chapter  5
30 Pages

Value and distribution theory at Trinity College Dublin, 1831–1844

In this chapter, I argue that between 1831 and 1844, at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), an articulate and original series of young Irish lawyers took to the lectern to explain the basic principles of the new discipline of political economy. The selection of the successive holders of what I shall call the “Whately chair” of political economy were made by the Board of Trinity College and required the applicants to sit for a written examination (Murphy 1984). Young lawyers awaiting their call to the bar were allowed to teach while waiting. Some of the best minds applied and received this appointment. Starting with Mountifort Longfield and followed by Isaac Butt and James Anthony Lawson, a sequence of lawyer economists pushed the boundaries of British economic reasoning quite a distance and pointed towards a genuine “market process approach” to the problems surrounding value theory and the determination of the distributive shares among the three great classes in society. Each was paid to deliver no less than nine lectures each year and published at least one of these lectures each year of his tenure. The appointment as Professor of Political Economy was limited to one five-year term. We have the published lectures but not too much else. Still, based on this limited evidence, it is possible to make out the contours of what their thinking was on many issues and at the same time to extrapolate the direction of their thinking. Most excitingly, they were committed to the discipline of economics and they shared the point of view of Richard Whately, the remarkable Anglican archbishop to Dublin, that political economy was an important science and deserved a place in the modern university (Murphy 1984). Richard Whately (1786-1863) was the catalyst, entrepreneur, and energizer behind these fruitful developments at TCD. He came to Dublin from Oxford with a number of projects in mind. As far as economics was concerned, the late 1820s and early 1830s were tumultuous times. The First Reform Bill in England of 1832 and subsequent bills extended the franchise to the middle class. The lower working class remained disenfranchised but hardly without a voice. Their behavior and welfare were hotly debated, especially in the months leading up to the 1834 New Poor Law for Ireland, which transferred responsibility for the poor from the parishes to the workhouses. And there was the constant fear that the workers might resort to violent revolution as the landowners and established

families worried might happen and believed had already happened in France decades earlier. Indeed, in 1834, as Longfield was completing his first set of lectures, a group of farm workers in Dorset were arrested for “combining” and sentenced to seven years in jail amidst much controversy and discussion. The fear of machine breaking and general worker unrest was real and a constant topic for discussion in Britain (Berg 1980: 1-19). In order to smooth things in Ireland, Whately supported the creation of a regular chair of Political Economy at TCD. One important purpose of political economy was to promote social stability by correcting errors and misunderstandings that had “crept” into the discipline and by drawing out implications that might help guide both public policy and public understanding. That was Whately’s aspiration for the chairholders. The teaching of economics was tied directly to the need to address arguments about the fairness of capitalism and the restoration of social order. Before I offer an interpretation of the substantive content of their economics, it is important to distinguish the Whately group of university professors from what Salim Rashid and others have named the “Dublin School of development economics.”