Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

13 Harris and His Anachronistic Attack

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

13 Harris and His Anachronistic Attack

Article excerpt

William Torrey Harris (1835-1909) is best known as an American educator, editor, and philosopher. He served as a teacher in, and superintendent of, the St. Louis, Missouri, school system, and later as the U.S. Commissioner of Education. He edited Appleton's International Education Series, Webster's New International Dictionary, and the philosophy section of Johnson's Encyclopedia; he wrote numerous reports, papers and articles, and books. He was (with Emerson and Alcott) a founder of the influential School of Philosophy in Concord, Massachusetts, founder and editor of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, and a promoter of Hegelian idealism. Yet, on several occasions, Harris took time from these activities to offer his critique of George's Progress and Poverty. (None of George's other works were discussed.) Harris believed that his basic arguments against George's ideas were never refuted. (1)

Attack on the Deductive Method

It is not surprising that Harris emerged as a critic of George since, on matters of economic theory, Harris was a disciple of Henry C. Carey. (2) Carey was a critic of the deductive method of analysis and the Ricardian rent theory in particular. Further, his theory of income distribution was quite different from the theories of the classicists and George. (3) Carey's ideas provided the foundation for Harris's critique.

Harris's attack began in September 1886 in an address to the Saratoga meeting of the American Social Science Association. (4) The speech was important for several reasons. First, it set the pattern for all of his other attacks. Since Harris believed that his arguments were devastating and that they had not been refuted, he did little to revise them. Second, as Barker noted in his definitive biography of George, with this speech Harris became "the most famous person to speak against [George] in this period." (5)

After some preliminary remarks, Harris, following Carey, attacked all of the classical economists, including George, for their use of the deductive method of reasoning. Carey claimed that the axioms of the classicists (wealth-maximizing behavior, drives to reproduce, etc.) simply did not adequately represent actual human behavior. He also claimed that when classicists applied deductive logic to these inadequate axioms they inevitably got inadequate results. Further, he charged that the classicists never detected the flaws because their test of their theories' validity was logical consistency, not the ability to explain and predict "real world" behavior. He maintained that if the classicists ever tested their theories against actual data, they would have had to reject most of their theories. (6) Harris, in similar fashion, said that classicists failed because they "set up principles for absolute ones which serve only for a nation of mere shopkeepers." (7) He too believed that empirical tests would lead to the rejection of most of classical political economy. Carey felt that one of the worst errors produced by the classicists was the Ricardian rent theory, a theory that postulated that the most fertile land would be settled first and that the margin of cultivation would then extend downward and outward as more land was needed. Carey said that the historical evidence of England, the home of most of the classicists, revealed that the reverse was true, namely, that the first settlements were in the hill country and that settlement extended to, not from, the richer soil of the river bottoms. (8) That pattern, insisted Carey, was quite general. Harris, in turn, argued that the Ricardian view was obviously incorrect because, if the best land had been settled first, the lush Amazon basin would have been settled before most other parts of the world. (9)

In reiterating Carey's arguments, Harris apparently never realized that leading economists had refuted them twenty years before. John Stuart Mill reasoned that in areas of new settlement, in which labor and capital were scarce relative to land, people might not settle on land that would eventually prove to be the most fertile if initial cultivation of that land required more capital and labor than cultivation of another plot that would eventually prove less fertile. …

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