New Lights for Old Stars

Francis Neilson

[Reprinted from the American Journal of Economics and Sociology,
Vol. 2, No. 1 (October, 1942), pp. 125-129]

IT WAS A GREAT DAY for the American laboratories when someone discovered that which is called "technology" or, to give it a more resounding title, instrumentalism. The effect it had upon institutions of learning reminded me of the sensation caused by the publication of "The Origin of Species." The scientists -- most of them - -many of the philosophers, and great numbers of the sociologists accepted instrumentalism just as warmly as the leading thinkers of England accepted the findings of Darwin. But I noticed that the agricultural laborer, the man at the lathe, the miner at the face of the coal, and the railroad porter were not at all moved by the great discovery. In England the agricultural laborer did not give the toss of a brass farthing about his descent; certainly not any more than his fellow in this country did about the value of instrumentalism to him. Perhaps, for all we know, men who have to work whenever they can get a job, realize somehow that things are not as new as certain people imagine.

When the rage for "technology" was at its height, I was considered by my friends to be a "pre-Darwinian"; I had not moved with the times, and there was something wrong with my intelligence. They had reason to think so, for the more I read about the wonders of the new science, or whatever it was called, the more certain I became that there was nothing new about it, that it was as old as the hills. I remember one night, when I was entertained at dinner at a university club by some enthusiastic supporters of the new ideas in connection with finance, industry, and social amelioration, that I asked whether Archimedes deserved a niche in the Pantheon of the technologians, for it seemed to me that he was a great inventor, so great, indeed, that even to this our time his name is given to a machine for raising water. A reputation for an inventor which extends over a period of 2,154 years is one that might be envied by any technologian. But the one thing that interested me particularly about the great Syracusan was that he didn't think much about his ingenious devices, although they made him famous in his own day. It is on record that he considered them beneath the dignity of pure science.

My friends were somewhat disturbed and reminded me that we were living in another age. New values, new concepts had taken the place of those of all the periods prior to, and including that of laissez-faire. Then I thought I would mention a few others whom I had learned about when I was at school. I made no impression at all upon my hosts by bringing to their notice men of the Dark Ages. They wiped them out with a gesture, so I jumped to Leonardo da Vinci and, strange to say, there was one man in the group who seemed to be impressed. Leonardo, he said, was quite a different person and had to be considered. Then I thought I was making progress so, after mentioning several others, I came to Richard Arkwright and asked if he would be considered a technologian, an instrumentalists Strangely enough, there was not one man in the group who could place Arkwright. So, quickly I passed to Isambard Brunel, the English engineer, and pleaded for a place for him in the inventors' Pantheon. Perhaps I should draw a veil upon this conversazione by recording the words of one of my friends when I left for home. "'Old man," he said, tapping me on the shoulder, "wake up! You don't know you're living."

I quite appreciate the difficulties of the up-to-date economist in trying to define the word value, but I must admit that I have never had to encounter the difficulties which beset them in halls of learning. Mine have been purely empirical. Years ago Joseph Duveen (Lord Duveen) brought me a picture by Van Ostade, and in considering its sale and purchase I discovered that there were three different notions of price and value. There was (1) the value of the picture to the owner and the price he put upon it with the assistance of Duveen; (2) then there was the value of the picture to Duveen and the price he put upon it when he wished me to purchase it; (3) there was the value of it to me and the price that I was willing to pay. Some years afterwards, the owner of the picture asked me the price Duveen wanted for it when it was offered to me. When I told him, his eves opened wide, his eyebrows took on a conical shape, and he blurted out, "Good Lord! He would have made over two hundred percent on the price he intended to pay me for it."

There it is. But it is an entirely different matter when you go into the grocery store and ask for a pound of tea. This is an over-the-counter transaction. Most of the brands of this article are sold in packages which have a fixed price for the time being. I want tea, the shopkeeper wants to sell it. The question of value enters in because of my need for tea. It is the same with meat, with potatoes, with nearly all the commodities that are in daily use, When, however, you get back to the wholesale market, certain elements of speculation enter, and these so often complicate the price structure and the matter of value to the consumer that, in times of plenty, some commodities are known to reach as high a price as that which they bore in times of comparative dearth. I mention these merely to indicate what a troublesome business it is for the modern economist to get down to brass tacks in simple economics.

But their woes in this branch of the science of political economy are nothing compared with those they have in attempting to deride the findings of what are called the classical economists. Dr. C. E. Ayres, in an article, "Economic Value and Scientific Synthesis,"' has, in a most entertaining way, opened up the question of the validity of the findings of the classical economists. He has rendered a great service to the fundamental economists by emphasizing the fact that the sociologists of today and the technologians of tomorrow will bring to us an entirely new conception of man, the economic animal. I should not be at all surprised, if I live long enough, to find that man can dispense with the means of subsistence and carry on the industrial machine on an empty stomach, price or value not- withstanding. Dr. Ayres says: "This theory (price theory) appeared only when the pricing mechanism was seized upon by Adam Smith and the founders of political economy as the vehicle of pursuit of happiness."[2]

The whole trouble that Dr. Ayres finds with this notion is that the word "happiness," is not defined according to the satisfaction of the author, and one reason for this is "the social philosophers of the eighteenth century were unable to profit by the social studies of the twentieth."[3]

