He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. -- John Stuart MillThis post isn't really about mercantilism, per se. It's about polemic, dialogue and theory and the differences between them. The Sandwicman has been trying to fight polemic with polemic for nearly twenty years to no avail. I want to try to sketch out here a dialogic alternative.
In a 1948 article, "Dialectical Materialism and General Semantics," Anatol Rapoport outlined the technique used by Lenin in his polemic against "Machism" in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. Lenin sought to discredit his philosophical adversaries by establishing that there are only two consistent world views and validating his own perspective, materialism, as having been "derived from self-evident facts with inexorable logic."
Although the adversary's view, idealism, may also be logically derived, it proceeds from dubious assumptions that are incompatible with the allegedly self-evident facts. From this polemical perspective, science "consists in carrying out a relentless struggle" against the proponents of the erroneous world view.
Having established that there is an "unscientific" and a "scientific" point of view -- a myth and a reality -- the task for the conscientious polemicist is then to demonstrate that the opponent does indeed make the erroneous assumptions from which the unscientific, mythical view is logically derived. Lenin took elaborate pains to show that his adversaries believed what he said they believed in spite of any protestations to the contrary.
Rapoport contrasted Lenin's meticulousness with "modern efficient smear methods, such as defining subversive activity to be attendance at a concert by Paul Robeson." The problem with polemics, in Rapoport's view, is that there are no winners "in the sense that no evidence exists of significant conversions to this or that point of view ever having taken place as a result of polemic." This raises the possibility that the function of polemic may often be to forestall, rather than to "win" a debate.
Classical political economy -- or at least some key tenets of it -- may be usefully viewed as a polemic against mercantilism. The polemical strategy is to establish the correctness of the polemicist's view on the grounds of the error of the opponent's (supposedly) contrary view. The opposite of false is true. If that guy is wrong, I must be right! Whether the two positions are, in fact, "opposites" is a question that is best either evaded or obscured.
I would like to use as a demonstration text, Josiah Tucker's implicit praise of Sir Josiah Child's statement of the "infallible maxim" and condemnation of a "vulgar error." Child could be described as a mercantilist with some anticipations of post- or anti-mercantilism. He was also been described as a self-serving projector who donned the mantle of scientific objectivity to advance his cause. As the principal shareholder in the East India Company, he was one of the wealthiest men in England.
Tucker's approval of Child's argument is implicit as it comes in the form of a question -- three questions, to be exact:
Whether Sir Josiah Child did not call it a VULGAR ERROR to say, We have more Hands than we can employ? Whether he was a Judge of Trade? And Whether it is not an infallible Maxim, That one Man's Labour creates Employment for another?The modal verb, can, does a lot of work in that first question. As a positive verb, it could refer to an ability, a possibility, an opportunity or a permission. In this passage, though, it performs as a substitute for the negative, "we can't employ all of those (additional) hands." It is vague on how many can't be employed. One? A large number?
The juxtaposition of infallible maxim to vulgar error suggests that "one man's labour creates employment for another" is a direct rebuttal to "we have more hands than we can employ." But the former passage is also ambiguous. Are the two employments equivalent to each other? Are they both 40-hour jobs at $15 an hour? Why can't one man's labor create employment for two others or for half? Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that one man's labor creates some fraction of employment for many others?
Given the imprecision of both statements, wouldn't it be possible for either of them to be true in some circumstances and sometimes even for both of them to be true at the same time? Of course it would. But the descriptors of "infallible maxim" and "vulgar error" assert otherwise. Would it be possible for the maxim to be true and the error to be false? Yes. Could the former even be a better predictor of changes in employment? Perhaps.
Polemic doesn't do "maybe."
In Fights, Games and Debates (1960), Rapoport proposed a set of procedures for carrying out an ethical debate. The first rule for such a debate is that each party must present the opponent's case to the opponent's satisfaction before presenting their own case.
The second step is to identify specific situations in which the opponent's position is correct. This is possible even in extreme situations. Rapoport gives the example of the claim that "black is white." One can agree that in a photographic negative, black is indeed white.
Finally, in presenting one's own case, one may proceed to point out the circumstances in which the opponent's claim is not applicable. The purpose of these procedures is to encourage each participant in the debate to identify with the opponent by empathizing with the thought process that produced their contentious position.
Of course there is no guarantee that the opponent will follow the rules of an ethical debate. Rapoport later recalled an incident with an associate director of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Vienna. He began by presenting what he viewed as the associate's perspective, "you think that I did something just in order to embarrass you." The associate agreed that this was indeed what he thought. When asked to state Rapoport's perspective, though, he replied, "Well, you have just stated it. You said yourself that you did it to embarrass me, didn't you?"
Rapoport might have retorted, "You think that I admitted that I did something just to embarrass you." To which the associate could have responded, "Yes and you just confirmed that you did admit it!" And so on, in Pythonesque fashion.
The "you say that I say that..." double structure of the latter exchange offers a template for handling the standard fallacy claim. We may start with one of the beliefs that Sir Josiah Child labelled a vulgar error, "We have people enough, and more than we can employ."
Restating Child's position involves acknowledging both the status of the belief that there are more people than can be employed and his evaluation of the belief as a vulgar error. For a while I had been under the impression that Child's rebuke of the vulgar error was directed at John Graunt's suggestion that there may be "but a certain proportion of work to be done." But I have come across an earlier text that corresponds almost word for word with the supposition that Child criticized. It is from a 1630 pamphlet, The Planter's Plea, by the Puritan divine, John White, promoting colonization in Massachusetts:
It is a fearfull condition, whereby men are in a sort enforced to perish, or to become meanes and instruments of evill. So that the conclusion must stand firme, we have more men then wee can imploy to any profitable or usefull labour.The same year White published his pamphlet, his pilgrims founded a colony in Massachusetts and named in Dorchester, after the Dorset, England town where White preached. It is now the largest neighbourhood in Boston. Ironically, Child's pamphlet also contained propaganda for English emigration – to the slave sugar plantations in the Caribbean.
So Child was correct that there were indeed people claiming that there were more people in England that could be employed. As for his evaluation of the claim as a vulgar error, Child defined the term in the preface to his New Discourse of Trade, pointing out that men often fail to "distinguish between the Profit of the Merchant and the Gain of the Kingdom" or mistake the former for the latter.
Although in White's case it is not the merchant's profit that he is mistaking for the kingdom's gain, he is promoting a colonial scheme. But he may indeed be offering it as a solution to a situation that he could be overstating or that might have some less drastic remedy than emigration to America.
So it is clear that Child's criticism is valid in certain circumstances.
Putting White's argument into context, he acknowledges the possible objection that the unemployment he observes is due to ill government rather than to an excess of numbers. His answer to that objection is partial agreement, that better government could reform many of the evils he decries but argues that there remain limits to tillable land and pasture for livestock. Since he was writing at a time when most livelihood was based on subsistence agriculture, he would not have the benefit of relying on knowledge of future technological developments.