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THE COOPERATIVE CHARACTER OF THE PRESENT ECONOMIC ORDER.
One of the most conspicuous facts about the existing economic order is that, although in the highest degree individualistic, it is, after all, really coöperative. Although each of us acts on his own responsibility, independently of others, there being no formal concert of action, yet in reality we are coöperating in accomplishing the ultimate objects of our efforts; since the goods which we actually enjoy as the fruit of our efforts are chiefly the products of other people's efforts. Further this coöperation of ours, though informal and largely unconscious, is not chaotic, unregulated. On the contrary, it shows a high degree of order and rationality. It is automatically regulated in a way which, generally speaking, secures far better results than any experiment in organized coöperation has thus far been able to achieve. These facts are effectively brought out in the following extracts from Whately and Adam Smith, though economists of our day would scarcely approve the theological ideas which influenced these writers, especially Whately.
A. *As it is, many of the most important objects [which society must seek] are accomplished by the joint agency of persons who never think of them, nor have any idea of
Whately Introductory Lectures in Political Economy (1831). From Lecture IV.
acting in concert; and that, with a certainty, completeness, and regularity, which probably the most diligent benevolence under the guidance of the greatest human wisdom, could never have attained.
For instance, let any one propose to himself the problem of supplying with daily provisions of all kinds such a city as our metropolis, containing above a million of inhabitants. Let him imagine himself a head-commissary, entrusted with the office of furnishing to this enormous host their daily rations. Any considerable failure in the supply, even for a single day, might produce the most frightful distress; since the spot on which they are cantoned produces absolutely nothing. Some indeed of the articles consumed admit of being reserved in public or private stores, for a considerable time; but many, including most articles of animal food, and many of vegetable, are of the most perishable nature. As a deficient supply of these even for a few days, would occasion great inconvenience, so, a redundancy of them would produce a corresponding waste. Moreover, in a district of such vast extent, as this "province" (as it has been aptly called) "covered with houses," it is essential that the supplies should be so distributed among the different . quarters, as to be brought almost to the doors of the inhabitants; at least within such a distance, that they may, without an inconvenient waste of time and labour, procure their daily shares.
Moreover, whereas the supply of provisions for an army or garrison is comparatively uniform in kind: here the greatest possible variety is required, suitable to the wants of various classes of consumers.
Again, this immense population is extremely fluctuating in number; and the increase or diminution depends on causes, of which, though some may, others can not, be distinctly foreseen. The difference of several weeks in the arrival, for instance, of one of the great commercial fleets, or in the assembly or dissolution of a parliament, which cause a great variation in the population, it is often impossible to foresee.
Lastly, and above all, the daily supplies of each article must be so nicely adjusted to the stock from which it is
drawn to the scanty, or more or less abundant, harvest— importation or other source of supply-to the interval which is to elapse before a fresh stock can be furnished, and to the probable abundance of the new supply that as little distress as possible may be undergone;-that on the one hand the population may not unnecessarily be put upon short allowance of the article, and that on the other hand they may be preserved from the more dreadful risk of famine, which would ensue from their continuing a free consumption when the store was insufficient to hold out.
Now let any one consider this problem in all its bearings, reflecting on the enormous and fluctuating number of persons to be fed the immense quantity, and the variety, of the provisions to be furnished, the importance of a convenient distribution of them, and the necessity of husbanding them discreetly; and then let him reflect on the anxious toil which such a task would impose on a Board of the most experienced and intelligent commissaries; who after all would be able to discharge their office but very inadequately.
Yet this object is accomplished far better than it could be by any effort of human wisdom, through the agency of men, who think each of nothing beyond his own immediate interest, who, with that object in view, perform their respective parts with cheerful zeal,-and combine unconsciously to employ the wisest means for effecting an object, the vastness of which it would bewilder them even to contemplate.
Early and long familiarity is apt to generate a careless, -I might almost say, a stupid indifference, to many objects, which, if new to us, would excite a great and a just admiration; and many are inclined even to hold cheap a stranger, who expresses wonder at what seems to us very natural and simple, merely because we have been used to it; while in fact perhaps our apathy is a more just subject of contempt than his astonishment. Moyhanger, a NewZealander who was brought to England, was struck with especial wonder, in his visit to London, at the mystery, as it appeared to him, how such an immense population could be fed; as he saw neither cattle nor crops. Many of the
Londoners, who would perhaps have laughed at the savage's admiration, would probably have been found never to have even thought of the mechanism which is here at work.
It is really wonderful to consider with what ease and regularity this important end is accomplished, day after day, and year after year, through the sagacity and vigilance of private interest operating on the numerous class, of wholesale, and more especially, retail, dealers. Each of these watches attentively the demands of the neighborhood, or of the market he frequents, for such commodities as he deals in. The apprehension, on the one hand, of not realizing all the profit he might, and, on the other hand, of having his goods left on his hands, either by his laying in too large a stock, or by his rival's underselling him, these, acting like antagonist muscles, regulate the extent of his dealings, and the prices at which he buys and sells. An abundant supply causes him to lower his prices, and thus enables the public to enjoy that abundance; while he is guided only by the apprehension of being undersold; and, on the other hand, an actual or apprehended scarcity causes him to demand a higher price, or to keep back his goods in expectation of a rise.
For doing this, corn-dealers in particular are often exposed to odium, as if they were the cause of the scarcity; while in reality they are performing the important service of husbanding the supply in proportion to its efficiency, and thus warding off the calamity of famine; in the same manner as the commander of a garrison or a ship, regulates the allowances according to the stock, and the time it is to last. But the dealers deserve neither censure for the scarcity which they are ignorantly supposed to produce, nor credit for the important public service which they in reality perform. They are merely occupied in gaining a fair livelihood. And in the pursuit of this object, without any comprehensive wisdom, or any need of it, they coöperate, unknowingly, in conducting a system which, we may safely say, no human wisdom directed to that end could have conducted so well:-the system by which this enormous population is fed from day to day.
B. *It is the great multiplication of the productions of all the different arts, in consequence of the division of labour, which occasions, in a well-governed society, that universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people. Every workman has a great quantity of his own work to dispose of beyond what he himself has occasion for; and every other workman being exactly in the same situation he is enabled to exchange a great quantity of his own goods for a great quantity, or, what comes to the same thing, for the price of a great quantity of theirs. He supplies them abundantly with what they have occasion for, and they accommodate him as amply with what he has occasion for, and a general plenty diffuses itself through all the different ranks of the society.
Observe the accommodation of the most common artificer or day-labourer in a civilized and thriving country, and you will perceive that the number of people of whose industry a part, though but a small part, has been employed in procuring him this accommodation, exceeds all computation. The woolen coat, for example, which covers the daylabourer, as coarse and rough as it may appear, is the produce of the joint labour of a great multitude of workmen. The shepherd, the sorter of the wool, the wool-comber or carder, the dyer, the scribbler, the spinner, the weaver, the fuller, the dresser, with many others, must all join their different arts in order to complete even this homely production. How many merchants and carriers, besides, must have been employed in transporting the materials from some of those workmen to others who often live in a very distant part of the country! how much commerce and navigation in particular, how many ship-builders, sailors, sail-makers, ropemakers, must have been employed in order to bring together the different drugs made use of by the dyer, which often come from the remotest corners of the world! What a variety of labour too is necessary in order to produce the tools of the meanest of those workmen. To say nothing of such complicated machines as the ship of the sailor, the mill of the fuller, or even the loom of the weaver, let us
*Adam Smith-An inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, (1776). Book I, Chapter I.