Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on September 30, 2022

in Complexity & Emergence, Economics, Video

… is from pages 174-175 of Edwin Cannan’s December 1902 address to the British Association (Section F) – an address titled “The Practical Utility of Economic Science” – as this address is reprinted in the 1912 collection of some of Cannan’s essays, The Economic Outlook (E. Cannan, ed.) (paragraph break added for ease of reading):

The first, or almost the first, thing he [“the modern teacher of economic theory”] will do is try to open the eyes of his pupils to the wonderful way in which the people of the whole civilized world now co-operate in the production of wealth. He may perhaps read them Adam Smith’s famous description of the making of the labourer’s coat, a description which required three generations and three great writers to elaborate in the form in which we know it. Or he will ask them to consider the daily feeding of London. There are, he will point out, six millions of people in and about London, so closely packed together that they cannot grow anything for their own consumption, and yet every morning their food arrives with unfailing regularity, so that all but an infinitesimal fraction of them would be extremely surprised if they did not find their breakfast ready to hand. To prepare it they use coal which has been dug from great depths hundreds of miles away in the Midlands or Durham; in consuming it they eat and drink products which have come from Wiltshire, Jamaica, Dakota, or China, with no more thought than an infant consuming its mother’s milk. It is clear that there is in existence some machinery, some organisation for production which, in spite of occasional failures here and there, does its work on the whole with extraordinary success.

It is easy to be pessimistic, especially when the weather is damp, and we are apt to concentrate our attention, and to endeavor to make others concentrate their attention, on this or that defect, and to forget that the system is not made up of defects, but on the whole works very well. Imagine the report of a really outside observer. In all civilised planets, I have no doubt, there must be an institution more or less resembling the British Association. An economist in Mars, let us say, has been favoured with a glimpse of this island through a new mammoth telescope of sufficient power to let him see us walking about, and he is reporting to Section F what he saw. Will he say that he saw a confused scramble for the scanty natural products of the earth? That most people were obviously in a state of starvation? That few had clothes? And that scarcely any were housed? No, truly; he will be much more likely to report that he saw a wonderfully orderly population, going to and from its work with amazing regularity, without a sign of compulsion or unwillingness; that it appeared to be fed and clothed and housed in way extraordinarily creditable on the whole to some mysterious organisation, the nature of which he could only guess it.

DBx: This.

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