English, Irish and Subversives among the Dismal Scientists: Volume 28 Part 2


Table of contents

(18 chapters)

Seligman is an important and ironically somewhat neglected figure today in the history of American economic thought. However, an examination of his scholarly achievements reveals that he had a considerable impact on the development of professional economics in America and could count the most influential economists in Europe as personal friends and collaborators (Moss, 2003; Rutherford, 2004; Mehrotra, 2005). Asso and Fiorito (2006), in their introduction to Seligman's autobiography (1929) argue that ‘his personal influence as an academic economist, as a teacher and as a central figure in the dissemination of economic knowledge was second to none and perhaps more meaningful than any single work he wrote’ (p. 1). They also record (quoting his student, Alvin Johnson) that ‘with Seligman…American economics began to acquire a distinctive professional reputation, some very high scholarly standards and a sort of “moral magnificence”’ (p. 2). What this means is that through Seligman's work and guidance economics came to encompass a moral dimension that fed through into social policies, many of which were adopted by American legislatures. The major influences on his method included the German Historical School and a number of heterodox Continental writers that informed Seligman's in great Whig interpretation of the development of economics. He also engaged critically with the more abstract methods of contemporary economic analysis of the early twentieth century.

From well before the mid-19th up to the mid-20th century those scholars who read and commented on The Essential Principles of the Wealth of Nations, including Marx and Seligman, seem to have been unaware of the very name of its author. Since then it has become accepted knowledge (again) that the work was written by one John Gray. Beyond the name, however, biographical details about Gray have remained extremely sparse until the present day. If one were to use a measure of obscurity, something which perhaps is appropriate in a work devoted to ‘neglected economists’, then one may use the fact that neither the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (old or new editions), nor the Palgrave Dictionary of Economics (any edition), nor any other biographical dictionaries devote an entry to Gray. The modern authors who discuss his economic writings contend themselves with the statement that ‘little biographical information is available about Gray’ (Delmas & Demals, 1995, p. 119, n. 5).1 This is unfortunate because at least some knowledge about the personal background and career of an author is often useful in arriving at a better understanding of his or her ideas. This, as will become clear shortly, is the case too for John Gray.

It is not difficult to understand why the Sketches would be credited to Sharp. His death four years before the publication of Ricardo's Principles placed him within the period under discussion by Seligman. Sharp possessed an extremely wide range of interests and was a prolific writer on a remarkable variety of topics. By 1809 he was a prominent public figure and had produced more than 40 separate works, several of which had reached second or third editions. He had established a reputation as a controversialist and his oeuvre is certainly consistent with Seligman's generalisation that the ‘greater part of the economic literature’ between 1776 (the year of The Wealth of Nations) and 1817 consisted of ‘pamphlets dealing with current practical problems’ (Seligman, 1903, p. 336). Sharp had published on the conditions in West Africa, the illegality of the press-ganging of sailors, parliamentary reform, colonial law, frankpledge, a popular militia and public charities.

On rent, Seligman's claim is based on the fact that in the first edition of the Essay on the External Corn Trade (1815) Torrens conceives rent as a ‘net surplus’, which is undoubtedly true, but not in itself very significant: Adam Smith had already written of rent as surplus produce,18 and following Smith the same conception is to be found in a number of authors, for instance in Spence's 1807 tract Britain Independent of Commerce, which Torrens certainly knew, having written The Economists Refuted against it in 1808. Spence in fact speaks of rent as ‘the surplus produce paid to [the class of land proprietors] under the denomination of rent’ (Spence, 1807, p. 17).19

If a reason is sought for not neglecting Cazenove, we need look no further than to his views on demand, consumption, saving and gluts, and to his criticisms of what he called ‘Say's principle’ and ‘Say's new theory’.

Seligman noted four topics that Rogers investigated in this pamphlet: the principles that regulate the exchange value of commodities; the wage theory; the incidence of taxes on agricultural products and an analysis of the economic consequences of a commutation of the tithe. This last topic Rogers treated mathematically. Seligman asserted that the appearance of Malthus's Principles of Political Economy in 1820…[gave] rise to an active discussion on some of the fundamental topics in dispute between Ricardo, Say and Malthus…. Most of the essays of the time, however, were concerned with the discussion of the nature and measure of value, and of these the majority based themselves on the theory advocated by Ricardo and McCulloch. (1903, pp. 351–352)

