On Revolutions and Progress in Economic Knowledge

By T. W. Hutchison | Go to book overview

3
The decline and fall of English classical political economy and the Jevonian revolution

I

The chapter in the history of the subject entitled 'English Classical Political Economy' has probably been more thoroughly and extensively expounded, sometimes critically, but recently more often highly eulogistically, than any other section in the history of economic thought. Perhaps latterly, for English economists, it has had a certain wistful, nostalgic charm to hark back to a period when The Science of Political Economy enjoyed such power and prestige, at the same time as the English economy itself was held in awe as 'the workshop of the world'. How fascinating it is today to contemplate Nassau Senior, soon after the Great Exhibition of 1851, pointing to the flourishing prosperity and leadership of the English economy and proclaiming triumphantly to an admiring Frenchman: 'It is a triumph of theory. We are governed by philosophers and political economists.'1 Anyhow, it is certain that the particular, peculiar English classical doctrines or 'theories' had an influence, dominance and authority, in their home country, in a vital and triumphant period of its economic history, hardly equalled by any other economic ideas before or since. But just how and why this almost uniquely influential and dominant body of economic theory came to lose its hold and credibility has been comparatively very little examined or discussed in serious terms. In fact, in the space of a few years in the late 1860s and early 1870s the classical structure of 'theory' underwent a remarkably sudden and rapid collapse of credibility and confidence, considering how long and authoritative had been its dominance in Britain. In view of the rapidity and central importance of this change in ideas, what took place, in Britain, might not unreasonably be said to have had something 'revolutionary' about it, though mainly in a destructive, negative sense.2 For there was much less agreement between the rebels, who were attacking from very different directions, regarding what should

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1
1878, vol. 1, p. 169, quoted by A. Gerschenkron, May 1969, p. 6.
2
Many indications that a general breakdown in confidence had taken place, both among economists and the wider interested public, in the previously prevailing orthodoxies, can be cited from economic writings in the early and middle 1870s. For a number of these see T. W. Hutchison, 1953, p. 6. There were, for example, the well-known

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