The Principles of Political Economy, by John Stuart Mill

Chapter 1

Of the Requisites of Production

§1. The requisites of production are two: labour, and appropriate natural objects.

Labour is either bodily or mental; or, to express the distinction more comprehensively, either muscular or nervous; and it is necessary to include in the idea, not solely the exertion itself, but feelings of a disagreeable kind, all bodily inconvenience or mental annoyance, connected with the employment of one’s thoughts, or muscles, or both, in a particular occupation. Of the other requisite — appropriate natural objects — it is to be remarked, that some objects exist or grow up spontaneously, of a kind suited to the supply of human wants. There are caves and hollow trees capable of affording shelter. fruit, roots, wild honey, and other natural products, on which human life can be supported; but even here a considerable quantity of labour is generally required, not for the purpose of creating, but of finding and appropriating them. In all but these few and (except in the very commencement of human society) unimportant cases, the objects supplied by nature are only instrumental to human wants, after having undergone some degree of transformation by human exertion. Even the wild animals of the forest and of the sea, from which the hunting and fishing tribes derive their sustenance — though the labour of which they are the subject is chiefly that required for appropriating them — must yet, before they are used as food, be killed, divided into fragments, and subjected in almost all cases to some culinary process, which are operations requiring a certain degree of human labour. The amount of transformation which natural substances undergo before being brought into the shape in which they are directly applied to human use, varies from this or a still less degree of alteration in the nature and appearance of the object, to a change so total that no trace is perceptible of the original shape and structure. There is little resemblance between a piece of a mineral substance found in the earth, and a plough, an axe, or a saw. There is less resemblance between porcelain and the decomposing granite it is made, or between sand mixed with sea-weed, and glass. The difference is greater still between the fleece of a sheep, or a handful of cotton seeds, and a web of muslin or broad cloth; and the sheep and seeds themselves are not spontaneous growths, but results of previous labour and care. In these several cases the ultimate product is so extremely dissimilar to the substance supplied by nature, that in the custom of language nature is represented as only furnishing materials.

Nature, however, does more than supply materials; she also supplies powers. The matter of the globe is not an inert recipient of forms and properties impressed by human hands; it has active energies by which it co-operates with, and may even be used as a substitute for, labour. In the early ages people converted their corn into flour by pounding it between two stones; they next hit on a contrivance which enabled them, by turning a handle, to make one of the stones revolve upon the other; and this process, a little improved, is still the common practice of the East. The muscular exertion, however, which it required, was very severe and exhausting, insomuch that it was often selected as a punishment for slaves who had offended their masters. When the time came at which the labour and sufferings of slaves were thought worth economizing, the greater part of this bodily exertion was rendered unnecessary, by contriving that the upper stone should be made to revolve upon the lower, not by human strength, but by the force of the wind or of falling water. In this case, natural agents, the wind or the gravitation of the water, are made to do a portion of the work previously done by labour.

§2. Cases like this, in which a certain amount of labour has been dispensed with, its work being devolved upon some natural agent, are apt to suggest an erroneous notion of the comparative functions of labour and natural powers; as if the co-operation of those powers with human industry were limited to the cases in which they are made to perform what would otherwise be done by labour; as if, in the case of things made (as the phrase is) by hand, nature only furnished passive materials. This is an illusion. The powers of nature are as actively operative in the one case as in the other. A workman takes a stalk of the flax or hemp plant, splits it into separate fibres, twines together several of these fibres with his fingers, aided by a simple instrument called a spindle; having thus formed a thread, he lays many such threads side by side, and places other similar threads directly across them, so that each passes alternately over and under those which are at right angles to it; this part of the process being facilitated by an instrument called a shuttle. He has now produced a web of cloth, either linen or sackcloth, according to the material. He is said to have done this by hand, no natural force being supposed to have acted in concert with him. But by what force is each step of this operation rendered possible, and the web, when produced, held together? By the tenacity, or force of cohesion, of the fibres: which is one of the forces in nature, and which we can measure exactly against other mechanical forces, and ascertain how much of any of them it suffices to neutralize or counterbalance.

If we examine any other case of what is called the action of man upon nature, we shall find in like manner that the powers of nature, or in other words the properties of matter, do all the work, when once objects are put into the right position. This one operation, of putting things into fit places for being acted upon by their own internal forces, and by those residing in other natural objects, is all that man does, or can do, with matter. He only moves one thing to or from another. He moves a seed into the ground; and the natural forces of vegetation produce in succession a root, a stem, leaves, flowers, and fruit. He moves an axe through a tree, and it falls by the natural force of gravitation; he moves a saw through it, in a particular manner, and the physical properties by which a softer substance gives way before a harder, make it separate into planks, which he arranges in certain positions, with nails driven through them, or adhesive matter between them, and produces a table, or a house. He moves a spark to fuel, and it ignites, and by the force generated in combustion it cooks the food, melts or softens the iron, converts into beer or sugar the malt or cane-juice, which he has previously moved to the spot. He has no other means of acting on matter than by moving it. Motion, and resistance to motion, are the only things which his muscles are constructed for. By muscular contraction he can create a pressure on an outward object, which, if sufficiently powerful, will set it in motion, or if it be already moving, will check or modify or altogether arrest its motion, and he can do no more. But this is enough to have given all the command which mankind have acquired over natural forces immeasurably more powerful than themselves; a command which, great as it is already, is without doubt destined to become indefinitely greater. He exerts this power either by availing himself of natural forces in existence, or by arranging objects in those mixtures and combinations by which natural forces are generated; as when by putting a lighted match to fuel, and water into a boiler over it, he generates the expansive force of steam, a power which has been made so largely available for the attainment of human purposes.1

