Economic Annals of the Nineteenth Century

By William Smart | Go to book overview

PREFACE

WHILE a member of the recent Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and the Relief of Distress, it fell to me to write several memoranda on the history of the Poor Laws and on the industrial and social developments of the past century. In the course of doing so, I realised how little can be said, to useful purpose, of any one historical movement if it be taken and studied by itself. The history of pauperism, for instance, is the history of social failure. But failure is the other side of success, and, in its very simplest aspect, pauperism is the reverse of growing wealth and growing freedom. At every stage in its history the question is suggested: "What is the connection between the progress of poverty and the progress of industry?" and, in the background, is always the more fundamental question, "Why should poverty continue?" I discovered, in short, that, to form any adequate judgment of the phenomena with which the Poor Laws directly deal, it was necessary first to know the history of the working world at the time. But the economic history of the nineteenth century has not yet been written.

This experience helped me to a decision. When a professional man reaches my age, he naturally asks himself what he can best do with the remainder of his years to help on the science in the pursuit of which he has found all that makes life worth living. Putting this question to myself, it seemed to me that what Political Economy most wants to-day is just this history. Few, perhaps, realise that the whole framework of modern life is economic -- that the vast majority of us spend our days in making goods or rendering services which we sell for money -- that the "income" which we draw is payment for some service rendered to society either by ourselves in person or by some factor of production which we possess. Fewer still, perhaps, know how new a thing this framework is -- that it began with

-vii-

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