Supremacy Of Ricardian Economics

The Supremacy Of Ricardian Economics

It is a curious phenomenon that although very little of pure Ricardian analysis remains in the mainstream of modern economics and very much of the analysis of Ricardo's early critics does, Ricardo's influence on other economic writers nevertheless remained paramount through much of the nineteenth century. Every major British economist in the nineteenth century, including John Stuart Mill and Alfred Marshall, paid tribute to Ricardo. The fact that they did so while rejecting or reshaping some of his fundamental ideas in no way lessens the significance of their respect for him as an economic theorist. Always in a numerical minority, Ricardo and the Ricardians still carried the day in early British economics.

The reasons for this phenomenon had as much to do with the nature of the Ricardian opposition as with the aggressiveness of Ricardo's disciples. Malthus's writings, for example, belie a theoretical looseness and an intellec­tual vacillation that undoubtedly undermined their effectiveness as an alterna­tive to Ricardo's. Even Senior, whose method and analysis were more rigid than Malthus's, darted and swerved on a number of minor theoretical points. Moreover, Senior's failure to connect his modifications of Ricardo with the question of income distribution probably had an unfavorable effect on the abil­ity of those contributions to attract a wider audience. As a result, Ricardo was in the peculiar position of being able to use impeccable logic to defend his sys­tem and simultaneously destroy opposing arguments, which were often based on mere common sense. The fact that Ricardo could do so convincingly and endear himself to other economists tells us much about his vast intellectual powers and also about the kind of people economists admire.

Moreover, there is something very positive about Ricardo's performance that must be noted, for failure to understand this point constitutes a misappreciation of what economics, as a science, is really about. The point is simply this: Ricardo's tightly reasoned analytical system showed a method­ological consistency that was not matched by his predecessors or his contem­poraries but that was of paramount importance to the successful development of a fledgling science. Today it seems that Senior's overall performance, in fact, and his specific attempts to give economics a scientific foundation, would have been improbable, if not impossible, without the prior performance of Ricardo.