chapter  5
24 Pages

Social Inquriy and Poor Law Reform

The place of social inquiry in all of this also has a bearing upon the movement of ideas. Orthodox economic theories and the social policies such theories justified had been called into question by changes in the intellectual and material environment. The idea that poverty was a natural condition and pauperism a matter of choice had been shaken by the crisis in political economy. The destruction of the wage-fund theory and the declining importance attached to excessive population pressure undermined confidence both in the utility and integrity of political economy. Its conception as a set of mechanicallaws that were independent of morality and capable of revealing an ordered reality drew criticism from several quarters. Some argued that the deductive method of classical economics* simplified and distorted reality; others sought to recast the science of wealth as the science of welfare and create a new economics devoted to individual and social regeneration. To such critics, the gloomy projection of a future based on increasing scarcity seemed out of step with the possibilities of working-class improvement opened up by industrial and technological development. The reconstruction of social theory, a process that had begun in the 1870s, became pressing during the 1880s as the onset of economic depression, mass unemployment, an extended franchise and social unrest, exposed the deficiencies in orthodox economics. Charles Booth's path-breaking survey Life and Labour of the People in London should be seen in relation to the search for an economic theory that was less abstract, less deductive and rather more serviceable than that of the classical school [144].