Jevons and The International Spread Of Economic Ideas

Jevons's contributions to economic theory and statistics are almost matched by his role in the spread of economic analysis. Seldom has a writer been more generous in ac­knowledging the priority of other writers, both previous and contemporary, on points of analysis. In May of 1874 a correspondence began between the French economic the­orist Leon Walras and Jevons. Walras published his Elements of Po­litical Economy in that year, setting out a framework of general equilibrium and util­ity analysis. Interested in propagating these ideas, Walras initiated a monumental correspondence with a large number of economists from all over the world. The result of that correspondence, among other mutual benefits, was the establishment of a list of "mathematico-economic" works originally drawn up by Jevons but amended by Wal­ras. Jevons, in the preface to his second edition of 1879, described this list:

With the progress of years, however, my knowledge of the literature of political economy has been much widened, and the hints of friends and correspondents have made me aware of the existence of many remarkable works which more or less anticipate the views stated in this book. While preparing this new edition, it occuned to me to attempt the discovery of all existing writings of the kind. With this view I drew up a chronological list of all the mathematico-economic works known to me, already about seventy in number, which list, by the kindness of the editor, Mr. Gif-fen, was printed in the Journal of the London Statistical Society for June 1878 (Theory, p. xix). Jevons forwarded this list to all the leading economists of the time, and Walras had it published in the Journal des Economistes.

In his 1879 preface and in the annotated list of mathematico-economic writings, Jevons brought to the attention of other economists the theoretical efforts of Cournot, Dupuit, Ellet, Gossen, both Leon Walras and his father, Auguste, von Thiinen, Jenkin, and Lardner, together with a host of other lesser-known writers, such as Ce-sare Beccaria, Lang, Bordas, Minard, and Boccardo. Many of these writers remain virtually unknown today, and some deservedly so, but at the seed time of neoclassi­cal analysis the recognition and critical evaluation of the work of other theorists were of profound importance.

In the process of classifying and identifying earlier writings, Jevons confronted the fact that his own work was not very original. Cournot had pioneered in mathe­matical expression; Cournot, Lardner, and Dupuit in the theory of the firm; and Dupuit and Gossen in utility theory, the latter going so far as to establish clearly the equimarginal principle. But in spite of the obvious disappointment Jevons must have felt on making these discoveries, he exerted a herculean effort to identify and pop­ularize earlier and contemporary writers on economic analysis. In doing so, he set a sterling example of what a scholar should be, and at the same time he encouraged an open-door policy on economic ideas, which vastly enriched the neoclassical tra­dition in England and elsewhere.