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Richard Ely on Industrial Civilization and Socialism August 22, 2011

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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Almost every economist who wrote from the French Revolution to the interwar period (and perhaps even to today)  defined the principles of their economics or political economy along with a narrative of the development of civilization.  Richard Ely was no exception.

Richard Theodore Ely (1854–1943)

As with Smith and Malthus, in Ely’s economics the reader is treated to several prolonged discussions of why savages made tools, what herdsmen were really like, and how medieval towns came into being. Not only did economists from Adam Smith forward have to address the increasingly complexities of land, labor, and capital, as well as banking and finance, but also the emergence of a new kind of civilization, industrial civilization. Ricardo and Marx’s discussions of technology and machinery alone argue for their continuing relevance.

Ely’s Elementary Principles of Economics (1915), intended for students, began the discussion of the emergence of industrial civilization with the all-too-familiar conceit, the “hunting and fishing stage.”  In this initial stage of development, economic activity is “isolated.”  Ely considered the earliest stages to be “independent economy” with little exchange of goods or coordination among individuals.  Ely also distinguished between two fundamentally differing views towards the natural world in human beings’ march towards civility, namely, “between uncivilized man, who uses what he finds, and civilized man, who makes what he wants.” (more…)