Henry Buckle and the Wealth and Poverty of Nations May 30, 2012Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
Tags: Alexis de Tocqueville, Auguste Comte, David Hume, David Landes, David Ricardo, Edward Gibbon, Ellen Semple, Ellsworth Huntington, Emile Durkheim, Francis Bacon, Henry Buckle, J.S. Mill, James Mill, Justus Liebig, Karl Marx, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, Max Weber, Montesquieu, W.E.H. Lecky
Henry Buckle (24 November 1821 – 29 May 1862), much like the semi-acknowledged French sociologist Alfred Espinas, was among the ‘universal citations’ of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The economist Alfred Marshall makes great use of him. Much like Ellen Semple and Ellsworth Huntington, Buckle had the unfortunate fate of being labeled a “geographical determinist” by historians of geography, sociology, and anthropology.
Ted Porter and Ian Hacking have accused him of “historical determinism.” He was neither. He also tragically died far too early for his ideas to be sufficiently clarified. While Buckle in his History of Civilization in England ascribed great power to climate or “physical causes,” he nonetheless did so only with respect to “savage” or “rude” nations.
While leaving a role for climate in civilized nations, Buckle nonetheless argued that progress was indeed possible in Europe as well as in England due largely to the advancement of scepticism. By ‘scepticism,’ Buckle meant the, “spirit of inquiry, which during the last two centuries, has gradually encroached on every possible subject; has reformed every department of practical and speculative knowledge; has weakened the authority of the privileged classes, and thus placed liberty on a surer foundation….” What Buckle says here is actually quite significant when placed in the context of the history of ideas. Buckle was both last in a long line of those who conjoined civilizational progress with the spread of rationalism and the decline of superstition and barbarism in England, beginning with the philosophy of David Hume and Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; and also within the rising tide of authorial monuments to the progress of philosophy and manners, as exhibited in the early works of Lucien Levy-Bruhl and W.E.H. Lecky’s History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe.
Although it is quite easy to dismiss these works as Orientalist and ‘Whiggish,’ which of course they were if you believe them to be discussing the easy progress of science and the backwardness of Eastern and African locales, it is easier to take them seriously if you consider them not as chauvinistic exemplars of nineteenth-century confidence, but rather sophisticated examinations of what precisely it was that allowed some civilizations to advance and others to remain static. This is the same impulse behind the work of David Landes, who may merely be described as “old-fashioned.”
Placing Buckle within these discussions of the advancement of civilization not only allows for linkages between his work and that of Montesquieu and Alfred Marshall, but also allows for a recovery of what I consider to be Buckle’s actual argument: the importance of the distribution of wealth to the development of the intellect and national character of a people. Buckle’s consideration of economic factors, based upon a sensitive reading of David Ricardo’s theory of rents and wages, finds that intellectual and civilisational progress depended upon the factors governing the production and distribution of wealth.
Perhaps as importantly, Buckle exemplifies the type of thinker, beginning with Auguste Comte (Marx and Weber are other examples,) who was interested in the dynamics governing the transition of one economic state into another. Lastly, Buckle’s writing points to the mania of the nineteenth century, whereby any number of theorists, convinced that there were causal laws governing the course of civilization wished to, given the avalanche of data recently available, prove the existence of these laws through the use of statistical evidence. One should think of Emile Durkheim’s Suicide in the same light. Laws certainly existed; the problem was proving them empirically, rather than as Montesquieu did, using anecdotal evidence from the accounts of travelers.
Why, according to Buckle do some nations become rich, while others stay poor? Buckle begins with climate, noting that Asiatic civilization, India especially, grew around a particularly fertile and warm area where it was quite easy to grow cereal crops (rice.) While good for some Indians- the Brahman elite- the warm weather has condemned the mass of Indians to grinding poverty.
Poverty, which Buckle thought as always existing in India, was the result of the vast inequalities of wealth from an “always redundant” labor market. The inequalities in wealth mirrored the inequalities in the social structure, with Indian society continually reflecting the domination of a patrician elite. Buckle reasoned, from Ricardo and James Mill’s History of India, that since food has always been easy to get and the land abundantly fertile, population has been consistently high, wages low, and rents astronomical, since the vast majority of Indian land is under agriculture due to the conditions of the soil. As a result of all this “the reward of laborers was very small in proportion to the reward received by the upper class.”
Buckle then formulated a system of general laws concerning non-European nations: “the force of those physical laws, which, in the most flourishing countries outside of Europe, encouraged the accumulation of wealth, but prevented its dispersion; and thus secured to the upper classes a monopoly of one of the most important elements of political and social power.” As importantly, in uncivilized nations the climate bred fanaticism and superstition in the population, thus undoing any work of the progress of reason and scientific investigation. Buckle, after much narrative, formulates his version of a Comtean law: “Hence it is that, looking at the history of the world as a whole, the tendency has been, in Europe to subordinate nature to man; out of Europe, to subordinate man to nature.”
This was more Montesquieu’s idea than Francis Bacon’s. European civilization’s flight from nature into a regime of laws of its own making had to do with the distribution of wealth. The distribution of wealth, of course, has its roots in climate. Climate only provided Europe with the push it needed to get away from the influence of climate. Buckle’s rational is as follows. As the climate is colder, food is hard to get. That food which is procured tends to be “carboniferous,” following Justus Liebig and others. The population, as a result, tended to not only be less numerous, but also healthier and stronger. Unlike nations outside of Europe, those in Europe depend upon livestock and hunting, with less land given to agriculture. In Europe, the food is of better quality; those that find it successfully tend to be more intelligent, able to plan better than their fellows unable to secure food. The cold climate, moreover, was good for the development of reason, toughening up nerves and muscles; men worked longer and harder in cold climates than in warmer ones, and were better planners (incidentally, the idea that savages could not plan has a long history in anthropology until the mid-twentieth century. ) Men, consequently, were more reasonable in Europe than elsewhere, and less prone to superstition. All of this had profound consequences for the economic development of European nations.
As there was less food in the country and less of the land given over to agriculture, the population of European countries was consequently lower than in countries outside of Europe. Rents were then lower and wages higher than in Asia. With lower rents and higher wages, there was a greater distribution of wealth and greater mobility among the social classes in Europe. Since laborers were able to work less in order to meet subsistence, they consequently have more free time. “Leisure” for Buckle was the key to scientific progress; the absence of an entrenched, moneyed elite was key to the stability of a society. It was leisure which allowed human beings to depart from the rule of nature and to be governed according to the separate laws of society. It was leisure which allowed for the development of the virtue of scepticism.
As with many in the long nineteenth century, Buckle considered despotic government or a government of too many laws and too diffuse privileges to specific guilds or individuals, antithetical to progress. A nation was better if its people were free, within limits, to do as they please without the imposition of government (or the Inquisition.) As with many members of the English enlightenment (and in a slightly different way, Tocqueville) there was a deep skepticism of religion (particularly Roman Catholicism) on Buckle’s part, and its corrosive effects on the progress of the intellect. What mattered most of course, was the distribution of wealth. And while climate mattered initially to the distribution of wealth, it was the growth of the intellect and the supremacy of science which truly, for Buckle and many eighteenth and nineteenth century thinkers, counted.