Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy

John Stuart Mill
Mill, John Stuart
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First Pub. Date
London: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer.
Pub. Date
2nd edition.

Essay III

On the Words Productive and Unproductive.


It would probably be difficult to point out any two words, respecting the proper use of which political economists have been more divided, than they have been concerning the two words productive and unproductive; whether considered as applied to labour, to consumption, or to expenditure.


Although this is a question solely of nomenclature, it is one of sufficient importance to be worth another attempt to settle it satisfactorily. For, although writers on political economy have not agreed in the ideas which they were accustomed to annex to these terms, the terms have generally been employed to denote ideas of very great importance, and it is impossible that some vagueness should not have been thrown upon the ideas themselves by looseness in the use of the words by which they are habitually designated. Further, so long as the pedantic objection to the introduction of new technical terms continues, accurate thinkers on moral and political subjects are limited to a very scanty vocabulary for the expression of their ideas. It therefore is of great importance that the words with which mankind are familiar, should be turned to the greatest possible advantage as instruments of thought; that one word should not be used as the sign of an idea which is already sufficiently expressed by another word; and that words which are required to denote ideas of great importance, should not be usurped for the expression of such as are comparatively insignificant.


The phrases productive labour, and productive consumption, have been employed by some writers on political economy with very great latitude. They have considered, and classed, as productive labour and productive consumption, all labour which serves any useful purpose—all consumption which is not waste. Mr. M'Culloch has asserted, totidem verbis, that the labour of Madame Pasta was as well entitled to be called productive labour as that of a cotton spinner.


Employed in this sense, the words productive and unproductive are superfluous, since the words useful and agreeable on the one hand, useless and worthless on the other, are quite sufficient to express all the ideas to which the words productive and unproductive are here applied.


This use of the terms, therefore, is subversive of the ends of language.


Those writers who have employed the words in a more limited sense, have usually understood by productive or unproductive labour, labour which is productive of wealth, or unproductive of wealth. But what is wealth? And here the words productive and unproductive have been affected with additional ambiguities, corresponding to the different extension which different writers have given to the term wealth.


Some have given the name of wealth to all things which tend to the use or enjoyment of mankind, and which possess exchangeable value. This last clause is added to exclude air, the light of the sun, and any other things which can be obtained in unlimited quantity without labour or sacrifice; together with all such things as, though produced by labour, are not held in sufficient general estimation to command any price in the market.


But when this definition came to be explained, many persons were disposed to interpret "all things which tend to the use or enjoyment of man," as implying only all material things. Immaterial products they refused to consider as wealth; and labour or expenditure which yielded nothing but immaterial products, they characterised as unproductive labour and unproductive expenditure.


To this it was, or might have been, answered, that according to this classification, a carpenter's labour at his trade is productive labour, but the same individual's labour in learning his trade was unproductive labour. Yet it is obvious that, on both occasions, his labour tended exclusively to what is allowed to be production: the one was equally indispensable with the other, to the ultimate result. Further, if we adopted the above definition, we should be obliged to say that a nation whose artisans were twice as skilful as those of another nation, was not, ceteris paribus, more wealthy; although it is evident that every one of the results of wealth, and everything for the sake of which wealth is desired, would be possessed by the former country in a higher degree than by the latter.


Every classification according to which a basket of cherries, gathered and eaten the next minute, are called wealth, while that title is denied to the acquired skill of those who are acknowledged to be productive labourers, is a purely arbitrary division, and does not conduce to the ends for which classification and nomenclature are designed.


In order to get over all difficulties, some political economists seem disposed to make the terms express a distinction sufficiently definite indeed, but more completely arbitrary, and having less foundation in nature, than any of the former. They will not allow to any labour or to any expenditure the name of productive, unless the produce which it yields returns into the hands of the very person who made the outlay. Hedging and ditching they term productive labour, though those operations conduce to production only indirectly, by protecting the produce from destruction; but the necessary expenses incurred by a government for the protection of property are, they insist upon it, consumed unproductively: though, as has been well pointed out by Mr. M'Culloch, these expenses, in their relation to the national wealth, are exactly analogous to the wages of a hedger or a ditcher. The only difference is, that the farmer, who pays for the hedging and ditching, is the person to whom the consequent increase of production accrues, while the government, which is at the expense of police officers and courts of justice, does not, as a necessary consequence, get back into its own coffers the increase of the national wealth resulting from the security of property.


