Cairnes, John Elliott

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Cairnes, John Elliott



John Elliott Cairnes (1823−1875), an Irish economist, was born at Castlebellingham, County Louth. After some years reluctantly spent in his father’s brewing business, Cairnes entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1842 and received his primary degree in Arts in 1848. He was at first uncertain where his career lay—his interest in economic studies seems only to have developed around 1854, the year in which he received his m.a. degree. Two years later he took the competitive examination by which the Whately professorship of political economy was then filled and as a result was appointed to the chair for the usual five-year tenure. He was admitted to the Irish bar in 1857 but did not practice law. From this time on, he devoted himself wholly to academic economics. In 1859 he was appointed professor of political economy and jurisprudence at Queen’s College, Galway, and retained this post until 1870, discharging its duties through a deputy after he moved his residence to London in 1865. In 1866 he became professor of political economy at University College, London, but resigned in 1872, having been reduced to almost helpless invalidism by the rheumatic complaint that caused his death three years later.

Although Cairnes’s active career as an economist extended over less than 20 years, he quickly established himself in the front rank of the profession; his contemporaries recognized him as second only to John Stuart Mill, whose close friend he was from 1859 onward.

Cairnes’s first work, The Character and Logical Method of Political Economy (1857), stands as the definitive statement of the methodology of the English classical school. In it Cairnes laid stress on the primacy of the deductive method, emphasized the hypothetical character of political economy, and stressed its independence of any particular political or social system. He was, in fact, defining the scope and method of economic analysis rather than of political economy in its fullest sense. Although this approach later brought criticism from advocates of the historical method, such as his fellow countryman Cliffe Leslie, Cairnes could not properly be charged with neglecting the study of economic facts. He was, above all, a theorist, but one who could employ his analytical powers to great advantage in dissecting the essential elements of a current problem.

A notable example of his use of this approach is found in his papers on the depreciation of gold, published between 1858 and 1860 and subsequently reprinted with other papers in his Essays in Political Economy, Theoretical and Applied (1873a). Another instance, and one that gained him much wider repute, was in The Slave Power (1862), in which he outlined both the requisite conditions for the operation of a slave economy and its inevitable social consequences. The book was a strong indictment of the social system of the American South and did much to influence public opinion in Britain in favor of the Northern cause in the Civil War.

Cairnes also took a strong interest in the problems of his native Ireland, notably land tenure and university education, and there is evidence that on these and other questions of his day he indirectly exerted considerable political influence through his friends Mill and Henry Fawcett. Yet ultimately Cairnes’s main interest and strength lay in the field of economic theory, to which he returned in his last and best-known work, Some Leading Principles of Political Economy Newly Expounded (1874). This was avowedly designed “to strengthen and add consistency” to the structure of the Ricardo-Mill system and included an attempt to rehabilitate the wages-fund doctrine, which Mill had “recanted” in 1869. Perhaps the most permanently significant feature of this book is the modification of the cost-of-production theory of value to take account of the existence of noncompeting industrial groups, primarily in the case of labor. Cairnes pointed out that the cost-of-production theory could be applied only in cases where complete mobility of factors existed. Where this condition was not fulfilled, in domestic as in international trade, the principle of reciprocal demand must be invoked, in addition to the cost-of-production theory, to explain the determination of normal values. This concept of noncompeting groups did not originate with Cairnes, but it was he who first recognized and gave it its full importance.

Although in this and other respects Cairnes endeavored with some success to improve on accepted classical theory, he had no sympathy for attempts at radical reconstruction of the science, as his uncomprehending review (1872) of Jevons’ The Theory of Political Economy (1871) clearly showed. Since on the central issues of economic theory his approach was essentially backward-looking, there seems no reason for altering the conventional estimate of him as “the last of the classical economists.”

R. D. Collison Black

[For the historical context of Cairnes’s work, see the biographies ofLeslie; Longfield; Mill; Ricardo. For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seePricesandWages.]


(1857) 1875 The Character and Logical Method of Political Economy. 2d ed. London: Macmillan.

(1862) 1863 The Slave Power: Its Character, Career, and Probable Designs. 2d ed. London: Macmillan.

1872 New Theories in Political Economy. Fortnightly Review New Series 11:71−76.

1873a Essays in Political Economy, Theoretical and Applied. London: Macmillan.

1873b Political Essays. London: Macmillan.

1874 Some Leading Principles of Political Economy Newly Expounded. London: Macmillan.


Black, R. D. Collison 1960 Jevons and Cairnes. Economica New Series 27:214−232.

Fawcett, Henry 1875 Professor Cairnes. Fortnightly Review New Series 18:149−154.

Jevons, William S. (1871) 1965 The Theory of Political Economy. 5th ed. New York: Kelley.

Leslie, T. Cliffe (1879) 1888 Professor Cairnes. Pages 60−62 in T. Cliffe Leslie, Essays in Political Economy. 2d rev. ed. Edited by J. K. Ingram and C. F. Bastable. Dublin: Hodges & Figgis; London: Longmans.

O’Brien, George 1943 J. S. Mill and J. E. Cairnes. Economica New Series 10:273−285.