Labour, then, in the physical world, is always and solely employed in putting objects in motion; the properties of matter, the laws of nature, do the rest. The skill and ingenuity of human beings are chiefly exercised in discovering movements, practicable by their powers, and capable of bringing about the effects which they desire. But, while movement is the only effect which man can immediately and directly produce by his muscles, it is not necessary that he should produce directly by them all the movements which he requires. The first and most obvious substitute is the muscular action of cattle: by degrees the powers of inanimate nature are made to aid in this too, as by making the wind, or water, things already in motion, communicate a part of their motion to the wheels, which before that invention were made to revolve by muscular force. This service is extorted from the powers of wind and water by a set of actions, consisting like the former in moving certain objects into certain positions in which they constitute what is termed a machine; but the muscular action necessary for this is not constantly renewed, but performed once for all, and there is on the whole a great economy of labour.

§3. Some writers have raised the question, whether nature gives more assistance to labour in one kind of industry or in another; and have said that in some occupations labour does most, in others nature most. In this, however, there seems much confusion of ideas. The part which nature has in any work of man, is indefinite and incommensurable. It is impossible to decide that in any one thing nature does more than in any other. One cannot even say that labour does less. Less labour may be required; but if that which is required is absolutely indispensable, the result is just as much the product of labour, as of nature. When two conditions are equally necessary for producing the effect at all, it is unmeaning to say that so much of it is produced by one and so much by the other; it is like attempting to decide which half of a pair of scissors has most to do in the act of cutting; or which of the factors, five and six, contributes most to the production of thirty. The form which this conceit usually assumes, is that of supposing that nature lends more assistance to human endeavours in agriculture, than in manufactures. This notion, held by the French Economistes, and from which Adam Smith was not free, arose from a misconception of the nature of rent. The rent of land being a price paid for a natural agency, and no such price being paid in manufactures, these writers imagined that since a price was paid, it was because there was a greater amount of service to be paid for. whereas a better consideration of the subject would have shown that the reason why the use of land bears a price is simply the limitation of its quantity, and that if air, heat, electricity, chemical agencies, and the other powers of nature employed by manufacturers, were sparingly supplied, and could, like land, be engrossed and appropriated, a rent could he exacted for them also.

§4. This leads to a distinction which we shall find to be of primary importance. Of natural powers, some are unlimited, others limited in quantity. By an unlimited quantity is of course not meant literally, but practically unlimited: a quantity beyond the use which can in any, or at least in present circumstances, be made of it. Land is, in some newly settled countries, practically unlimited in quantity: there is more than can be used by the existing population of the country, or by any accession likely to be made to it for generations to come. But even there, land favourably situated with regard to markets or means of carriage, is generally limited in quantity: there is not so much of it as persons would gladly occupy and cultivate, or otherwise turn to use. In all old countries, land capable of cultivation, land at least of any tolerable fertility, must be ranked among agents limited in quantity. Water, for ordinary purposes, on the banks of rivers or lakes, may be regarded as of unlimited abundance; but if required for irrigation, it may even there be insufficient to supply all wants, while in places which depend for their consumption on cisterns or tanks, or on wells which are not copious, or are liable to fail, water takes its place among things the quantity of which is most strictly limited. Where water itself is plentiful, yet waterpower, i.e. a fall of water applicable by its mechanical force to the service of industry, may be exceedingly limited, compared with the use which would be made of it if it were more abundant. Coal, metallic ores, and other useful substances found in the earth, are still more limited than land. They are not only strictly local but exhaustible; though, at a given place and time, they may exist in much greater abundance than would be applied to present use even if they could be obtained gratis. Fisheries, in the sea, are in most cases a gift of nature practically unlimited in amount; but the Arctic whale fisheries have long been insufficient for the demand which exists even at the very considerable price necessary to defray the cost of appropriation: and the immense extension which the Southern fisheries have in consequence assumed, is tending to exhaust them likewise. River fisheries are a natural resource of a very limited character, and would be rapidly exhausted, if allowed to be used by every one without restraint. Air, even that state of it which we term wind, may, in most situations, be obtained in a quantity sufficient for every possible use; and so likewise, on the sea coast or on large rivers, may water carriage: though the wharfage or harbour-room applicable to the service of that mode of transport is in many situations far short of what would be used if easily attainable.

It will be seen hereafter how much of the economy of society depends on the limited quantity in which some of the most important natural agents exist, and more particularly land. For the present I shall only remark that so long as the quantity of a natural agent is practically unlimited, it cannot, unless susceptible of artificial monopoly, bear any value in the market, since no one will give anything for what can be obtained gratis. But as soon as a limitation becomes practically operative; as soon as there is not so much of the thing to be had, as would be appropriated and used if it could be obtained for asking; the ownership or use of the natural agent acquires an exchangeable value. When more water power is wanted in a particular district, than there are falls of water to supply it, persons will give an equivalent for the use of a fall of water. When there is more land wanted for cultivation than a place possesses, or than it possesses of a certain quality and certain advantages of situation, land of that quality and situation may be sold for a price, or let for an annual rent. This subject will hereafter be discussed at length; but it is often useful to anticipate, by a brief suggestion, principles and deductions which we have not yet reached the place for exhibiting and illustrating fully.

1 This essential and primary law of man’s power over nature was, I believe, first illustrated and made prominant as a fundamental principle of Political Economy, in the first chapter of Mr. Mill’s Elements.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/mill/john_stuart/m645p/book1.1.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09