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subject claiming scientific rank. Indeed, the closest parallel to be
found is that presented by the denominational theological schools,
in which, a creed being required by the rigor of the case, any pre-
tensions on the score of scientific character naturally take an
altogether subordinate position. It is, in fact, difficult to imagine
any corresponding requirement made of a professor of geology, or
chemistry, or mathematics, and nearly as difficult to imagine it in
the case of a philosopher, historian, or jurist. The case may
indeed be cited of a seminary in South Carolina, the trustees of
which, a few years ago, were so ill-advised as to displace a pro-
fessor on the avowed ground that he was an evolutionist ; ^ but
this transaction was too much obscured by the odium theologicum
to be important in the present connection.

' The secrecy which was judiciously maintained as to the text of the original
instrument in this well-known case makes it impossible to cite the exact language here.
It is understood that wiser counsels have ultimately prevailed, and that the impossible
terms of the original foundation have been relaxed so as not to be inconsistent with the
dignity of self-respecting scholars, or with the enjoyment of scientific reputation by the
school itself.

"^ See the Nation, October 2 and December iS, 1884.


More plausible, but not more defensible in reason, than the
requirement of a creed is the suggestion not infrequently made,
that upon a subject like this it is the duty of a fully equipped uni-
versity to have instruction given upon both sides of the controverted
question, and by instructors selected for this purpose, — not se-
lected, therefore, as being the best available persons, irrespective
of their opinions upon this matter, but selected because of those
opinions in order to represent opposing theories. Any individual
dealing with such a question, it is maintained, must have his opin-
ions formed. Let his desire to preserve a judicial impartiality in
training and directing his students be, then, as great as it may, his
own thought as to the conclusions to be reached, it is said, must
needs give a bias to his instruction, and in any case must be evident
to his hearers, carrying authority in their minds and thus tending
to educate them exclusively to his views. Therefore, it is con-
cluded, both sides should be presented with conviction by those who
are qualified and anxious to set their respective opinions in their
best light, and the ingenious student should be permitted to make
his choice of results freely. There can be no doubt that what is
called a "joint discussion" thus permanently established in a uni-
versity would be a highly attractive exhibition, and that by its aid
a study sometimes found arid might easily be made entertaining.
But here, again, there is probably no other subject in the academic
range concerning which such a proposition would not instantly be
covered with ridicule — no other subject, with the possible excep-
tion of theology, in which the incongruity of establishing a man to
preach a doctrine and caUing this the promotion of science would
not be instantly perceived. There may, indeed, be the case in
which two expositors of a given subject by fortunate chance
present it in different aspects, and true investigation may gain
thereby ; but this is something radically different from the propo-
sition which we are now considering, to establish a permanent
polemic between men selected as advocates, not to say as partisans.

The reason of this incongruity is not far to seek. Let us sup-
pose by way of illustration that, by some change of public opinion,
the socialistic movement should reach the political stage of devel-
opment, and some proposition involving the main principle should
find its affirmative or negative in all the party platforms. Nothing
could be more natural than for the socialists to declare that, for the


right investigation of their system, the presentation of it by con-
vinced socialists is absolutely necessary, that justice to their argu-
ments cannot be expected from those who still cling to the old
order of things, and that debate between advocates will best eluci-
date the truth. Indeed, the socialists might well set up to-day the
demand for special representation upon the staff of any large uni-
versity, if the importance of the question raised by them, its inevi-
table claim for an answer, and the risk of prepossession against
them, are sufficient grounds for such representation. But among
sober-minded seekers of truth — and we have no concern with any-
body else — there would be little doubt that, in any such case, the
process of systematic representation of adverse views would be
the conflict of prejudices rather than a true investigation, and that
it bears no likeness whatever to the careful and reasoned methods
by which any scientific inquiry advances from step to step. In
short, the method of treatment would be felt to be incongruous
with the subject-matter. The same would be true of every ques-
tion of economics, so far as it is a fit subject for academic treat-
ment. The subject-matter is in every case a relation of cause and
effect, requiring to be studied with a single eye to truth of result ;
but the proposed method effectually excludes the probability of
such study on either side of the question, by presupposing advo-
cacy, when the process of investigation plainly ought to be kept
as free as is humanly possible from every disturbing influence.-^

After all, however, the question must remain. What is the
proper treatment of the disputed topics which necessarily come
to view in the scientific exposition of political economy .-' As has
been said above, these topics are not few in number, although few
of them have reached the political stage. The economic and
social effects of private ownership of land ; the effects and the
claims for preference of different methods of taxation, direct or
indirect, upon property real or personal, and proportional or pro-
gressive ; the choice between government currency and bank paper,
and between the gold standard and the free coinage of silver ; the

