Further Essays in Economics
Leon Maclaren




REEDBECK: To call a spade a spade is more dogmatic than informative. The same name is applied to a variety of objects, because they have one function in common, because they are made by men to help them dig the earth in a particular manner. The name does not normally describe the material, size or shape of the object, nor indeed the earth which the object is suited to dig. It signifies nothing but the one nominating function: and the function chosen may vary, as when a beard or a mark on a playing-card is called a spade. Then it is the shape which is designated. The man who contents himself with calling a spade a spade, though he may not be rude, is very nearly incomprehensible.

Every common noun involves a division of the world into categories, into spades and not spades. First a number of different objects or experiences are considered from a particular standpoint, and a single function or quality is extracted from them. Those which reveal a similar quality or function are then grouped together and given a common name, a name which not merely includes all objects or experiences revealing the particular function or quality, but also excludes all others.

The process of naming is a process of analysis and collation and is the first step in reasoning. Unless this basic classification is valid, unless all the objects or experiences classed together have the classifying function or quality in common, thought can only lead from error into error, To assume that the meaning given to a word does not matter, provided everyone agrees about it, is to overlook the function of words, which function is to express meanings and distinctions to be observed in different aspects of life. Properly used words are names given to meanings, so that these meanings may be given form and expression and may pass current from mind to mind. To attempt to give meanings to words is only to increase the number of words, and consequently to bury all meaning in verbiage. Yet, however valid the classification represented by any word, it remains a classification, a generalisation true in one respect only; and because many objects or experiences have been given the same name, they are not less unlike one another than they were before.

In economics, the natural resources of the universe have been classed together, because they are the living creation from which mankind draws all the substance for his artificial world. In doing this, objects as diverse as a hawk on the wing and a coal seam in the earth have both been called "land". We have preferred to call them the natural universe. Next, because human desires impel all conscious human action, the dreams of St. Augustine and the cupidity of Al Capone have been classed together as "human desires". Thirdly, because man obtains nothing unless he works, the painting of MichaelAngelo and the drudgery of the anonymous navvy have been grouped together as "labour". These last two classifications we have followed. This process has not, of course, reduced the gulf which divides the bird from the stone, the vision of the Saint from the perversions of the gangster or the frescoes in the Vatican from the hole in the road. In truth these words do not mean these different things; they signify and signify only the several economic functions which these different things have in common. In using the words "natural universe", "human desires", and "labour" in this study, the student is not talking of things, but of the economic functions of things. Similarly in law, when speaking of land, chattels, choses in action and the like, the lawyer is speaking of rights and duties between persons in respect of things, not of the things themselves. So it is with every common word - even "spade".

It is doubtful if the most arid economist in his dreariest abstractions would treat a hawk and a lump of coal as identical for all his purposes; but well-intentioned and kindly people can, and frequently do, lump human beings together as so much "labour", as a kind of margarine to be pooled and sliced in slabs, and directed hither and thither. True, a closer knowledge of the objects of their miscalculations would quickly dissolve any notion of uniformity. As society is constructed, however, those with authority are frequently far removed from any personal relationship with those whose lives they seek to command. Thus insulated from direct observations, imagination, which should act as radar to their eyes and so lend their vision range and focus, runs to waste in calculating the incalculable, charting the unknowable and making blue-prints for life itself.

Such are the errors into which reasoning can lead those whose thought is not founded in experience and whose conclusions are not tested by observation. To be of any validity, the very first generalisation with which all thought begins must be based on observation, analysis and collation. When this is done the student does well to remember that the resulting generalisation is at best a hypothesis, true in one respect only. From this doubtful beginning, however, human thought can attain to the discovery of perpetual relationships between things and, within the limits to which observation and thought has penetrated, can formulate these discoveries in terms which all may learn to understand, without the arduous work of rediscovery. The natural laws of science are such relationships. However, no formulated law can exhaust the relationships between the things under examination. In the complex and miraculous process of living, these relationships are legion and are constantly acting and inter-acting one upon the other. It may be that all these relationships act upon a single principle, are all variations on a given theme. Men may dimly apprehend that this is so, but they cannot comprehend it. Much in life defies definition. To define anything a man must wrench it from its context. To make any experience thinkable, it must be mutilated, broken up and analysed.

There are limitations on logic; and its best service to the human race is, that founded on observation, it will send men back by its conclusions to look again where they would not have thought of looking before, and in looking again to discover new harmonies which would otherwise have been lost in the symphony of experience.

Generalisations are lifeless things. Turn the common noun into a proper noun, convert spade into my spade, and it springs to life; it becomes an object with a wealth of associations; living matter with a will of its own and full of meaning for its owner. Such is the difference between direct observation and abstract thought. Only by clothing the abstract formula in the flesh of experience can it come to life.

In this enquiry it has been sought to establish the relationships between men's basic economic institutions and the results which seem bound to follow. In this exercise it has been observed how the basic economic relationships between members of the community have shaped in a hundred subtle variations the details of these relationships. It has further been observed that the fundamental relationships are not inevitable, but are shaped by man, and are the beginnings of the action that is played out day by day. It has further been observed how these fundamental institutions could be otherwise arranged more in accord with human needs and human life. In pursuing the enquiry, therefore, two lines of investigations are necessary to achieve results of value.

From the accumulating evidence about him, the student can observe how the existing basis works itself out to the tiniest detail. As the inquiry proceeds step by step, new facts and new relationships emerge which are in themselves instructive. It will be necessary, however, as each new discovery is made to project in imagination upon the alternative basis, seeking to foresee what these detailed relationships would be where all land was free and wages were determined by what men can gain on the best land open to use as their own masters. Here, imagination must be given full rein and, instructed by what has been observed and directed by the line the investigation has taken, must be permitted to forecast the shape of things upon this alternative basis.

Caution is required in such a proceeding, it is true, and a keen test may be applied by seeking to establish what practical measures would be required to bridge the gulf between what is and what might be. Yet without this powerful aid, without this human gift of imagination, economics would be a dreary catalogue of woes. An enquiry that ends in its own condemnation. The student can take heart, however, by contemplating the magnificent harmony of the universe, its rich and varied design and the purposeful way in which all creatures and beings which constitute the natural creation go about their several ways with such purposeful determination, and yet achieve the wonderful harmony which is everywhere to be observed. Guided by faith in the wisdom of creation, equipped with the knowledge gained by investigation of economic life as it is, reinforced by practical propositions which can be demonstrated to bring human institutions closer in conformity with the nature of the human being, the investigator can safely give his imagination full play. The aid which it will prove to be to his further investigation is its own reward.

Back to the Index