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Economic Policy in United Kingdom

Political Economy

Political economy is sometimes described as a wholly abstract science, dealing with an unreal and imaginary subject, that is to say, not with the entire real man as we know him in fact, but with a simpler being who is supposed to be engrossed with one desire only, namely, the desire of wealth. Thus, according to the doctrine laid down by J. S. MILL in his Unsettled Questions of Political Economy, the science makes entire abstraction of every human passion and motive, other than the pursuit of wealth, and the perpetually antagonising principles to that pursuit, namely, aversion to labour, and desire of the present enjoyment of costly indulgences.

In other words, the economist is described as always working on the hypothesis that the acquisition of wealth is the sole end and aim of human action. In opposition to this view is that of the so-called ” realistic ” school, some of whom practically deny the utility of any abstract or hypothetical treatment of political economy at all. It is maintained by Colas and others that any attempt to separate economic science from social philosophy in general must necessarily end in failure. The truth seems to lie between these two extreme doctrines ; and it may be pointed out that writers who, like Mill and describe political economy as in its complete form a purely abstract science, nevertheless do not treat it as such in their own writings.

It is true that they employ an abstract method in many of their reasonings, but it is also true that, taking their doctrines as a whole, they do not hold themselves aloof from the concrete realities of actual life to anything like the extent that their description of the science would lead one to anticipate. They begin with abstractions, but do not end with them; and herein is the true method of the science roughly set forth. We ought accordingly to recognise two stages in economic doctrine, which may be called the abstract and the concrete stage respectively. It may not be possible to draw a hard and fast line between the two, but this does not destroy the value of the distinction. Abstract political economy concerns itself entirely with certain broad general principles, irrespective of particular economic conditions; or, as Jevons puts it, with ” those general laws which are so simple in nature, and so deeply grounded in the constitution of man and the outer world, that they remain the same throughout all those ages which are within our consideration” (Fortnightly Review, Nov. 1876, p. 625).

It may thus be of universal validity, but this is after all only in virtue of its hypothetical character. It may remain remote from the actual concrete facts. Concrete political economy comes in, therefore, as a supplement. It takes account of special conditions that the pure theory avowedly neglects, and especially concerns itself with the qualifications and limitations, with which the abstract doctrines need to be interpreted. It puts forth no claim to universality, but is content if it can interpret and explain the actual economic phenomena, characteristic of a given period or a given state of society. [1]



  1. Robert Harry Inglis, Sir, Dictionary of Political Economy, Vol. 1, 1915

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  • Article Name: Economic Policy
  • Author: MacCallum
  • Description: Resources See Also Further Reading Economic Policy in the Encyclopedia of Britain Economic Policy in the Osborn's [...]

This entry was last updated: September 5, 2017


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