chapter  9
15 Pages

The peculiarities of place: The Irish historical economists

ByROGER E . BACKHOUSE

Introduction In the 1860s, two Irish economists, Thomas Edward Cliffe Leslie (1825-1882) and John Kells Ingram (1823-1907), became leading members of what later came to be called the English Historical School of economics, which mounted what, by the late 1860s, was the most threatening challenge to English classical political economy. In terms of age, Ingram was the senior figure, but it was Leslie who first turned to historical economics and who was the movement’s leading representative. Their work is important as representing one of the ways in which Irish economics turned in the mid-nineteenth century. By the 1840s, the Whately professors at Trinity College Dublin had established a distinctive approach to economics (see Chapter 5), but their most important students chose to turn in other directions. Leslie’s contemporary, John Elliot Cairnes (1823-1875) turned to the Ricardian doctrines of English classical political economy, albeit modifying them in distinctive ways (see Chapter 7). In contrast, Leslie turned to the historical method, mounting a radical critique of abstract economic theories in general. However, despite their differences over economic theory, Cairnes and Leslie were both responding to the peculiarities of the Irish situation, brought into stark relief by the Great Famine of the late 1840s (see Chapter 6). Even Cairnes had to acknowledge that Ricardian ideas needed to be modified to take account of the Irish system of land tenure and the implications this had for the way markets worked. Leslie, together with Ingram, took this a stage (or perhaps several stages) further, incorporating the specificity of Irish experience into more wide-ranging historical critique of Ricardian doctrines. However, although these economists were Irish, and influenced by Irish conditions, they lived and worked as important members of a broader, British, economic community, centred on London, in which John Stuart Mill was the leading figure. It was a period when British economics was in transition. In the age of Malthus and Ricardo, few British economists had been full-time academics, but by the second half of the century this was changing. However, though the subject was beginning to become professionalized, this process was far from complete. Economists might be academics, with a division emerging between their work

and the writings of, say, political figures, but they still published in journals whose editors were literary figures and politicians (such as John Morley, the historian and prominent Liberal politician), not in specialized journals edited by their economist peers. The audience for their work remained broad one, though it was narrowing. If economics was institutionally in a period of transition, it was also in a period of transition as regards doctrine, confidence in English classical political economy having weakened considerably (cf. Hutchison 1953, chapter 1). Cairnes’s modifications to Ricardian theory were symptomatic of this, as were the moves away from strict Ricardianism found in Mill’s work. However, both Cairnes and Mill chose to remain within the classical mould, as did many of the generation of Liberals who came after Mill, such as Herbert Somerton Foxwell and Henry Sidgwick. Even Alfred Marshall did not free himself completely from the older way of thinking, though his departures from it were more radical than he was prepared to admit. Leslie, and to a lesser extent Ingram, played an important role in this transition. As Hutchison (1953) has pointed out, the first theoretical challenge to the classical system came not from marginalism, but from Leslie and other historical economists. Their critiques of the prevailing orthodoxy chimed with those of John Ruskin and those who argued that economics had become too much associated with dogmatic laissez-faire. It is important to remember that even though their historical successors ended up creating economic history, a discipline independent of economics (see Backhouse 2004), this was not what Leslie and his contemporaries were seeking to create: their goal was a historical economics. It would be going too far to claim that they came close to succeeding (this involves is a historical counter-factual that is impossible to assess) but it can certainly be argued that the Irish historical economists were far from being peripheral to this transition in British economics, either institutionally or intellectually.