North and South

by Don Boudreaux on June 3, 2010

in Books, Cooperation, Seen and Unseen, The Economy, The Profit Motive

I recently read, for the first time, Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South.  It was originally published in in 1855.  “North” refers to Manchester, England (which, in the novel, is named “Milton”).  “South” refers to bucolic, rural England.

Although a friend of Charles Dickens, Gaskell – at least in this novel (which is the only work of hers that I’ve read) – is rather anti-Dickens.  (Qualification: Having now read several Dickens novels, including Hard Times, my opinion is that, while Dickens certainly was no friend of laissez faire capitalism, he was also not the cardboard anti-capitalist that pop legend has made him out to be.)

Gaskell’s novel isn’t the finest work of literature that I’ve read.  Far from it.  But North and South has several excellent moments.  More importantly, in it Gaskell offers wise support for industrial capitalism.  She clearly was a natural economist, because it is evident that her mind instinctively always asked that most distinctive and crucial of all questions that is asked by an economist: “As compared to what?”

Not surprisingly, then, Gaskell’s characters often speak deep truths.  For example, entrepreneurial and proud mill owner John Thornton explains to an Oxford don the tension between too-often rarefied academic theories and the important but largely unheralded actions of (typically non-intellectual) business people – business people who always must act on their unique knowledge of time, place, and circumstance:

But to men groping in new circumstances, it would be finer if the words of experience could direct us how to act in what concerns us most intimately and immediately; which is full of difficulties that must be encountered; and upon the mode in which they are met and conquered–not merely pushed aside for the time–depends our future.  Out of the wisdom of the past, help us over the present.  But no!  People can speak of Utopia much more easily than of the next day’s duty; and yet when that duty is all done by others, who so ready to cry, “Fie, for shame!”

Thornton here offers a very Hayekian piece of wisdom: A crucial fact of modern life is the ever-changing gazillion facts-on-the-ground that producers and consumers must continually adjust to if the economy is to satisfy as many human wants as possible.  These facts, however, cannot possibly be collected in articulable form, transmitted to government officials, and then ‘adjusted to’ by these officials quickly enough to keep the economy humming along reasonably well.  Instead, individuals on the spot must have the freedom and responsibility to adjust to these changes as each of them senses and interprets these changes.

It’s easy enough for book-learned academics to scorn the daily business – the “duty,” as the character Thornton calls it – of business people.  But, as Thornton rightly points out, it is the height of childish arrogance and ignorance for academics and intellectuals to wag their fingers in scorn at the men and women in business who daily perform these duties.

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