The Economics of W. S. Jevons

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10

JEVONS’S EMPIRICAL STUDIES

INTRODUCTION

Jevons’s emphasis on ‘inductive quantification’, entailing procedures to measure, approximate, or establish economic relationships, constituted a key departure from the method of Classical economists such as J.S. Mill. In addition, as we have seen, Jevons was known to his contemporaries as an applied economist, and he made repeated calls for the collection, arrangement, and explanation of economic statistics. This chapter examines his attempts to collect and use economic data, with an aim to confirming that his methodological recommendations were, indeed, revolutionary for economics. 1 Of particular relevance for what follows, shall be Jevons’s investigation of the value of gold, the study of currency weights, his use of the Davenant corn data, and his attempts to fit economic data to the sunspot cycle. 2

In what follows, we first examine two examples of Jevons’s attempts to measure economic phenomena and to use his measurements in support of economic hypotheses. Between 1863 and 1869 he established the fact of a depreciation of gold and attempted to explain the depreciation using a spectacular array of data on prices (this is the subject of pp. 195-201). Here, the theoretical principle on which Jevons’s exercise relied (the Quantity Theory of Money) was well established in the literature. Since prices were subject to a wide variety of influences, however, establishing the depreciation proved no simple matter. The studies of currency weights, designed to support Gresham’s Law, reveal the same painstaking care and attention to detail, and relied on the argument (outlined as a general principle on pp. 186-88) that influences on currency wear other than age would balance, so that average age could serve as a measure of average currency wear. (We turn to that investigation on pp. 201-3.)

In a rare foray into application in the otherwise abstract Theory of Political Economy, Jevons attempted to fit estimates of corn prices and quantities to a functional form (we investigate that attempt on pp. 204-5). Here he commenced with raw data which revealed an apparent relation between

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