This section is from the "The Science Of Wealth" book, by Amasa Walker.
This has been already shown by the light of our definition of consumption. It has all the importance which belongs to the science itself.
Consumption makes use of the wealth which production has brought about with all the world's industrial energy. It determines how each appreciable atom shall be applied: whether to degrade, or to elevate; whether, like fruitful seed, to re-appear in harvest, or, like a virulent acid, to destroy the very vessel in which it is placed; whether to set forth the humble household of the laborer, or to gleam a moment in the halls of revelry; whether to feed a thousand workmen on the temple of national industry, or to melt out of sight, like Cleopatra's jewel, in wanton luxury.
All the moral and social interest that belongs to wealth, belongs to its use; for as that is right or wrong, healthful or hurtful, so wealth itself is a blessing or a curse; so science should strive after it with earnest efforts, or guard against with the same wise precaution and thorough research which keep out the plague.
There is a right consumption of wealth that would bring comfort, health, and education within the reach of every human being not born incapable of receiving them; that would make poverty impossible on the earth; that would dispense with half the inducements to crime; that would beautify every home, and lighten every work. It may not be wise to expect the quick attainment of such a result, or worth while to prepare our robes for such an ascension of humanity; but just as far as the consumption of wealth can be affected by human laws, or customs and agreements, in so far may this end be approached in every day of time. It is only one part of this possibility at which the poet looked, when he said: —
"Were half the power that fills the world with terror, Were half the wealth bestowed on camps and courts, Given to redeem the human mind from error, There were no need of arsenals and forts."
• The mind can hardly lift itself to see —
"What might be done, if men were wise."
Yet political economy is a "dismal science," indeed, if we cannot look on to the gradual amelioration of our human condition, not by miracle from the earth or the air, but by a wiser use of wealth, for kind purposes created and bestowed, —
"All slavery, warfare, lies and wrongs, All vice and crime might die together; And wine and corn, To each man born, Be free as warmth in summer weather."
Not only does all the advantage of present or accumulated wealth depend on the use made of it in consumption, but the very existence of future wealth is decided on the same ground.
We have said that wealth has its generations. The life of man is brief, but he outlives property. A few articles of value may endure for centuries; but, in the average, their term is very short. Simply by wear and tear, the earth would be left destitute in a few years, if no provision were made for reproduction. Our kind is placed on the verge of such a chance, and can never go away from it. The dreary desolation of many nations illustrates the tremendous possibilities that lie in the use made of wealth.
We are accustomed to things as they have been. It is difficult to appreciate even that which we know might be. There is no economical reason why every people on the face of the earth should not be rich, prosperous, and independent; every person free, comfortable, ambitious, with plenty at hand, and every thing to hope for. As it is, the homes of competence or decency are, the world over, hardly more than islands struggling up from the ocean; a few spots redeemed from misery and ruin.
This advance towards economic good is not a piece of work to be paid for only when finished. If the grand result seems hopelessly distant, every step towards it does yet receive its reward; every effort brings something of fruition. No government or individual conforms, for a single act, to right principles of consumption; but the community gains palpably by it: perhaps the "last straw" of taxation is removed, or a capitalist offers employment to a starving workman.
There have been efforts to restrict political economy, so that it should have no occasion to ask these questions; to cut off all that view which looks out on the field of reproduction; to shut up our inquiries to the immediate, present creation of wealth, its exchange, distribution, and consumption, without regard to ultimate effects, and considering one article of value as equally commendable with any for which it will exchange. Such a mode of treatment practically detaches the department of consumption from the science.
A sagacious and generally correct writer * has even gone so far as to announce, "if a laborer is willing to work all day for a quart of whiskey to get drunk upon, political economy does not question his wisdom."
It is, of course, within the discretion of any author to * Mr. Newcombe, in his "Financial Policy." confine his inquiries so narrowly, and to erect them into a consistent system; but such a system will have little of that interest which attaches to a scheme that considers the industrial interests of man as a whole, and for all time. It may be a science of political economy, but not the science, as we choose to regard it.
If the laborer expends his day's earnings on a quart of whiskey, he will, most likely, be disabled one day after. The account with society will stand, at the close of the second day, as follows: one day's work done, of which the employer, and consequently society, has the advantage; no wages laid up; something taken off the health of the laborer, and the order of the community. But if the earnings are spent on tools or the education of self and family, or on personal support, the account will read quite otherwise: two days' work done, of which the employer and society obtain the advantage; two days' wages in the hands of the laborer, to be applied to the rearing of a useful and self-respecting family, to the maintenance of government, to the increase or perfection of tools, or to wholesome enjoyment and culture.
It is not, of course, possible, that, from a moral standpoint, there can be any question as to the importance of a right consumption; but does not the same interest attach to it in the light of political economy, considered merely as seeking to effect the largest production, and the most beneficent distribution of wealth? We do not ask whether such inquiries cannot properly be received into the science, but whether any scheme can be respectably complete which does not embrace them. It must not, of course, look at any question in a purely moral light. Yet the two interests will not be found widely and permanently apart. Political economy has for its end the economic good of society on the whole, and in the long-run. It does not limit itself to taking a section of the trunk; It is content with nothing but the whole tree, and alive at that.
We have used a phrase which explains itself, and which has already received various illustrations in what has gone before. But it may be worth while to fix and detain in positive shape the general impression we have of it.