The National System of Political Economy

The National System of Political Economy

by Friedrich List

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The National System of Political Economy by Friedrich List

An excerpt from the beginning of:

by J. Shield Nicholson

As the demand for the re-publication of the work of Friedrich List is to be assigned mainly to the interest aroused by the fiscal controversy, the purpose of the Introduction which I have been requested to write, will be best served by indicating in the first place the bearing of the author's ideas and arguments on the present situation in this country. Those who expect to find an assortment of authoritative opinions which can be aggressively and conclusively quoted against upholders of the present system will surely be disappointed. The method of isolated extracts would probably be as favourable to the supporters as to the opponents of 'free trade.' List maintained, for example, that England would have gained by the abolition of the Corn Laws just after the restoration of the general peace (in 1815), but—these are the words—'Providence has taken care that trees should not grow quite up to the sky. Lord Castlereagh gave over the commercial policy of England into the hands of the landed aristocracy, and these killed the hen which had laid the golden eggs' (p. 297). Or, again, take this passage on retaliation: 'Thus it is Adam Smith who wants to introduce the principle of retaliation into commercial policy—a principle which would lead to the most absurd and most ruinous measures, especially if the retaliatory duties, as Smith demands, are to be repealed as soon as the foreign nation agrees to abolish its restrictions' (p. 254).

Nor if we abandon the dangerous and unfair method of isolated extracts, and look on List as the great critic and opponent of Adam Smith, can there be much doubt as to the general results of the comparison of the Scotsman with the German. List has made the mistake so common with popular writers, but inexcusable in the author of a systematic work, of attributing to Adam Smith the extravagant dogmas of his exponents. One would almost suppose that List had never read Adam Smith himself, but had taken for granted the Smithianismus bandied about in popular pamphlets. One passage from List may suffice to illustrate the unfairness of his rendering of Adam Smith. 'He [Adam Smith] entitles his work, "The Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations" (i.e. [on List's interpretation] of all nations of the whole human race). He speaks of the various systems of political economy in a separate part of his work solely for the purpose of demonstrating their non-efficiency, and of proving that "political" or national economy must be replaced by "cosmopolitical or world-wide economy." Although here and there he speaks of wars, this only occurs incidentally. The idea of a perpetual state of peace forms the foundation of all his arguments' (p. 97). The real Adam Smith wrote that the first duty of the sovereign, that of protecting the society from the violence and the invasion of other independent societies, can be performed only by means of a military force. No nation, he declared, ever gave up voluntarily the dominion of any province how troublesome soever it might be to govern it. 'To propose that Great Britain should voluntarily give up all authority over her colonies, would be to propose such a measure as never was and never will be adopted by any nation.' 'The art of war is certainly the noblest of all arts.' And in a passage too long for quotation, Adam Smith maintained that even if the martial spirit of the people were of no use towards the defence of the society, yet to prevent that sort of mental mutilation, deformity, and wretchedness which cowardice necessarily involves in it from spreading themselves through the great body of the people, is a duty as incumbent on the Government as the prevention of leprosy or any other loathsome disease. The same Adam Smith approved of bounties on the export of sail-cloth and gunpowder so that the production at home might be encouraged and a larger supply be available for war in case of need.

Malthus, it may be observed incidentally, is another great writer whom List has utterly misrepresented through relying on popular dogma instead of going to the original source. The account given by List of the 'errors of Malthus' (p. 103 et seq.) is curiously and perversely wrong.

When List is so weak on the history of economic theory, it is not to be expected that his history of economic facts and institutions should be above suspicion. On such important matters, for example, as the causes of the secession of the American colonies and the influence of the Navigation Acts, the opinions of List are not confirmed by the more recent work of Dr. Cunningham and Professor Ashley.1

And without insisting on details, for it must be expected that recent work in economic history should have upset many old opinions, List is open to the general charge of exaggeration. He is led away by preconceived ideas and induced to build...

Product Details

BN ID: 2940015533651
Publisher: OGB
Publication date: 10/20/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 742 KB

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