers.
Like all other doctrines of the same class, this requires to be interpreted in the light of the fact that the effective demand of a purchaser depends on his means, as well as on his wants: a small want on the part of a rich man often has more effective force in controlling the business arrangements of the world than a great want on the part of a poor man.
See above I. IV. 8; and below Appendix B, 3 and 6.
Man with his many motives, as he may set himself deliberately to encourage the growth of one peculiarity, may equally set himself to check the growth of another: the slowness of progress during the Middle Ages was partly due to a deliberate detestation of learning.
See Note XI. in the Mathematical Appendix. Considerations of this class have little application to the development of mere animals, such as mice; and none at all to that of peas and other vegetables. And therefore the marvellous arithmetical results which have been established, provisionally at all events, in regard to heredity in such cases, have very little bearing on the full problems of inheritance with which students of social science are concerned: and some negative utterances on this subject by eminent Mendelians seem to lack due reserve. Excellent remarks on the subject will be found in Prof. Pigou's Wealth and Welfare, Part I, ch. IV.
Compare Appendix A, 16.

End of Notes

25 of 71

Return to top