OBSTACLES TO SOCIAL PROGRESS By social progress is meant the gradual in crease and diffusion of wealth, accompanied by the unfolding of human capacity to enjoy it. General prosperity may be promoted by a wiser choice of commodities, by a decrease in their real cost, or by a more intelligent use of them. Every advance in any one of these three direc tions is a step in social progress. Anything which blocks advancement in any of these direc tions is an obstacle to social progress. There are innumerable obstacles, some temporary, others lasting ; some in physical nature, others in man himself ; some baffling the best efforts of the entire race, others acting only as an in strument in the separation of the efficient from the weak, enabling the stronger to crush out the more quickly their unsuccessful competitors.
One of the obstacles that has received most attention because of its relation• to other parts 356 of political economy is the law of diMinishing returns. The niggardliness of nature has been held to be the chief limitation to industrial prog gress. A brief statement and illustration of the law has already been given.' It is undoubtedly true that there are limits to profitable agricultural investment on a given piece of land. A piece of ground which is well adapted to agriculture may not be well adapted by location for building or for any other purpose than farming. When the owner has expended upon it a sufficient amount to secure its full normal yield, any additional expenditure will make a very slight addition to the yield, or perhaps none at all. If it were possible for him to go on increasing his investment indefinitely with constant returns, no farmer would ever need to own more than five or ten acres, since he could secure whatever additional crop he desired by simply putting more men at work, and sowing additional seed in his small farm. Practical experience would show that when the point has been reached which gives the crop that is planted a fair chance of success, it will not be very much p.-346.
increased by additional work, and if any more men are to be employed profitably it must be on new land. Is this fact then to be regarded as one of the physical obstacles to progress ? Not unless the general reason for our inability to secure a larger. crop from a given area lies in physical nature, where, in fact, as a rule, it is not to be found.
With any given method of cultivation, and with a given crop, and with only traditional measures of precaution against damage from frost and other dangers, the farm will on an average pro duce just so much grain and no more. But if the cultivators discover new methods of cultiva tion, better fertilizers, and a more productive seed, and especially if changes in the habits and wants of consumers enable new crops to be substituted, the total yield may be increased indefinitely. Taking into account larger areas, improvements in transportation similarly in crease the agricultural product by bringing new lands into cultivation, thus relieving the older lands from the necessity of producing crops for which they were unsuited, and ena bling their cultivators to use them more profit ably. A rough test of the whole process is to be found in the price of food. If land is subject to a law of diminishing returns, and cultivators are being forced to ever poorer lands in order to meet the demands of increasing population, there will be seen a general tendency of food to increase in price. The poorer lands cannot be cultivated unless the price of food is high enough to meet the increased expense, and this price will of course become general. If, on the con trary, the price of food is decreasing, this may be taken as evidence that the law of diminishing returns is not in operation, or that it is counter acted by other and stronger tendencies. And such is indeed the case. Agricultural products in general have fallen rather than risen in price in the last generation and in the last fifty years.