It would be endless to point out the oddities and incongruities which result from this classification. Whether we take the words wealth and production in the largest, or in the most restricted sense in which they have ever yet been employed, nobody will dispute that roads, bridges, and canals, contribute in an eminent degree, and in a very direct manner, to the increase of production and wealth. The labour and pecuniary resources employed in their construction would, according to the above theory, be considered productive, if every occupier of land were compelled by law to construct so much of the road, or canal, as passes through his own farm. If, instead of this, the government makes the road, and throws it open to the public toll-free, the labour and expenditure would be, on the above system, clearly unproductive. But if the government, or an association of individuals, made the road, and imposed a toll to defray the expense, we do not see how these writers could refuse to the outlay the title of productive expenditure. It would follow, that the very same labour and expense, if given gratuitously, must be called unproductive, which, if a charge had been made for it, would have been called productive.


When these consequences of the purely arbitrary classification to which we allude have been pointed out and complained of, the only answer which we have ever seen made to the objection is, that the line of demarcation must be drawn somewhere, and that in every classification there are intermediate cases, which might have been included, with almost equal propriety, either in the one class or in the other.


This answer appears to us to indicate the want of a sufficiently accurate and discriminating perception, what is the kind of inaccuracy which generally cannot be avoided in a classification, and what is that other kind of inaccuracy, from which it always may be, and should be, exempt.


The classes themselves may be, mentally speaking, perfectly definite, though it may not always be easy to say to which of them a particular object belongs. When it is uncertain in which of two classes an object should be placed, if the classification be properly made, and properly expressed, the uncertainty can turn only upon a matter of fact. It is uncertain to which class the object belongs, because it is doubtful whether it possesses in a greater degree the characteristics of the one class or those of the other. But the characteristics themselves may be defined and distinguished with the nicest exactness, and always ought to be so. Especially ought they in a case like the present, because here it is only the distinction between the ideas which is of any importance. That we should be able with ease to portion out all employments between the two classes, does not happen to be of any particular consequence.


It is frequently said that classification is a mere affair of convenience. This assertion is true in one sense, but not if its meaning be, that the most proper classification is that in which it is easiest to say whether an object belongs to one class or to the other. The use of classification is, to fix attention upon the distinctions which exist among things; and that is the best classification, which is founded upon the most important distinctions, whatever be the facilities which it may afford of ticketing and arranging the different objects which exist in nature. In fixing, therefore, the meaning of the words productive and unproductive, we ought to endeavour to render them significative of the most important distinctions which, without too glaring a violation of received usage, they can be made to express.


We ought further, when we are restricted to the employment of old words, to endeavour as far as possible that it shall not be necessary to struggle against the old associations with those words. We should, if possible, give the words such a meaning, that the propositions in which people are accustomed to use them, shall as far as possible still be true; and that the feelings habitually excited by them, shall be such as the things to which we mean to appropriate them ought to excite.


We shall endeavour to unite these conditions in the result of the following enquiry.


In whatever manner political economists may have settled the definition of productive and unproductive labour or consumption, the consequences which they have drawn from the definition are nearly the same. In proportion to the amount of the productive labour and consumption of a country, the country, they all allow, is enriched: in proportion to the amount of the unproductive labour and consumption, the country is impoverished. Productive expenditure they are accustomed to view as a gain; unproductive expenditure, however useful, as a sacrifice. Unproductive expenditure of what was destined to be expended productively, they always characterise as a squandering of resources, and call it profusion and prodigality. The productive expenditure of that which might, without encroaching upon capital, be expended unproductively, is called saving, economy, frugality. Want, misery, and starvation, are described as the lot of a nation which annually employs less and less of its labour and resources in production; growing comfort and opulence as the result of an annual increase in the quantity of wealth so employed.


Let us then examine what qualities in expenditure, and in the employment of labour, are those from which all the consequences above mentioned really flow.


The end to which all labour and all expenditure are directed, is twofold. Sometimes it is enjoyment immediately; the fulfilment of those desires, the gratification of which is wished for on its own account. Whenever labour or expense is not incurred immediately for the sake of enjoyment, and is yet not absolutely wasted, it must be incurred for the purpose of enjoyment indirectly or mediately; by either repairing and perpetuating, or adding, to the permanent sources of enjoyment.


Sources of enjoyment may be accumulated and stored up; enjoyment itself cannot. The wealth of a country consists of the sum total of the permanent sources of enjoyment, whether material or immaterial, contained in it: and labour or expenditure which tends to augment or to keep up these permanent sources, should, we conceive, be termed productive.


Labour which is employed for the purpose of directly affording enjoyment, such as the labour of a performer on a musical instrument, we term unproductive labour. Whatever is consumed by such a performer, we consider as unproductively consumed: the accumulated total of the sources of enjoyment which the nation possesses, is diminished by the amount of what he has consumed: whereas, if it had been given to him in exchange for his services in producing food or clothing, the total of the permanent sources of enjoyment in the country might have been not diminished but increased.