Elie Halévy essentially expressed the view recorded by James Mill in his anonymously written ‘On the Nature, Measures, and Causes of Value’7 that the first chapter of the Critical Dissertation relating to the nature of value ‘contains not an assertion, who which, as far as ideas politico-economical are concerned, Mr. Ricardo would not have assented; it contains, not indeed, as far as such ideas are concerned, an assertion which is not implied in the propositions which Mr. Ricardo has put forth. It is a criticism on some of Mr. Ricardo's forms of expression…’ ([J. Mill], 1826a, p. 157). The justification for the Ricardian reaction is clear enough, as I shall now show.8

There is no exaggeration in the claim that abstract-deductive political economy in pre-Tractarian Oxford was driven by Richard Whately and hence centred at Oriel College. At this time Oriel was defined by a group of intellectuals now commonly referred to as the Oriel Noetics, of whom Whately was one, and the nature of Oxford political economy in the opening decades of the nineteenth century (including William F. Lloyd's contribution to it) cannot be understood outside the context of the intellectual tradition established by the Oriel Noetics. The Noetics were unconventional reformist clerics (one could not use the slippery mid-Victorian word ‘liberal’, as they were predominantly conservative Whigs or reform-minded Tories of the Pitt mould, in which order and tradition were maintained through moderate, but not radical, change); admired rational thought and absent-mindedly tested social conventions with their speech; were unafraid to question religious shibboleths if they deemed them bereft of scriptural foundation (such as Sabbatarianism); deployed logical processes to bolster their religious beliefs, which they held in an unsentimental fashion, and thereby to some extent practised that most contradictory of creeds, a logical faith; and, most importantly for this chapter, constructed a Christian Political Economy by dichotomising knowledge into a theological domain, in which they inferred from scriptural evidence that individuals should pursue the ends of attaining specific virtues (not utility!), and a scientific domain, in which they deduced scientific laws that would enable individuals to achieve the ends of attaining these virtues. They looked upon the rising Romantic Movement in general and the spiritualist yearnings of the Oxford Tractarians in particular with simple incomprehension, if not disgust. They deplored with equal measure the Evangelicals' enthusiasms, willing incogitency and lack of institutional anchor, yet sought to establish a broader national church that included dissenters (but not Catholics). They were most prominent in the 1810s and 1820s before colliding violently in the 1830s with, and being sidelined by, the Tractarians, many of whom they had, ironically enough, mentored and promoted.2

One of the several claims that Seligman makes for Rooke is that he should be accorded priority in the discovery of the correct, that is Ricardian, doctrine of rent:there seems little doubt that the doctrine of rent was developed practically simultaneously by Malthus, West, Torrens and Rooke in 1814, but so far as the priority of actual publication is concerned, the above list should be reversed. And in the interests of historical accuracy, Rooke and Torrens must hereafter be accorded the position which they deserve. (Seligman, 1903, p. 512)1

Joseph Dorfman in his introduction to the 1966 edition of Ravenstone's A Few Doubts on the Subjects of Population and Political Economy argued that Ravenstone was Rev. Edward Edwards, a major contributor on political economy to the Quarterly Review and Blackwood's Magazine. The case Dorfman made was circumstantial but nonetheless a strong one. First there was the fact that ‘articles in these Tory organs [were] roughly speaking in accordance with the views of “Ravenstone”’ (Dorfman, 1966). Both Ravenstone and Edwards were, for example, strongly critical of Malthusian population theory and its implications. Furthermore, on the basis of a reading of the 1821 work, Dorfman opined that Ravenstone was a trained theologian, something consistent with Edwards' clerical status, and that both had a predilection for historical reflection. Dorfman also believed he had found evidence in the files of John Murray, the publisher of the Quarterly Review, to substantiate his identification. Thus he cites a letter from Murray to William Gifford, a member of the publishing house, dated 3 November 1820, which makes reference to a manuscript sent to Murray shortly before A Few Doubts was published by another house. Moreover, Murray's correspondence files show that Edwards thought highly of Henry Brougham, and there is a copy of A Few Doubts in the Goldsmiths' Library in London, which is inscribed from the author to him (Dorfman, 1966, p. 20).

