On Revolutions and Progress in Economic Knowledge

By T. W. Hutchison | Go to book overview

2
James Mill and Ricardian economics: a methodological revolution?

I

It hardly seems useful to start by discussing whether there was or was not -- or whether one can properly write of -- 'a Ricardian revolution'. Sir John Hicks and Professor H. G. Johnson have expressed themselves in favour of this concept which at least seems prima facie to be well worthy of serious consideration.1 But in any case, if the changes brought about by Ricardo's work, and the influence which it exercised, may validly be regarded as 'revolutionary', this must surely be primarily, or largely, because of the novelty, and subsequent importance for the subject, of its methodological contribution. Certainly Ricardo's pronouncement that 'the principal problem in Political Economy' was 'to determine the laws which regulate this distribution' -- that is, distribution between aggregate rent, profits and wages -- signified a certain shift in interests or priorities, although this problem had already been broached in The Wealth of Nations. But it can be argued that of much more fundamental and lasting significance than the shift of interest or priorities regarding the subject of distribution, was the methodological claim that problems in political economy are problems of 'determining laws'. Moreover, of equally fundamental and lasting significance was the method of extreme abstraction (or 'strong cases') by which, in his Principles Ricardo sought to 'determine' the 'laws' of political economy, which he claimed his new Science was establishing. The transformation in method and epistemology as between The Wealth of Nations and Ricardo Principles is profoundly significant because it altered the mood in which the 'problems' of political economy were treated and in which 'theories', and policy-recommendations were put forward. In fact, Walter Bagehot opened his essay on Ricardo by stressing his most important contribution: 'The true founder of abstract Political Economy is David Ricardo' ( 1895, p. 197).

It has long been known that James Mill played a considerable part in the intellectual development and political career of Ricardo. But the full extent of Mill's influence, and just how vital and substantial

____________________
1
See Sir John Hicks, 1975, p. 322, and 1976, pp. 207ff; and H. G. Johnson, 1975, pp. 23ff.

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