The performer on the musical instrument then is, so far as respects that act, not a productive, but an unproductive labourer. But what shall we say of the workman who made the musical instrument? He, most persons would say, is a productive labourer; and with reason; because the musical instrument is a permanent source of enjoyment, which does not begin and end with the enjoying, and therefore admits of being accumulated.


But the skill of the musician is a permanent source of enjoyment, as well as the instrument which he plays upon: and although skill is not a material object, but, a quality of an object, viz., of the hands and mind of the performer; nevertheless skill possesses exchangeable value, is acquired by labour and capital, and is capable of being stored and accumulated. Skill, therefore, must be considered as wealth; and the labour and funds employed in acquiring skill in anything tending to the advantage or pleasure of mankind, must be considered to be productively employed and expended.


The skill of a productive labourer is analogous to the machinery he works with: neither of them is enjoyment, nor conduces directly to it, but both conduce indirectly to it, and both in the same way. If a spinning-jenny be wealth, the spinner's skill is also wealth. If the mechanic who made the spinning-jenny laboured productively, the spinner also laboured productively when he was learning his trade: and what they both consumed was consumed productively, that is to say, its consumption did not tend to diminish, but to increase the sum of the permanent sources of enjoyment in the country, by effecting a new creation of those sources, more than equal to the amount of the consumption.


The skill of a tailor, and the implements he employs, contribute in the same way to the convenience of him who wears the coat, namely, a remote way: it is the coat itself which contributes immediately. The skill of Madame Pasta, and the building and decorations which aid the effect of her performance, contribute in the same way to the enjoyment of the audience, namely, an immediate way, without any intermediate instrumentality. The building and decorations are consumed unproductively, and Madame Pasta labours and consumes unproductively; for the building is used and worn out, and Madame Pasta performs, immediately for the spectators' enjoyment, and without leaving, as a consequence of the performance, any permanent result possessing exchangeable value: consequently the epithet unproductive must be equally applied to the gradual wearing out of the bricks and mortar, the nightly consumption of the more perishable "properties" of the theatre, the labour of Madame Pasta in acting, and of the orchestra in playing. But notwithstanding this, the architect who built the theatre was a productive labourer; so were the producers of the perishable articles; so were those who constructed the musical instruments; and so, we must be permitted to add, were those who instructed the musicians, and all persons who, by the instructions which they may have given to Madame Pasta, contributed to the formation of her talent. All these persons contributed to the enjoyment of the audience in the same way, and that a remote way, viz., by the production of a permanent source of enjoyment.


The difference between this case, and the case of the cotton spinner already adverted to, is this. The spinning jenny, and the skill of the cotton spinner, are not only the result of productive labour, but are themselves productively consumed. The musical instrument and the skill of the musician are equally the result of productive labour, but are themselves unproductively consumed.


Let us now consider what kinds of labour, and of consumption or expenditure, will be classed as productive, and what as unproductive, according to thus rule.


The following are always productive:


Labour and expenditure, of which the direct object or effect is the creation of some material product useful or agreeable to mankind.


Labour and expenditure, of which the direct effect and object are, to endow human or other animated beings with faculties or qualities useful or agreeable to mankind, and possessing exchangeable value.


Labour and expenditure, which without having for their direct object the creation of any useful material product or bodily or mental faculty or quality, yet tend indirectly to promote one or other of those ends, and are exerted or incurred solely for that purpose.


The following are partly productive and partly unproductive, and cannot with propriety be ranged decidedly with either class:


Labour or expenditure which does indeed create, or promote the creation of, some useful material product or bodily or mental faculty or quality, but which is not incurred or exerted for that sole end; having also for another, and perhaps its principal end, enjoyment, or the promotion of enjoyment.


Such are the labour of the judge, the legislator, the police-officer, the soldier; and the expenditure incurred for their support. These functionaries protect and secure mankind in the exclusive possession of such material products or acquired faculties as belong to them; and by the security which they so confer, they indirectly increase production in a degree far more than equivalent to the expense which is necessary for their maintenance. But this is not the only purpose for which they exist; they protect mankind, not merely in the possession of their permanent resources, but also in their actual enjoyments; and so far, although highly useful, they cannot, conformably to the distinction which we have attempted to lay down, be considered productive labourers.


Such, also, are the labour and the wages of domestic servants. Such persons are entertained mainly as subservient to mere enjoyment; but most of them occasionally, and some habitually, render services which must be considered as of a productive nature; such as that of cookery, the last stage in the manufacture of food; or gardening, a branch of agriculture.