1 There is, of course, paid representation of opposite opinions, and perhaps upon
essentially scientific propositions, whenever a court hears a case argued by counsel ; but
this method of informing the highly trained mind of the court of all the considerations
that can be presented on either side, as a preparation for its decision, has no analogy to
the case of the university, where the minds addressed are, from the nature of the case,
not yet trained, ami the work in hand is not decision, but training.


choice between private and state ownership of public works ; the
powers and duty of the state with respect to combinations of cap-
ital on the one hand and of labor on the other ; the fundamental
question of all, as to the organization of society upon the basis of
individual property rights or upon that of communism, qualified
or complete, — such questions as these, no less than that between
protection and free trade, fill the public mind, frequently divide
enlightened opinion, and call for investigation by processes, if they
can be found, as scrupulously scientific as those of mathematics.
On some of these questions the judgment of the best trained econ-
omist may well be in suspense. On some of them, and perhaps
on most, every earnest scholar is likely to have his opinion formed,
and in that case, although his mind should still remain open for
fresh light, is tolerably certain to feel his interest strongly engaged
on the one side or the other. Such is the inherent difificulty of
treating by scientific methods any subject which has a direct bear-
ing upon the action or well-being either of society or of its indi-
vidual members.

Nothing need be said here as to the necessity of impartiality
of judgment, for that is of the essence of any scientific method.
As little need be said of the frequently suggested claims of sym-
pathy or patriotism, for these have their place in an inquiry of an
entirely different order from the search for economic truth. It is
to be presumed that the guide in such a search preserves at any
rate the consciousness of impartial purpose, and aims to keep his
mind free from all influences foreign to the matter actually in
hand. Giving him the benefit of this presumption, what is he to
do with the occasions which lie all along his path for the state-
ment or suggestion of individual opinion upon questions like those
referred to above .-'

At this point we must recall the distinction often insisted upon
by economists, and as often forgotten by them as by anybody else,
between economic laws and the application of those laws in practi-
cal administration and legislation. The economic lav/, the deduc-
tion of pure science, is simply the statement of a causal relation,
usually between a small number of forces and their joint effect,
possibly between a single force and its effect. For the statement
of that relation the case has been freed from every disturbing
element, and with the result, it is hardly necessary to repeat, of


giving a proposition which, however important, is only condition-
ally true. The laws of value, in their simplest generalization, are
true only under certain assumed conditions of complete competi-
tion. The law of rent is a fine example of a law of never failing
operation, which, however, is not usually seen with its conditions
in the absolutely simple state in which the economist, for the pur-
poses of reasoning, imagines them. But, when we come to the
application of economics to legislation, we enter at once into a
region of necessarily confused conditions, and also become con-
scious of objective ends often having little or no relation to any
economic doctrine. For any purpose of legislation, the social and
industrial conditions of a country — such as they have been made
by long past history, by newly kindled enterprise, or by sudden
calamity — have to be a guiding consideration. The present
needs of a people have to be weighed, perhaps, against what might
seem to be its ultimate advantage ; and what is socially or politi-
cally possible has to be accepted as the limit. ^ The objects aimed
at by legislation may also be entirely different from those sug-
gested by simple economic deductions. For the purposes of the
legislator, even the certainty of economic loss which is indicated
by some unquestioned principle may be an entirely immaterial
consideration, to be set aside as of no weight in comparison with
the object in view, or as merely the cost which he can afford to
pay for some great uneconomic gain.^ We can even conceive the
economist as deliberately contravening, in view of the general con-
ditions of the case, what would seem to be the natural conclusion
from his own doctrine, — as, for example, we may conceive a be-

^ Mr. Keynes observes that "in a few departments, such as those of currency and
banking, we meet with cases where, having determined the economic consequences of a
given proposal, we practically have before us all the data requisite for a wise decision in
regard to its adoption or rejection. But more usually — where we pass, for instance, to
problems of taxation, or to problems that concern the relations of the state with trade
and industry, or to the general discussion of communistic and socialistic schemes — it is
far from being the case that economic considerations hold the field exclusively. Account
must also be taken of ethical, social, and political considerations that lie outside the
sphere of political economy regarded as a science." "The Scope and Method of Politi-
cal Economy," p. 55. It may be doubted, however, whether, even in such departments
as currency and banking, simple cases are so easily found as is here implied.

