The Economics of W. S. Jevons

By Sandra Peart | Go to book overview

1

INTRODUCTION

General themes

‘William Stanley Jevons, Thinker’. Such is the title of a newsclipping that commemorates the fifty-year anniversary of Jevons’s death (JA6/50/43). Reviews of his Letters and Journal, published posthumously in 1886, find that he was ‘above all things, a mathematician’, ‘undoubtedly the foremost logician of his time’, or, quite simply, ‘A Great Statistician’. 1 Jevons was also, of course, a ‘pioneer of modern economics’ 2 and economists today most often come to know his work with marginal utility theory. But his interests encompassed policy issues as diverse as child care for working mothers and slum landlords, as well as the methodological procedures appropriate to the discipline. Jevons’s research into the coal question and British manufacturing supremacy, and the effect of gold discoveries on the value of gold, was highly acclaimed during his lifetime; Léon Walras learned of Jevons’s work on index numbers long before he became acquainted with the theory of exchange. 3

From an early age, Jevons was driven by an intense desire to be, as he put it in an 1857 letter to his two sisters, Henrietta and Lucy, a ‘powerful good in the world’. 4 Early on, also, his talent for measurement became evident and was recognized by peers. Social science, ‘the study of Man in society’, attracted his efforts; and in social science he called for measurement, approximation, and quantification of hypotheses. He developed new techniques of data combination and manipulation, insisting that the scientist attack observations using ‘wide averages’. 5 Jevons’s contributions, both in terms of methodological recommendations contained primarily in The Principles of Science (Chapter 9), as well as the actual procedures he used in empirical studies (Chapter 10), proved fundamentally important to the subsequent development of empirical techniques in economics. 6

William Stanley was born and raised in Liverpool, at the heart of industrial England. 7 The family was cultured, Unitarian, and, at least until 1848, well-to-do. His father, Thomas Jevons [1791-1855], worked in the iron trade and was an innovator in the use of iron for shipbuilding; 8 in 1834, Thomas published a work on reforming the criminal justice system, and in 1840, he published a piece on the Corn Laws. 9

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The Economics of W. S. Jevons
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgements x
  • 1 - Introduction 1
  • Appendix 1.1 Chronology of Jevons’s Life 8
  • Part I - Macroeconomic Concerns 19
  • 2 - Jevons’s Theory of Economic Growth 21
  • Appendix 2.1 Coal Consumption 42
  • Appendix 2.2 Population Data 44
  • 3 - Sunspots and Expectations 45
  • Part II - Microeconomic Theory 71
  • 4 - Jevons’s Theory of Political Economy 73
  • 5 - Jevons’s Theory of Exchange 90
  • Appendix 5.1 Physics and Neoclassical Economics 114
  • 6 - Production 115
  • Part III - Economic Policy 135
  • 7 - Jevons and Utilitarianism 137
  • 8 - Jevons’s Analysis of Policy 155
  • Part IV - Methodology 171
  • 9 - The Rise of Empirical Methods 173
  • 10 - Jevons’s Empirical Studies 194
  • Appendix 10.1 Jevons’s Commodity Groups, Enlarged Sample 214
  • Appendix 10.2 The Currency Wear Calculations 217
  • Appendix 10.3 The Davenant Corn Law 219
  • Appendix 10.4 Jevons’s 1875 Buys-Ballot Table 220
  • 11 - Conclusion 221
  • Notes 232
  • References 295
  • Index 307
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