The following are wholly unproductive:


Labour exerted and expenditure incurred, directly and exclusively for the purpose of enjoyment, and not calling into existence anything, whether substance or quality, but such as begins and perishes in the enjoyment.


Labour exerted and expenditure incurred uselessly, or in pure waste, and yielding neither dirert enjoyment nor permanent sources of enjoyment.


It may be objected, that expenditure incurred even for pure enjoyment promotes production indirectly, by inciting to exertion. Thus the view of the splendour of a rich establishment is supposed by some writers to produce upon the mind of an indigent spectator an earnest desire of enjoying the same luxuries, and a consequent purpose of working with vigour and diligence, and saving from his earnings, thus increasing the productive capital of the country.


It is true that mankind are, for the most part, excited to productive industry solely by the desire of subsequently consuming the result of their labour and accumulation. The consumption called unproductive, viz., that of which the direct result is enjoyment, is in reality the end, to which production is only the means and a desire for the end, is what alone impels any one to have recourse to the means. But, notwithstanding this, it is of the greatest importance to mark the distinction between the labour, and the consumption which have enjoyment for their immediate end, and the labour and the consumption of which the immediate end is reproduction. Though the sight of the former may still further stimulate that desire for the enjoyments afforded by wealth, which the mere knowledge, without the immediate view, would suffice to excite (and without dwelling on the consideration that if the example of a large expenditure excites one individual to accumulation, it encourages two to prodigal expense); still, if we look only to the effects which are intended, or to those which immediately follow from the consumption, and whose connexion with it can be distinctly traced, it evidently renders a country poorer in the permanent sources of enjoyment; while reproductive consumption leaves the country richer in these same sources. Besides, if what is spent for mere pleasure promotes indirectly the increase of wealth, it can only be by inducing others not to expend on mere pleasure.


Before quitting the subject, one more observation should be added. It must not be supposed that what is expended upon unproductive labourers is necessarily, the whole of it, unproductively consumed. The unproductive labourers may save part of their wages, and invest them in a productive employment.


It is not unusual to speak of what is paid in wages to a labourer as being thereby consumed, as if all profit and loss to the nation were to be seen in the capitalist's account-book. What is paid for productive labour is said to be productively consumed; what is paid for unproductive labour is said to be consumed unproductively. It would be proper to say, not that it is productively or unproductively consumed, but productively or unproductively expended; otherwise, we shall be obliged to say that it is consumed twice over; the first time unproductively, perhaps, and the second, it may be, productively.


To pronounce in which way the wages of the labourer are consumed, we must follow them into the labourer's own hands. As much as is necessary to keep the productive labourer in perfect health and fitness for his employment, may be said to be consumed productively. To this should be added what he expends in rearing children to the age at which they become capable of productive industry. If the state of the market for labour be such as to afford him more, this he may either save, or, as the common expression is, he may spend it. If he saves any portion, this (unless it be merely hoarded) he intends to employ productively, and it will be productively consumed. If he spends it, the consumption is for enjoyment immediately, and is therefore unproductive.


This suggests another correction in the established language. Political economists generally define the "net produce" to be that portion of the gross annual produce of a country which remains after replacing the capital annually consumed. This, as they proceed to explain, consists of profits and rent; wages being included in the other portion of the gross produce, that which goes to replace capital. After this definition, they usually proceed to tell us that the net produce, and that alone, constitutes the fund from which a nation can accumulate, and add to its capital, as also that which it can, without retrograding in wealth, expend unproductively, or for enjoyment. Now, it is impossible that both the above propositions can be true. If the net produce is that which remains after replacing capital, then net produce is not the only fund out of which accumulation may be made: for accumulation may be made from wages; this is in all countries one of the great sources, and in countries like America perhaps the greatest source of accumulation. If, on the other hand, it is desirable to reserve the name of net produce to denote the fund available for accumulation or for unproductive consumption, we must define net produce differently. The definition which appears the best adapted to render the ordinary doctrines relating to net produce true, would be this:


The net produce of a country is whatever is annually produced beyond what is necessary for maintaining the stock of materials and implements unimpaired, for keeping all productive labourers alive and in condition for work, and for just keeping up their numbers without increase. What is required for these purposes, or, in other words, for keeping up the productive resources of the country, cannot be diverted from its destination without rendering the nation as a whole poorer. But all which is produced beyond this, whether it be in the hands of the labourer, of the capitalist, or of any of the numerous varieties of rent-owners, may be taken for immediate enjoyment, without prejudice to the productive resources of the community; and whatever part of it is not so taken, constitutes a clear addition to the national capital, or to the permanent sources of enjoyment.

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