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History of Political Economy 32.3 (2000) 553-584
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The “Secret Concatenation” in the Mid-nineteenth Century:
The Case of George Poulett Scrope, a Still Neglected Political Economist
The phrase “secret concatenation” is Samuel Johnson’s and refers to the hidden bonds uniting the fortunes of the rich and the poor in commercial society. This article explains how the secret concatenation was formulated in the writings of the often neglected mid-nineteenth-century political economist George Poulett Scrope. From a dual dialogue—with the radical critics of inequality and the Malthusian apologists for poverty—emerged Scrope’s non-Christian moral theory of the reciprocal interest of the rich and the poor, built around a positive defense of the role of capital in alleviating poverty. This theory allowed Scrope to fully integrate an organic paternalism and a utilitarian discourse of rights and duties into his political economy. Although Scrope was far from being the first writer to attempt to unveil the secret concatenation, two features made his version distinctive. The first was the prominent role he accorded to capital and the interrelationship he established between morality and capital accumulation. The second was that his moral theory was erected on an explicitly non-Christian basis. Historiographically, the latter point highlights both a moral alternative to Christian political economy and the existence of a non-Christian providential naturalism in providing the basis for free market ideology. [End Page 553]
The starting point for Scrope’s1 political economy was the problem of inequality. In the late 1820s and early 1830s, a challenge was set by the Owenite socialists and the radical political economist Thomas Hodgskin to explain “the immense disparity of fortune and circumstance that strike the eye on every side.” Dissatisfied with the conventional appeal to the principle of population found in David Ricardo, James Mill, J. R. McCulloch, Thomas Malthus, and Thomas Chalmers, Scrope (1873, vii–viii) jettisoned a promising geological career to formulate an alternative explanation. The result, found in his Principles of Political Economy (1833) and a host of pamphlets on Poor Law reform and the condition of Ireland, can be described as Scrope’s secret concatenation, his version of the theory of the hidden bonds uniting the fortunes of the rich and the poor in commercial society. This linked well-established theories of sociability and paternalism with an innovative theory of capital, uniting all three elements with a utilitarianism that precluded the need for either natural rights arguments or an appeal to biblical authority.
Underlying Scrope’s secret concatenation was his conception of society as a body in which all individuals were bound to each other by a reciprocal framework of rights and duties and in which natural bonds united the interests of all men, rich and poor (Scrope 1833b, xv–xvi). In the philosophical essay “On the Coincidence of the Rights, Duties and Interests of Man in Society,” with which Scrope prefaced the Principles, this Ciceronian position was supplemented by citations of John Locke, Bishop Butler, and all the main philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, in support of the contention that man had a social instinct, or “moral sense,” and that society was a product of this natural sociability. According to Scrope (1833b, 5–6), man’s “moral sense” included an “intuitive sense of justice”—defined as “an instinctive sense of right and a disposition to act in accordance with it”—that guaranteed that the rights and duties of all men in society were theoretically coincidental. But although the interests of all men were united in society, Scrope did not believe all men to be equal. For Scrope, inequality was natural, but in return for their advantages the wise and the rich had paternal duties toward the ignorant and the poor, the guiding criterion for these duties being whether or not an action contributed to the “greatest good of the greatest number.” What Scrope usually meant by this phrase was [End Page 554] any action that directly or indirectly contributed to the accumulation of...