I am only a simple man who must have a certain amount of food to digest each day; and all through my adult life, I have been under the impression that the price of a commodity determines whether I shall be happy or sad. Probably Adam Smith, when he was in France and afterwards in England and Scotland, noticed that a full belly, a well-clothed back, feet properly shod, and a decent shelter were clear indications of happiness for the man who knew nothing at all about technology and instrumentalism. Indeed, I can quite understand how those "silly old classical economists" came to the conclusion that "consumption is the 'end' of all economic activity." But again "end," according to the modern economist is not defined, and, therefore, it can have no meaning.[4]

How true it is-that we live not for the day alone but for the month, for the year; indeed, for our lifetime, which is the end for us! And. therefore, the classical economist, when he used the word "end," must have been under the impression that he meant to convey the idea that man could not subsist without food and that he went on consuming to the end of his life, if he was lucky enough to keep out of debt and the government did not tax him out of existence. But I am without qualification to enter into these extraordinary controversies. My sole object is to seek information. The productive work which is my daily task is the means of satisfying physical desires and needs, with the least exertion, so that I may give my bones and muscles rest after hours and devote my leisure to the movie, bridge, or Father's Hour on the radio.

But do these things make me happy? No, I admit it, I am not happy, not even when my physical needs are satisfied without debt. When I consider the turmoil in which the world is weltering today, an idea creeps into my mind that all the science, all the modern notions of political economy and sociology have gone awry, and I wonder if it would not be a good idea to resurrect some of the transcendentalism to be found in Adam Smith's "The Theory of Moral Sentiments." I do not like to use the term because Nietzsche has somehow cast a blight upon it, but I do wish sometimes for a revival of a little morality, let us say the "transcendentalism which has kept economic things in bond to price theories." It should be said, however, that the classical economists were not aware of the transcendentalism of their theories; that is an invention that came only with technology and instrumentalism. The classical economists were, to my mind, singularly practical men even in their moral theories and habits.

Now let me turn to one of the most extraordinary ideas which has come to my notice in this day of the utterly new. Dr. Ayres says:

. . .If we have learned anything from the study of social evolution, it is that science invariably brings greater freedom and individuality, not less, and that science and industry, no less than the fine arts, can be carried on only by a community in which education is as widely disseminated as possible and general mental development carried to the highest possible pitch. . . [5]

May I ask what is referred to when the term "science" is used? What science? What is science? Dr. Ayres has asked, "What is happiness?" and he boggled at the notion that consumption was an end in itself. Who is the scientist of any standing in the world who prates about science in the way that some of our sciolists do? Archimedes thought it was not worth bothering about.

Schradinger considered science too insignificant to support such company "as art and religion." Moreover, he said, "We get used to theories we don't understand and forget their contradictions quite cheerfully." Planck, in one of his essays, says:

The distinctions that we at present make amongst these activities are entirely unreal, and men are now on the way to achieve a synthesis of all three (art, religion and science).

But will Dr. Ayres point out where there is greater freedom and individuality? Consider the condition of the world today so far as freedom and individuality are exercised. There is not a country of any importance where there is not a censorship, where the individual is not ticketed, and where rationing cards are not in operation or soon will be. And as for education, the reports that we have received from the army and the navy disclose such an alarming state of affairs that even the President was shocked to find many of our recruits had only reached the standard of a fourth- grade education.

I fear for the happiness of Dr. Ayres. I am afraid the end of this business is that which I glean from his conclusion. He says: ". . . So long as consumption is conceived as 'the end,' the problem of increased consunption is insoluble. But the moment consumption is regarded as continuous with the uninterrupted industrial effort of the community, it becomes perfectly clear that the consumption of the underfed must be increased not because it is their 'right' to eat or because feeding them would be 'just,' but because their working capacity, and therefore their contribution to the effort of the community, is impaired by under-feeding."[6] The end of this long chapter of modern thought brings us to the abolition of right and justice. These concepts must be jettisoned; and this is the marvelous achievement of technology and instrumentalism. A farce with a tragic end! All the thinkers of the past have been wrong. The philosophers from Plato and Socrates to John Locke and Adam Smith did not know what they were talking and writing about. And while the bat Ming armies are wiping out millions, and a winter of starvation faces the wretched in so many lands, we are asked to believe that the men of today, so largely responsible for the present condition of the world, have suddenly inherited a new wisdom which will keep the industrial machine going.


  1. Am. Jour. Econ. Socio., Vol. I, No. 4 (July, 1942).
  2. Ib., p. 349.
  3. Ib., p. 348.
  4. Dr. Ayres writes: ". . . What, exactly, does it mean? Clearly the word 'end' is not used here in any chronological sense. That is, no one supposes that economic activity 'comes to an end' with consumption. Obviously it never comes to an end at all, but goes on continuously. Each act of consumption is followed by other acts of a productive nature and so by an indefinite series of successive consumptions and productions... " Ib., p. 351.
  5. Ib., p. 356-7.
  6. He adds: "'The citizens of industrial society must consume more abundantly not because it is their right to do so, and not because justice or equality or any similar shibboleth is a valid guide to economic welfare, but because if they do not, industrial society will collapse, values and all." lb., p. 360. Dr. Harry Gunnison Brown, in private correspondence, has commented on this passage by asking in what way Dr. Ayres's idea of a good distribution of income is different from that of a slaveowner who gives his slaves enough so they can produce.