Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on September 24, 2011

in Civil Society, Complexity & Emergence, Cooperation, Economics, History, Hubris and humility, Law

… is from page 253 of Sir Henry Sumner Maine’s brilliant 1861 book Ancient Law:

It is certain that the science of Political Economy, the only department of moral inquiry which has made any considerable progress in our day, would fail to correspond with the facts of life if it were not true that Imperative Law had abandoned the largest part of the field which it once occupied, and had left men to settle rules of conduct for themselves with a liberty never allowed to them til recently.  The bias indeed of most persons trained in political economy is to consider the general truth on which their science reposes as entitled to become universal, and, when they apply it as an art, their efforts are ordinarily directed to enlarging the province of Contract and to curtailing that of Imperative Law, except so far as law is necessary to enforce the performance of Contracts.

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Kevin L September 24, 2011 at 8:32 am

In case anyone has trouble with the archaic language, allow me to commentate:

“It is certain that the science of Political Economy, the only department of moral inquiry ["social sciences"] which has made any considerable progress in our day, would fail to correspond with the facts of life [would not be a suitable model of economic activity] if it were not true that Imperative Law [government regulation] had abandoned the largest part of the field which it once occupied [that is, trade and production], and had left men to settle rules of conduct for themselves with a liberty never allowed to them til recently. The bias indeed of most persons trained in political economy [the tendency of economists] is to consider the general truth on which their science reposes [i.e., that liberty has had a positive effect on trade and production] as entitled to become universal [will almost inevitably be accepted by every nation and group], and, when they apply it as an art [when economists apply economic ideas philosophically], their efforts are ordinarily directed to enlarging the province of Contract [freedom of agreement between or among individuals should be applied to all areas of social life] and to curtailing that of Imperative Law [decreasing government regulation], except so far as law is necessary to enforce the performance of Contracts. [the primary function of law is to get people to honor their agreements]“

JS September 24, 2011 at 9:12 am

I offer “legislation” as a better term than “regulation”.

Regulation is a subset of legislation, and we think more narrowly with regards to it.

As an example, do we think of marriage laws as regulation? Certainly, we know it as legislation, but everything covered under its name could be achieved through modes of private contract, and there are economic and financial ramifications involved.

We think of laws that regulate corporations, but rarely contemplate the fact the legislative definition of a corporate entity is itself a coercive regulation.

Kevin L September 24, 2011 at 10:10 am

JS, good point. I think, though, that regulation is a more readily understood in emotional terms. “Legislation” conjures up thoughts of words on a page in some law registry, whereas regulation is the execution of legislation. Of course, in recent years here in the USA we’ve seen a disconnect between legislation and regulation, where regulators either disregard some laws or enforce rules that were never formed by legislation.

kyle8 September 24, 2011 at 10:09 am

Thank you for that, I gathered that he was comparing the ability of contract and civil law to supplant the need for criminal codes to regulate everyday commerce.

GiT September 24, 2011 at 8:01 pm

Your annotations miss the mark a bit.

Moral inquiry is not really social science, but liberal arts, and really something closer to philosophy. Hence the emphasis on political economy’s general truths rather than the facts of life themselves (which would be the object of scientific/naturalistic inquiry as opposed to moral/philosophical inquiry).

So when Maine refers to the ‘general truth’ on which their [moral] science reposes, it is not the empirical fact that increases in liberty correspond to increases in economic productivity, but the moral/philosophical principle that increases in free contract will always increase productivity. (Comparative advantage is a logical/mathematical truth before it is an empirical one)

Accordingly, when Maine speaks of ‘an art’, this implies applying philosophical principles practically, not economic ideas philosophically. This goes back to the Greek distinction between techne and episteme, art and knowledge. Practicing economics as an art is to let episteme guide techne – to let true knowledge guide practical action.

The most pernicious part of the quote can be helped by removing the double negatives.

One can rewrite the ‘fail to correspond… if it were not true’ section, using your ammendations as…

Political Economy corresponds to the facts of life because government regulation has abandoned trade and production.

Political economy is true regardless of what we do. The empirical fact that private contract has increased in scope along with prosperity was not necessary for arriving at the moral principles of political economy, they merely attest to the philosophic truths discovered by political economists. But because people have been following the principles of political economy, political economy happens to correspond to reality.

(The logic of this statement is actually quite muddled, but it’s not worth getting into that.)

Finally, when Maine talks about a tendency towards universality, he is not talking about universal acceptance but universal application. Economists don’t think that their truth is ‘entitled’ to everyone’s belief, they think it is ‘entitled’ to become a principle for all human interactions – that free contract should define all relations, not just economic ones. For Maine, the point is that Political Economists are partisans for liberty in all aspects of life, not that everyone will tend to become partisans for freedom in one aspect of life (trade).

Becky Hargrove September 24, 2011 at 8:55 am

I have been trying to unpack my library for a couple of days (stored for 10 months) and this book, Ancient Law only had a few books on top of it! However I struggle with the language, so will have to read from it on days when my brain is not so foggy…

JS September 24, 2011 at 9:16 am

Maine’s other book, “Popular Government”, is easier to read, but the subject matter covered in ancient law is more fully elaborated in a more recent book by John Maxcy Zane called “The Story of Law”.

Randy September 24, 2011 at 9:25 am

But the bias of most mortals is to achieve status. The objective of the ideologists of the social arts may be the achievement of a fair and just world, but their ideas must always be turned over to status seekers for application.

Kevin L September 24, 2011 at 10:24 am

Randy, you might consider the practice of judges. Most judges’ status – in regards to popularity among constituents – is based on their fairness, justice, and ideology. Fairness and status are not exclusive; the key is to understand that cooperation and mutual benefit are the best means to higher status.

Randy September 24, 2011 at 11:38 am

Kevin,

You say that cooperation and mutual benefit are the “best” means. Subjectively, I agree. Objectively, that does not appear to be the case.

The clearest example I can think of for pure cooperation and mutual benefit would be a low wage worker of some sort. There is no political behavior involved here at all. No union, no politically regulated certifications, no connections… just pure service in return for wages. Low status.

Contrast this with our judge, who is paid from a political tax collection, and achieved the position by completing a politically regulated plan. High status.

Andy September 24, 2011 at 1:45 pm

I think you should save the quotations for when you actually find a good one.

Economic Freedom September 25, 2011 at 1:05 am

Free online reading edition (not a PDF download):

http://tinyurl.com/5tx4hwg

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