The Economics of Welfare
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The Economics of Welfare

Arthur Pigou

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eBook - ePub

The Economics of Welfare

Arthur Pigou

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About This Book

The Economics of Welfare occupies a privileged position in economics. It contributed to the professionalization of economics, a goal aggressively and effectively pursued by Pigou's predecessor and teacher Alfred Marshall. The Economics of Welfare also may be credited with establishing welfare economics, by systematically analyzing market departures and their potential remedies. In writing The Economics of Welfare, Pigou built a bridge between the old and the new economics at Cambridge and in Britain. Much of the book remains relevant for contemporary economics. The list of his analyses that continues to play an important role in economics is impressive. Some of the more important include: public goods and externalities, welfare criteria, index number problems, price discrimination, the theory of the firm, the structure of relief programs for the poor, and public finance. Pigou's discussion of the institutional structure governing labor-market operations in his Wealth and Welfare prompted Schumpeter to call the work "the greatest venture in labor economics ever undertaken by a man who was primarily a theorist."

The Economics of Welfare established welfare economics as a field of study. The first part analyzes the relationship between the national dividend and economic and total welfare. Parts II and III link the size of the dividend to the allocation of resources in the economy and the institutional structure governing labor-market operations. Part IV explores the relationship between the national dividend and its distribution.

In her new introduction, Nahid Aslanbeigui discusses the life of Pigou and the history of The Economics of Welfare. She also discusses Pigou's theories as expressed in this volume and some of the criticisms those theories have met as well as the impact of those criticisms. The Economics of Welfare is a classic that repays careful study.

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Part I
Welfare and the National Dividend