''And so Adam Smith says, "As defence, however, is of much more importance
than opulence, the act of navigation is, perhaps, the wisest of all the commercial regula-
tions of England." " Wealth of Nations," Bk. IV., ch. ii.


liever in the single gold standard advocating, in the present state
of the world, international bimetallism, or vice versa. It is com-
mon, therefore, to hear the questions of legislation, which are to
be determined in view of a confused mass of conditions, perhaps
not closely related to each other, spoken of as " simple questions
of expediency," with the suggestion, implied if not expressed, that
economic science has nothing to do with them. Questions of ex-
pediency alone they cannot be, for they all involve the action of
economic forces ; but they undoubtedly are mixed questions, in-
volving considerations of expediency, it may be of highly complex
character, and therefore not to be determined by any purely scien-
tific test.^

Here we reach a distinction of some consequence with reference
to the proper treatment of the great disputed questions. The
investigation of economic law is a strictly scientific inquiry, as
much as the investigation of the law of gravitation, and the de-
termination of economic law falls within the competence of the
university. Indeed, one of the great objects for which the univer-
sity exists is to train minds for such inquiry and to further the
advance of knowledge in precisely such obscure departments.
But on the mixed questions of legislative policy and expediency,
it is not the province of the university to pronounce. They indeed
involve questions of science, as they involve much else ; but their
solution is not an act of the scientific judgment. It is, on the
contrary, an act of the political judgment, enlightened by the aid
of economic science, of jurisprudence, of the study of human
nature itself, or whatever else may serve to clear up the matter
in hand. The historical narratives in which the great questions
of the past lie embedded are no doubt objects of university study,
and the unravelling of their tangled threads affords a valuable
training, by means of a subject-matter of unfailing interest ; but
it is no part of the business of the university to pronounce ex
cathedra upon the policies which may find in such narratives some
illustration, but which must after all rest upon indeterminate and
probably transitory conditions. So, too, the great financial and
industrial questions of the day supply the best of material for

^ Compare the common remark that " freedom of trade is good in theory but not in
practice," which is a manner of saying that conclusions, scientifically correct in the
speaker's opinion, must be applied with careful regard to extraneous conditions.


practice in the analysis of complicated problems and in the collect-
ing and weighing of evidence ; but in all this it is the acquisition
of power in the dealing with problems, and not the solution of any-
practical question, that is the real matter in hand. The university
may, and if successful in its true functions will, supply scientific
data for the use of all who are concerned in the settlement of
legislative and administrative questions ; but, when to these data
are added the many others which form a part of the basis for all
practical decisions, the further declaration of opinion from the
university chair becomes an obiter dictum, not necessary in the
strict performance of duty, and raising some difficult questions of

The distinction here taken between strict scientific questions
and mixed questions of science and expediency, it is true, is not
usually observed. In a loose use of language, we are apt to speak
of any question involving economics as an economic question, and
to treat it, possibly until judgment is given against us, as some-
thing to be settled by scientific reasoning alone. But is there one
such question which the wise legislator will dispose of in this
manner, or as to which the considerate economist, whether in the
chair or out of it, will give on scientific grounds an unreserved
judgment.'' It is only by extending the definition of political
economy itself, so as to include a vast region of politics and ethics,
and thus destroying the possibility of all scientific precision, that
we can describe as economic questions a great mass of those which
commonly pass for such. This confusion of boundaries is no doubt
often ventured upon, and with the eager student the temptation
to it must always exist. Nevertheless, the line between political
economy and the allied subjects appears to be drawn by reason
and necessity, as well as by authority ; and, being drawn, it brings
with it the distinction here made between the question of science
and those of practice.^

1 Professor Marshall observes that " it is not the function of a science to lay down
practical precepts or to prescribe rules of life. The laws of economics, as of other
sciences, are couched in the indicative, and not in the imperative, mood : tiicy are
statements as to the effects produced by different causes, singly or in combination.
They are not rules ready for immediate application in practical politics." And in a
note, remarking upon the tendency of some writers, especially in P'rance, to enlarge the
scope of political economy so as to make it include practical politics, the same writer
adds : "Of course an economist retains the liberty, common to all the world, of express-


