chapter  7
23 Pages

John Elliot Cairnes: Land, laissez- faire and Ireland


The meeting of John Elliot Cairnes (1823-75) and John Stuart Mill at the Political Economy Club in London in 1859 initiated a deep and enduring friendship that generated an extensive correspondence, making Cairnes ‘perhaps the most highly valued’ of all of Mill’s later correspondents (Mineka and Lindley 1972: xxxviii). In the course of his review of Cairnes’s The Slave Power in the Westminster Review in 1862, Mill described Cairnes as ‘one of the ablest of the distinguished men who have given lustre to the much-calumniated Irish colleges, as well as the chair of Political Economy that Ireland owes to the enlightened public spirit of Archbishop Whately’ (Mill 1862: 489-90). This accolade from Mill, delivered in his characteristically modulated manner, was indeed warranted given Cairnes’s standing in 1862. But it was particularly prescient when account is taken of Cairnes’s standing at the time of his death in 1875, at the early age of fifty-­two. Cairnes was born at Castlebellingham, County Louth in 1823. He received the BA degree from Dublin University in 1848 and the MA in 1854. In 1856 he competed successfully for the Whately professorship of political economy at Trinity­ College­ Dublin­ and­ held­ this­ position­ for­ the­ full­ five-­year­ tenure.­ In­ 1859 he was appointed to the chair of jurisprudence and political economy at Queen’s College Galway, a position he held until 1870. In 1866 he was appointed to the professorship of political economy at University College London. Thus he held joint-professorships in Dublin and Galway between 1859 and 1861, and in Galway and London between 1866 and 1870. He resigned the London professorship in 1872 on health grounds, having vacated his Galway chair two years previously. Like many of his compatriots who held the Whately Chair, Cairnes also trained as a lawyer, having been called to the bar in 1857, but he never seriously practised law or engaged in any other occupation. He was from­the­outset­a­full-­time­academic­economist­and­was­one­of­the­first­professional economists in Great Britain and Ireland. Cairnes’s theoretical work ranged over a number of areas which included methodology, monetary economics, and economic theory, where he made a number of important contributions. In general, however, Cairnes’s reputation rests largely on his two major works, The Character and Logical Method of Political Economy (1857, 2nd expanded edition 1875), and Some Leading

Principles of Political Economy Newly Expounded (1874). In particular, his Leading Principles­is­seen­as­the­final­restatement­of­classical­political­economy­ within the broad Ricardo-Mill tradition, which has earned him the enduring title of the ‘last of the classical economists’. But the assignment of labels to Cairnes, whether­Ricardian­or­Millian,­should­be­carried­out­ in­a­qualified­and­nuanced­ manner. While Cairnes certainly worked within the broad church of the RicardoMill framework, his ‘Ricardianism’ requires careful decipherment; and while his commitment to the Millian paradigm was hardly in question, he differed sharply from Mill in a number of areas, both methodologically and in terms of economic theory. Thus he provided his own distinctive contribution, which has been recognized by a number of discerning scholars (Schumpeter 1954; Hands 2001). We have elsewhere surveyed and evaluated Cairnes’s contribution to political economy, both theoretical and applied (Boylan and Foley 1983, 1984a, 1984b, 1985, 2004). While Schumpeter called Cairnes ‘a born theorist’, he went on to remind his readers that ‘we must not forget however [. . .] that the bulk of his working hours went into practical problems and that it was his “factual” contribution (in particular his Slave Power 1862), which accounts for his reputation with the English public of his time’ (Schumpeter 1954: 534). Further writings in this ‘factual’ domain, or what we could call the area of economic policy, were collected in his Essays in Political Economy, Theoretical and Applied and Political Essays, both published in 1873. Central to his ‘factual contribution’ was his long-­standing­ concern­ with­ Irish­ affairs,­ more­ specifically­ his­ preoccupation­ with the pivotal issue of nineteenth-century Irish politics and economic policy, namely, the ownership and tenancy of land. The major outcome from this concern was Cairnes’s stringent critique of laissez-faire, the presiding doctrine of British political and economic discourse during the nineteenth century. In this chapter we consider Cairnes’s writings on both of these intimately related topics, which are among the dominant themes in nineteenth-century Irish economic thought. When Cairnes addressed these topics, he was not merely adding, we would argue, to what Schumpeter chose to call his ‘factual contribution’. Much more was at stake. Underlying these topics were such fundamental issues as: the rights of property, the philosophical basis of liberalism, the status and limitations of the ‘science’ of political economy (especially when applied to Irish circumstances), and the role of the state in relation to the operation of the free market. An analysis of Cairnes’s writings suggests that Irish land played an ideological role­in­British­political­discourse­quite­disproportionate­to­its­economic­significance. Part of our objective in this paper will be to outline Cairnes’s thinking on, for him, the intimately related subjects of land and laissez-faire. In more general terms, we will indicate that solutions to the perennial problem of Irish land were widely perceived of in Britain as infringing on sacrosanct property rights, the doctrine of laissez-faire, and even on the laws of political economy itself. ­ John­ Maynard­ Keynes­ stated­ that­ Cairnes­ ‘was­ perhaps­ the­ first­ orthodox­ economist to deliver a frontal attack upon laissez-faire in general’ (Keynes 1926: 26). In a previous paper we suggested that it was no accident that such an attack came out of Ireland and we remarked on the widespread hostility towards

political economy in Ireland. We noted the mischief wrought by Ireland, with its different socio-economic arrangements and ideas, to that quintessentially English discourse – political economy (Boylan and Foley 1983, 1984a: 111-15). It was widely felt that the laws of political economy, though universal in their application, somehow contrived not to have relevance to Ireland. Ireland was a sort of ‘liberty’ where the writs of political economy did not run. As R.E. Thompson, the American commentator, stated,

Gladstone and Robert Lowe have held fast to every letter of the old shibboleths, except when it comes to legislation about Ireland. The laws of economics which govern the rest of the world are not in force on the western shore of St. George’s Channel.