Chapter I
Welfare and Economic Welfare

§ 1. WHEN a man sets out upon any course of inquiry, the object of his search may be either light or fruit—either knowledge for its own sake or knowledge for the sake of good things to which it leads. In various fields of study these two ideals play parts of varying importance. In the appeal made to our interest by nearly all the great modern sciences some stress is laid both upon the light-bearing and upon the fruit-bearing quality, but the proportions of the blend are different in different sciences. At one end of the scale stands the most general science of all, metaphysics, the science of reality. Of the student of that science it is, indeed, true that “he yet may bring some worthy thing for waiting souls to see”; but it must be light alone, it can hardly be fruit that he brings. Most nearly akin to the metaphysician is the student of the ultimate problems of physics. The corpuscular theory of matter is, hitherto, a bearer of light alone. Here, however, the other aspect is present in promise; for speculations about the structure of the atom may lead one day to the discovery of practical means for dissociating matter and for rendering available to human use the overwhelming resources of intra-atomic energy. In the science of biology the fruit-bearing aspect is more prominent. Recent studies upon heredity have, indeed, the highest theoretical interest; but no one can reflect upon that without at the same time reflecting upon the striking practical results to which they have already led in the culture of wheat, and upon the far-reaching, if hesitating, promise that they are beginning to offer for the better culture of mankind. In the sciences whose subject-matter is man as an individual there is the same variation of blending as in the natural sciences proper. In psychology the theoretic interest is dominant—particularly on that side of it which gives data to metaphysics; but psychology is also valued in some measure as a basis for the practical art of education. In human physiology, on the other hand, the theoretic interest, though present, is subordinate, and the science has long been valued mainly as a basis for the art of medicine. Last of all we come to those sciences that deal, not with individual men, but with groups of men; that body of infant sciences which some writers call sociology. Light on the laws that lie behind development in history, even light upon particular facts, has, in the opinion of many, high value for its own sake. But there will, I think, be general agreement that in the sciences of human society, be their appeal as bearers of light never so high, it is the promise of fruit and not of light that chiefly merits our regard. There is a celebrated, if somewhat too strenuous, passage in Macaulay’s Essay on History: “No past event has any intrinsic importance. The knowledge of it is valuable, only as it leads us to form just calculations with regard to the future. A history which does not serve this purpose, though it may be filled with battles, treaties and commotions, is as useless as the series of turnpike tickets collected by Sir Matthew Mite.” That paradox is partly true. If it were not for the hope that a scientific study of men’s social actions may lead, not necessarily directly or immediately, but at some time and in some way, to practical results in social improvement, not a few students of these actions would regard the time devoted to their study as time misspent. That is true of all social sciences, but especially true of economics. For economics “is a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life”; and it is not in the ordinary business of life that mankind is most interesting or inspiring. One who desired knowledge of man apart from the fruits of knowledge would seek it in the history of religious enthusiasm, of martyrdom, or of love; he would not seek it in the market-place. When we elect to watch the play of human motives that are ordinary—that are sometimes mean and dismal and ignoble—our impulse is not the philosopher’s impulse, knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but rather the physiologist’s, knowledge for the healing that knowledge may help to bring. Wonder, Carlyle declared, is the beginning of philosophy. It is not wonder, but rather the social enthusiasm which revolts from the sordidness of mean streets and the joylessness of withered lives, that is the beginning of economic science. Here, if in no other field, Comte’s great phrase holds good: “It is for the heart to suggest our problems; it is for the intellect to solve them.… The only position for which the intellect is primarily adapted is to be the servant of the social sympathies.”
§ 2. If this conception of the motive behind economic study is accepted, it follows that the type of science that the economist will endeavour to develop must be one adapted to form the basis of an art. It will not, indeed, itself be an art, or directly enunciate precepts of government. It is a positive science of what is and tends to be, not a normative science of what ought to be. Nor will it limit itself to those fields of positive scientific inquiry which have an obvious relevance to immediate practical problems. This course would hamper thorough investigation and shut out inquiries that might ultimately bear fruit. For, as has been well said, “in our most theoretical moods we may be nearest to our most practical applications.”1 But, though wholly independent in its tactics and its strategy, it will be guided in general direction by practical interest. This decides its choice of essential form. For there are two main types of positive science. On the one side are the sciences of formal logic and pure mathematics, whose function it is to discover implications. On the other side are the realistic sciences, such as physics, chemistry and biology, which are concerned with actualities. The distinction is drawn out in Mr. Russell’s Principles of Mathematics. “Since the growth of non-Euclidean Geometry, it has appeared that pure mathematics has no concern with the question whether the axioms and propositions of Euclid hold of actual space or not: this is a question for realistic mathematics, to be decided, so far as any decision is possible, by experiment and observation. What pure mathematics asserts is merely that the Euclidean propositions follow from the Euclidean axioms, i.e. it asserts an implication: any space which has such and such properties has also such and such other properties. Thus, as dealt with in pure mathematics, the Euclidean and non-Euclidean Geometries are equally true: in each nothing is affirmed except implications. All propositions as to what actually exists, like the space we live in, belong to experimental or empirical science, not to mathematics.”1 This distinction is applicable to the field of economic investigation. It is open to us to construct an economic science either of the pure type represented by pure mathematics or of the realistic type represented by experimental physics. Pure economics in this sense—an unaccustomed sense, no doubt—would study equilibria and disturbances of equilibria among groups of persons actuated by any set of motives x. Under it, among innumerable other subdivisions, would be included at once an Adam-Smithian political economy, in which x is given the value of the motives assigned to the economic man—or to the normal man—and a non-Adam-Smithian political economy, corresponding to the geometry of Lobatschewsky, under which x consists of love of work and hatred of earnings. For pure economics both these political economies would be equally true; it would not be relevant to inquire what the value of x is among the actual men who are living in the world now. Contrasted with this pure science stands realistic economics, the interest of which is concentrated upon the world known in experience, and in nowise extends to the commercial doings of a community of angels. Now, if our end is practice, it is obvious that a political economy that did so extend would be for us merely an amusing toy. Hence it must be the realistic, and not the pure, type of science that constitutes the object of our search. We shall endeavour to elucidate, not any generalised system of possible worlds, but the actual world of men and women as they are found in experience to be.
§ 3. But, if it is plain that a science of the pure type will not serve our purpose, it is equally plain that realism, in the sense of a mere descriptive catalogue of observed facts, will not serve it either. Infinite narration by itself can never enable forecasts to be made, and it is, of course, capacity to make forecasts that practice requires. Before this capacity can be obtained facts must be passed upon by reason. Besides the brute facts, there must be what Browning calls, “something of mine, which, mixed up with the mass, made it bear hammer and be firm to file.” It is just the presence of this something which is essential to a realistic science as distinguished from mere description. In realistic science facts are not simply brought together; they are compelled by thought to speak. As M. Poincaré well writes: “Science is built up of facts as a house is built of stones; but an accumulation of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.”1 Astronomical physics is not merely a catalogue of the positions which certain stars have been observed to occupy on various occasions. Biology is not merely a list of the results of a number of experiments in breeding. Rather, every science, through examination and cross-examination of the particular facts which it is able to ascertain, seeks to discover the general laws of whose operation these particular facts are instances. The motions of the heavenly bodies are exhibited in the light of the laws of Newton; the breeding of the blue Andalusian fowl in the light of that of Mendel. These laws, furthermore, are not merely summaries of the observed facts re-stated in a shorthand form. They are generalisations, and, as such, extend our knowledge to facts that have not been observed, maybe, that have not as yet even occurred. On what philosophical basis generalisations of this sort rest we are not here concerned to inquire. It is enough that in every realistic science they are made. As Mr. Whetham, speaking of physics, puts it, any such science seeks to establish general rules which describe the sequence of phenomena in all cases.”2 It is only by reference to these general rules that the forecasts, which practice needs, are rendered possible. It is in their fundamental aspect as an organon of laws, and not in their superficial aspect as a description of facts, that the realistic scien...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Title
  4. Copyright
  6. Introduction to the Transaction Edition (2001)
  7. Preface to the Third Edition (1928)
  8. Note to the Fourth Edition (1932)
  9. Note to the Reprint (1952)
  15. Index
  16. Index to Appendices IV-XI