The Essay on the Distribution of Wealth consists of a preface, 16 chapters divided into two parts (Part I, Preliminary, 4 chapters; Part II, Distribution of Wealth, 12 chapters) and a note on the union with Ireland. In the preface, Ramsay strikes a note of refreshing dissent from the growing complacency of the Ricardians who at this time were riding high on the prestige of Ricardo, the unstinting labours of James Mill, the popular treatise of McCulloch and the refined logic and fine zeal of De Quincey (while Mrs. Marcet had even invaded the finishing school). Although he fully recognises Ricardo's contributions to the science, Ramsay points out that ‘the subject is far from being exhausted’ and that in view of the incomplete and controversial state of the science, he has ‘been induced to combat some errors supported by high authority’ (Ramsay, 1836, p. vii).2

Seligman's evaluation of Longfield's work concentrated exclusively on his views on value and distribution as set out in the Lectures on Political Economy. He noted that Longfield adopted many of the doctrines of the classical school but dissented from it in his treatment of distribution above all in his theory of profits (Seligman, 1903, p. 526). Seligman began with an examination of Longfield's ‘noteworthy’ theory of value which takes into account ‘the influence of cost of production upon the supply side of the equation’ as well as calling attention to the demand side (Seligman, 1903, p. 526). In discussing the demand side, Longfield pointed out that although the intensity of demand varies with different persons, all will affect their purchases at the market price. If an attempt was made to raise price above this level, the demanders whose intensity of demand was measured by the former price would cease to be purchasers. ‘Thus the market price is measured by that demand, which being of the least intensity leads to actual purchases’ (Longfield, 1834, p. 113; Seligman, 1903, p. 526). Seligman went on to note that, for Longfield, not only did intensity of demand vary between persons but also that ‘the same person may be said to have in himself several demands of different degrees of intensity’. Longfield wrote:Each individual contains as it were within himself, a series of demands of successively increasing degrees of intensity; that the lowest degree of this series which at any time leads to a purchase, is exactly the same for both rich and poor, and is that which regulates the market price and that in the case of the rich man, the series increases more rapidly, that is to say, the intensity of his demand increases more rapidly in proportion to the diminution of his consumption than in the case of the poor man. (Longfield, 1834, p. 115)

Butt can be placed within the framework of what George Boyce (1995, pp. 18–19) terms colonial patriotism. Butt's analyses of Ireland's economy and development during the next years brought together the several strands that marked out an Ireland of citizens, an Ireland of sort which has emerged at the turn of the present millennium. What were the influences on Butt and what is his place in the development of political economy? His position is best characterised as eclectic and distinct from the other early holders of the Whately Chair. Drawing upon but not endorsing classical political economy, Adam Smith, Longfield, Jean-Baptiste Say and others, Butt defies pigeonholing. His economic analysis emerged slowly, and initially, there was little hint that he would expand on Longfield's position which essentially was a theory of profit (McGovern, 2000, p. 5). However, Butt moved beyond Longfield's analysis and whereas the latter remained in the classical tradition on free trade, he did not. He expanded Longfield's approach that crucial to the determination of the price of goods was the importance of applying a unit of whatever resource to its marginal use, concluding that the factors of production were remunerated in relation to the utility they created in their least efficient, marginal employment (Boylan & Foley, 2003, Vol. 2, p. 10). His importance, it has been observed, was in drawing attention to the potential resource mobilisation and distribution aspects of protection and in assessing the benefits and weaknesses of protection in relation to the complexity of specific circumstances (Boylan and Foley, 2003, Vol. 3, p. 5). Butt's Whatley lectures have received most attention although it will be suggested that certain of his other writings were as important or even more significant as indicative of his ideas on political economy. In his first Whatley lecture (Butt, 1837a), appropriating the title ‘Introduction’, Butt outlined somewhat verbosely the scope of what he intended to address and adopted the high ground about the purpose of political economy. He declared it was ‘to teach certain truths connected with the social condition of man – it attempts to explain the nature of the causes by which is brought about that singular machinery of society by which Providence has set man to supply each other's wants, and thus receive and confer a mutual benefit’ (1837a, p. 23). Butt addressed the question of production and the creation of ‘utility’. Employing the illustration of cotton stockings, Butt demonstrated the complex interchange required to produce even the most mundane of articles (1837a, pp. 25–26). ‘When you purchase your pair of cotton stockings’, he noted, ‘you are positively commanding for your own personal comfort and accommodation, not only the services of thousands of your cotemporary fellow creatures, but the accumulated results of the labours of generations that have long since passed away’ (1837a, p. 28). Thus, he maintained, political economy ‘teaches the laws which regulate the production, distribution and consumption of wealth’ (1837a, p. 30).

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