Human Betterment

  • David Reisman


Alfred Marshall did not look backward with regret to some ‘Golden Age’ before the Fall but rather forward to the future with cautious optimism and a reasonable amount of hope: ‘There is then need to guard against the temptation to overstate the economic evils of our own age, and to ignore the existence of similar and worse evils in earlier ages.’1 We should not be romantics but nor should we be fatalists; and while quite sensibly avoiding the ‘potent medicines’ and ‘impatient insincerity’ of what Adam Smith would have called the ‘man of system’ (and what Marshall dismisses as the ‘charlatan’), we are duty-bound also to avoid the evil of ‘that moral torpor which can endure that we, with our modern resources and knowledge, should look on contentedly at the continued destruction of all that is worth having in multitudes of human lives, and solace ourselves with the reflection that anyhow the evils of our own age are less than those of the past’.2 But there are good grounds for a moderate degree of complacency nonetheless; for, Marshall stressed, situating himself in that way far more on the side of the Polyanna than on that of the Cassandra, the truth is that ‘we never find a more widely diffused comfort alloyed by less suffering than exists in the western world today’.3


Human Nature Invisible Hand Moral Sentiment Human Betterment Money Income 
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Notes and References

  1. 4.
    J.A. Schumpeter, ‘Alfred Marshall’s Principles: A Semi-Centennial Appraisal’, American Economic Review Vol. 31, 1941. In Wood II, p. 109.Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    J. Viner, ‘Marshall’s Economics in Relation to the Man and to his Times’, American Economic Review Vol. 31, 1941. In Wood I, p. 254.Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    Cited in R. Coase, ‘Marshall on Method’, Journal of Law and Economics Vol. 18, 1975. In Wood I, p.409.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 7.
    Cited in R. F. Harrod, The Life of John Maynard Keynes (London: Macmillan, 1951), p. 117n.Google Scholar

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© David Reisman 1987

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  • David Reisman

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