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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

"Interdependence is the Law of Society"

A passage from John Bates Clark's book, The Philosophy of Wealth: Economic Principles Newly Formulated published in 1894. Clark, an American neoclassical economist famous for developing the marginal productivity theory of distribution, was "one of one of the leading figures of the Marginalist Revolution":

CHAPTER XII. THE ECONOMIC FUNCTION OF THE CHURCH: ...The laws of spiritual poor-relief are of importance to the economist. The kind of spiritual poor-relief to be discussed here does not fall under the head of charity. Place a dozen men, each in his own boat, on the open sea, and start them for the nearest land. They are on an equality and completely independent. If any will not row, his destruction is on his own head. If any try to row and fail, it is the great law of charity, and that only, which constrains another to help him. If any venture to burden himself by towing a weaker brother to the shore, he is compelled to do so by no law legal or equitable, but the universal law of love.

But that is no picture of actual society. No man can paddle his own canoe as a member of that great social organism in which each individual labors, not for himself, but for the whole, and is dependent on the whole for employment and for pay. Independence is the law of isolation; interdependence is the law of society. Again and again, in actual history, society ceases to desire the product of a particular man's labor. The organic whole is in the position of employer to the millions who work, and it cannot always keep them busy; but it is not at liberty to starve them. It may take away their comforts; but, if it take their lives, it is murder. Civilization has placed us all in one boat; by mutual help we are sailing the homeward-bound ship of humanity. He who will not help may be thrown overboard, possibly; but he who, by force of circumstances, cannot, must be carried to the end.

It is thus in the nature of the social organism that the great principle of English law which asserts the ultimate right of every man to a maintenance finds its philosophical ground. That is an evil teaching which ventures to question this principle, and it would fare ill with a state which should attempt to follow such teaching in practice. Such action would surrender to the communists the championship of a great truth; it would place society in the wrong, and revolutionists in the right.

When a man who has had no hand in getting his neighbor into trouble, lends his aid in getting him out, that is charity. When an organized society relieves suffering which the society as a whole has caused, that is justice. Whatever part of the poor-tax goes to relieve sufferings resulting from general social causes, is paid, not given; the claim to it is as equitable as that of any officer to his salary. We may assume as a premise the principle asserted in the poor-law of Queen Elizabeth, which established the right of every man, not to be kept in idleness, indeed, but to be kept, while willing to work, from absolutely starving.

The higher nature may starve as well as the lower; and the duty of preventing such starvation has heretofore been made to rest mainly on spiritual grounds, and presented as a high order of charity. We place it on the ground of justice. The soul of man is not independent; the organic union of mankind includes mind as well as matter, and it is its nature, in every relation, to absorb and to subordinate the individual lives which are its molecules. He who is born into such a society is never independent in body or mind.

    Posted by on Wednesday, November 14, 2007 at 12:21 AM in Economics, History of Thought | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (51)

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