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The Ricardians and the Decline of Ricardianism

The Forces in the Field

Ricardo’s theoretical construction, his policy tenets such as the abolition of corn duties and his dynamic vision, including the profits-accumulation link, constituted essential reference for anyone tackling economic issues after the publication of the Principles. However, even Ricardo’s followers (including John Stuart Mill, author of the text - Mill 1848 - which Ricardianism had to thank for its lasting influence in the second half of the nineteenth century) abandoned this or that aspect of his analysis or introduced more or less important changes, thus opening the way to a change of paradigm. Moreover, among the economists of the time we find many exponents of an approach radically different from Ricardo’s, which looked to supply and demand, scarcity and utility, rather than the relative difficulty of production, to determine exchange values.

The debate waxed lively even within the walls of the Political Economy Club, by and large a Ricardian institution, although the foundation, in 1821, and proceedings also saw the participation ofMalthus, among others. Only a few years after Ricardo’s death a question raised for debate at one of the meetings was just how much was still alive in his theories. Economic debate crossed with political debate, within the club as in the major cultural journals of the time: the Edinburgh Review, founded in 1802, showed a Whig leaning, favourable to reforms and supporting Ricardo’s ideas; the Quarterly Review, founded in 1809, a Tory orientation; while the Westminster Review, founded in 1824 and close to Bentham’s utilitarianism and the philosophical radicalism of his followers, was also favourable to Ricardo’s ideas.

In the following sections we will summarise the debate as it progressed in the fifty years separating Ricardo from Jevons. The field saw many protagonists; a central position is naturally occupied by Ricardo’s thought. Lined up by his side were his most faithful friends: James Mill and McCulloch. On the right wing, after his friend and rival Malthus


came Bailey, Senior, Lloyd, Scrope and various others. On the left wing, the ‘Ricardian socialists’ can be separated into two currents: the relatively moderate supporters of cooperativism and the advocates of ethical interpretations of the theory of labour-value. On the inside right we can place Torrens and possibly De Quincey; the corresponding role on the inside left should go to John Stuart Mill (although precisely this fact shows just how schematic and reductive this linear representation of the positions in the field really is).

As we see, the debate took place largely in England: at least as far as political economy was concerned, the centre of European and world culture in the central decades of the nineteenth century was London, not Paris. There are various reasons for this: economic conditions (the leading role of England in the process of industrialisation), political conditions (a greater freedom of thought) and the presence of some exceptional personalities, such as Ricardo, and the influence that such personalities exerted in the development of a culture flourishing on direct contacts (as in the Political Economy Club).

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