The teacher of political economy must be supposed, however,
as has already been remarked, to have his views upon the questions
which lie beyond the strict Hmit of scientific conclusions ; and as
one who is much occupied with the subject-matter in one of its
aspects, and so is familiar with its importance, he may be expected
to hold his opinions with strong conviction and interest. But, in
his capacity as teacher, is he to express these opinions or to with-
hold them ? The way to an answer to this question may be
partially cleared, perhaps, if we consider the general relation of
instructor and student, as regards their respective conclusions upon
the subjects of their study in common. In no moral science is there
a body of truths, as in the exact sciences, capable of demonstration
by a process which shall exclude the possibility of difference of
judgment between instructed minds. The great service done by
the instructor in moral sciences is, as has been said above, to train
the mind of the student to scientific reasoning. That the student
should learn to reason truly is of far more consequence than that
he should perceive and accept any particular truth ; and the real
success of the instructor is found, not in bringing his students to
think exactly as he does, — which is unlikely to happen, and indeed
unnatural, — but in teaching them to use their own faculties ac-
curately and with measured confidence. Even within the strict
bounds of science, then, the instructor is little concerned with
the greater or less uniformity of conclusion among his students,
and is not properly concerned at all with anything like the propa-
gation of his own views. He is interested in making his reasoning
process clearly understood; but this is because of the value of the
logical process itself, and not for the sake of producing conviction
in the particular individuals addressed. There is no duty laid upon
the instructor's conscience to satisfy every doubt and to inculcate
certain propositions as absolute truth ; but it is his duty to show how
to practise clear analysis and just discrimination in scientific reason-
ing, and, if he has done this with success, he may well be content.

And when we come to the questions of applied economics, the
questions in which science and political expediency both have their

ing his opinion that a certain course of action is the right one under given circumstances.
And, if the difficulties of the problem are chiefly economic, he may speak with a certain
authority. But so may a chemist with regard to other problems, and yet no reasonable
person regards the laws of chemistry as precepts." " Principles of Economics," i. 89.


part, we come to a class of possible decisions which, according to
the view here taken, it is distinctly the duty of the university in-
structor not to press upon his students. DeaUng with such ques-
tions, as he must in order to make a comprehensive survey of his
own proper field, it is his business to carefully disentangle the
scientific considerations from all others, and to show their limita-
tion as determined by the supposed conditions which underlie the
scientific reasoning. But it is not his province to strike the balance
between all the conflicting interests and arguments, scientific,
political, and ethical, which actually present themselves for con-
sideration. Still less is it his business to enforce the conclusions
which, upon such balance being struck, appear satisfactory to his
own mind ; for if as regards the questions of pure science he has
an object in view more important than mere conformity of belief
even in the best established truth, still more on the debatable
ground must he give a subordinate place to such conformity.
Indeed, looking solely at his relation as instructor, the assent of
his pupils upon questions outside of the scientific range becomes
as irrelevant as their agreement with his preferences in party
politics or with his religious beliefs.

This, however, is not the same thing as to say that the instructor
should suppress his opinions on the class of mixed questions now
in view. His dignity may forbid a course which might be inter-
preted as concealment ; and there are, moreover, few men whose
weight of authority is such as to compel any extraordinary caution
in the declaration of their minds. As a citizen, taking his part in
the affairs of the community, the instructor has occasion to form
opinions and to act upon them ; and it is his right in that relation
to do what he may to lead others to act with him. In the univer-
sity, however, he is under other obligations ; and there it is for him
to decide, how far, with his habit of mind and his temperament, he
can give expression to judgments lying beyond his proper sphere,
and yet related to it, without injury to the severe neutrality of sci-
ence which he is bound to preserve within that sphere. It may
well be that no two men could follow with advantage the same rule
in this respect. It has sometimes been said of this or that teacher
of economics, in the friendly comment of former pupils, that after
long intercourse the teacher's opinion upon some great question of
the day was still unknown to the pupil. The bearing of such com-



ments is equivocal, depending very likely upon conditions of which
no observer, however close, can judge. If the teacher's silence as
to his own opinion was the result of fear of misconstruction or
dread of controversy, his timidity deserved small praise. If he
was silent because this appeared to him the only way to preserve
the judicial attitude prescribed by his position, he may have laid
down a stricter rule for himself than was necessary, and so, after
all, may not have attained the highest success. If he was silent
because the importance of holding his students to strictly scientific
analysis and deduction, in which they would find their best training
and most solid results, was always uppermost in his mind, and
because any individual opinion upon questions of a secondary order
was therefore unimportant for his purpose and as it were intrusive,
then, indeed, the comment is complimentary. But it is only the
teacher himself who can determine whether it really does thus
mark the self-forgetful devotion of his best powers.


In the current criticism of the economists of the old school,
frequent mention is naturally made of what is understood to be
Ricardo's fondness for mere theorizing. In a general way, it is
admitted that he was a man of affairs ; but, as a writer upon
economics, he seems to his critics, and no doubt to a large part of
his readers, like a man writing in a cave, the course of his thoughts
not being at all affected by the actual transactions of life. And
yet he did himself suppose that facts had their part in determining
his conclusions. He expresses the hope, in the preface of his
principal work, that it will not be deemed presumptuous in him to

Online LibraryCharles Franklin DunbarEconomic essays → online text (page 8 of 40)