Review of the book
Man's Estate: Adventures
in Economic Discovery
by Alfred Bingham
Sidney J. Abelson
[Reprinted from The Freeman, September, 1939]
"Political economy," says Alfred Bingham, "is
essentially national housekeeping."
In that one sentence is summed up the peculiarly inept trend of
popular thought on the subject of how men provide themselves with the
material goods of life. The State has come into its own once more. The
dignity of man, according to this doctrine, must derive from the
dignity of the State. Socialism, after making Hegel stand on his head,
is now standing on its own head: the heretofore despised State, with
all its brutality, has become the benign monarch of a new day, a deus
ex machine providentially sent from on high to extricate man from
what seems to be a particularly unique imbroglio.
Bingham is not a Marxist. As a matter of fact in Man's Estate:
Adventures in Economic Discovery (W. W. Norton, $3.00) he
unleashes one of the most sensible attacks on Marxism I have ever
read. I have heard Bingham called a Socialist, but I believe he would
even resent that minor designation. Yet he, like so many other
courageous and intelligent thinkers, has fallen under the spell of
Marxist-Socialist exaltation of the State. Under this latter-day
mercantilism, society is no longer an organism but a machine. Men are
not living creatures endowed by nature with the power of freely acting
in concert with their fellows for the fulfillment of naturally
established social functions; they are helpless wards of the universe,
capable only of being directed like automatons.
Now political economy is no more "national housekeeping"
than is chemistry or physics or biology. To establish political
economy as "national housekeeping" makes as little sense as
would the establishment of physiology as "national hygiene."
(Paolo Mantegazza, the Italian physiologist wrote that "Physiology
... is, or should be, the origin of all human legislation.") A
voluntary social organization can assist in disseminating the laws of
physiology concerned with good health, but the observance of those
laws and the enjoyment of good health are individual matters and
necessarily must remain so forever. Political economy seems to have
aspects of social interdependence which distinguish it from other
sciences, but this is true only in a superficial sense: ultimately man
makes his living -- fulfills his economic function -- with his own
brains and his own hands; he follows or does not follow the "physiological
laws" of economics, and consequently enjoys or does not enjoy the
If we think in terms of humanity we must think in terms of
individuals. There is no such thing as collective enjoyment or
gratification; there is only the possibility of an aggregation of
individual enjoyments. Political economy is a science which, like
other sciences, reveals those laws of nature that permit man -- i.e.,
mankind as a group of individual men -- to enjoy better the economic
possibilities of life. Political economy is simply a more inclusive
science which shows man how the benefits of other sciences may be
Political economy is a science, and as such it has nothing whatever
to do with national borders artificially established by man. As such,
it has no relationship to the state, except that to a limited extent
the State can be instrumental in aiding -- but not in directing -- the
smoother flow of natural economic law.
In short, the State (politics) must subserve economic life. Politics
is not the larger function; it is the smaller. In the natural order
politics is the instrument of, and not the master of, economics.
In spite of Bingham's abiding faith in the State as the hope of
economic salvation his book is as charming and as challenging a work
on my. favorite subject as I have read in a long time. These
refreshing qualities are, apparently, reflections of the author's
personality. His ardor is persistent, his sincerity above suspicion,
his intelligence keen. His range of investigation is as broad as the
world. He has traveled everywhere he could hope to find a shred of
enlightenment; he has spoken to many great leaders of countries in
Europe and Asia. ("I had the chilling experience of being spat at
as I drove through the noisome slums of Shanghai.")
He seems to have overlooked only one source of economic illumination,
the one closest to him and most accessible -- Henry George. Chapter
after chapter is devoted to Hitler, Mussolini, Marx, Stalin -- but
George gets exactly 88 words.
Why? Perhaps because Bingham has not completed his investigations.
Perhaps because amidst the shouting and the tumult the still small
thin voice of common sense is drowned out. Perhaps because George is
the most revolutionary of all social thinkers and his doctrine is a
little too heady.
I have often thought that if Christ came to earth in this year of
1939 and repeated His counsel "thou shalt love thy neighbor as
thyself" and then added "I mean it," He would engender
in the breasts of His listeners only horrified resentment. So it is
with George. George writes of freedom and means it. He writes of free
cooperation and means it. The economic and social doctrines of Henry
George are not Utopian phrases; they are the instruments of practical
conduct. I submit that because George provides for immediate freedom
as both means and end lie is history's most revolutionary philosopher.
Every other thinker has been burdened with the idea of a purgatory to
be suffered before entering El Dorado.
Bingham's "national housekeeping political economy" leads
him into a logical impasse. His feelings toward Russia are of an
ambivalent nature. Russia is the best of lands. The Soviets have
discovered how to step up production at a rate far outdistancing the "capitalistic"
countries; that is the "love" part of the ambivalent
attitude. But the Communist citizen is subject to arbitrary "blood
purges," and Mr. Bingham finds "the political absolutism of
the Stalin regime ... loathsome"; that is the "hate"
part of his mixed feelings. The author of "Man's Estate"
sees no causal relationship between the Stalin "economic"
system and what he calls "the demoralization that tends to grow
on any absolute dictatorship." Looking to the future, through
dark glasses, darkly, he ventures to predict that "Stalin, once
his increasingly despotic regime has come to an end, will be
remembered, like Peter the Great, for his building rather than his
despotism. However one may abhor present-day Soviet politics, there is
ground for having the highest hopes for a free and happy Russia."
In "The Conquest of Bread" Kropotkin states, "Every
economic phase has a political phase corresponding to it." A free
economy, in short, brings forth a free political system; a dictated
economy brings forth a dictated political system. And not all the "angels
in heaven above, nor the demons down under the sea" can "ever
dissever" these causal relationships. As long as Russia has
Stalin's increasingly regimented economy it will have to suffer
Stalin's "increasingly despotic regime."
Only considerations of space induce me to relinquish further comment
on "Man's Estate." I enjoyed the book. I recommended that
every reader of The Freeman read it. It is a lively compendium
of honest misguidance, a collection of sound facts and unsound
interpretations, all so entertainingly and earnestly presented that,
in spite of its shortcomings, it is still challenging to the informed
reader. I think that the fascinating feature of "Man's Estate"
is this: Mr. Bingham's attitude toward his subject is one of frank
open-mindedness; he is still searching. And one whose mind is not yet
closed is far from lost.