William Stanley Jevons

You will perceive that economy, scientifically speaking, is a very contracted science; it is in fact a sort of vague mathematics which calculates the causes and effects of man's industry, and shows how it may be best applied.

When quite young I can remember I had no thought or wish of surpassing others. I was rather taken with a liking of little arts and bits of learning. My mother carefully fostered a liking for botany, giving me a small microscope and many books, which I yet have. Strange as it may seem, I now believe that botany and the natural system, by exercising discrimination of kinds, is the best of logical exercises. What I may do in logic is perhaps derived from that early attention to botany.

I used to think I should like to be a bookbinder or bookseller it seemed to me a most delightful trade and I wished or thought of nothing better. More lately I thought I should be a minister, it seemed so serious and useful a profession, and I entered but little into the merits of religion and the duties of a minister. Every one dissuaded me from the notion, and before I arrived at any age to require a real decision, science had claimed me.

It was during the year 1851, while living almost unhappily among thoughtless, if not bad companions, in Gower Street a gloomy house on which I now look with dread it was then, and when I had got a quiet hour in my small bedroom at the top of the house, that I began to think that I could and ought to do more than others. A vague desire and determination grew upon me. I was then in the habit of saying my prayers like any good church person, and it was when so engaged that I thought most eagerly of the future, and hoped for the unknown. My reserve was so perfect that I suppose no one had the slightest comprehension of my motives or ends. My father probably knew me but little. I never had any confidential conversation with him. At school and college the success in the classes was the only indication of my powers. All else that I intended or did was within or carefully hidden. The reserved character, as I have often thought, is not pleasant nor lovely. But is it not necessary to one such as I? Would it have been sensible or even possible for a boy of fifteen or sixteen to say what he was going to do before he was fifty? For my own part I felt it to be almost presumptuous to pronounce to myself the hopes I held and the schemes I formed. Time alone could reveal whether they were empty or real; only when proved real could they be known to others.

In matters of philosophy and science authority has ever been the great opponent of truth. A despotic calm is usually the triumph of error. In the republic of the sciences sedition and even anarchy are beneficial in the long run to the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

There are many portions of economical doctrine which appear to me as scientific in form as they are consonant with facts.

In this work I have attempted to treat economy as a calculus of pleasure and pain, and have sketched out, almost irrespective of previous opinions, the form which the science, as it seems to me, must ultimately take.

A correspondent, Captain Charles Christie R.E., to whom I have shown these sections after they were printed, objects reasonably enough that commodity should not have been represented by M, or Mass, but by some symbol, for instance Q, which would include quantity of space or time or force, in fact almost any kind of quantity.

In short, I do not write for mathematicians, nor as a mathematician, but as an economist wishing to convince other economists that their science can only be satisfactorily treated on an explicitly mathematical basis.

Among minor alterations, I may mention the substitution for the name political economy of the single convenient term economics. I cannot help thinking that it would be well to discard, as quickly as possible, the old troublesome double-worded name of our science.

In any case I hold that there must arise a science of the development of economic forms and relations.

As there are so many who talk prose without knowing it, or, again, who syllogize without having the least idea what a syllogism is, so economists have long been mathematicians without being aware of the fact.

The conclusion to which I am ever more clearly coming is that the only hope of attaining a true system of economics is to fling aside, once and forever, the mazy and preposterous assumptions of the Ricardian school. Our English economists have been living in a fool's paradise. The truth is with the French school, and the sooner we recognize the fact, the better it will be for all the world, except perhaps the few writers who are far too committed to the old erroneous doctrines to allow for renunciation.

Property is only another name for monopoly.

Thus monopoly is limited by competition, and no owner, whether of labour, land or capital, can, theoretically speaking, obtain a larger share of produce for it than what other owners of exactly the same kind of property are willing to accept.

There is no such thing as absolute cost of labour; it is all a matter of comparison. Every one gets the most which he can for his exertions; some can get little or nothing, because they have not sufficient strength, knowledge or ingenuity; others get much, because they have, comparatively speaking, a monopoly of certain powers.

It is clear that economics, if it is to be a science at all, must be a mathematical science.

But, in reality, there is no such thing as an exact science.

Previous to the time of Pascal, who would have thought of measuring doubt and belief? Who could have conceived that the investigation of petty games of chance would have led to the most sublime branch of mathematical science—the theory of probabilities?

A correct theory is the first step towards improvement, by showing what we need and what we might accomplish.

The theory which follows is entirely based on a calculus of pleasure and pain; and the object of economics is to maximize happiness by purchasing pleasure, as it were, at the lowest cost of pain.

The calculus of utility aims at supplying the ordinary wants of man at the least cost of labour.

Pleasure and pain are undoubtedly the ultimate objects of the calculus of economics. To satisfy our wants to the utmost with the least effort—to procure the greatest amount of what is desirable at the expense of the least that is undesirable—in other words, to maximize pleasure, is the problem of economics.

By a commodity we shall understand any object, substance, action or service, which can afford pleasure or ward off pain.

My principal work now lies in tracing out the exact nature and conditions of utility. It seems strange indeed that economists have not bestowed more minute attention on a subject which doubtless furnishes the true key to the problems of economics.

One of the first and most difficult steps in a science is to conceive clearly the nature of the magnitudes about which we are arguing.

Economists can never be free of from difficulties unless they will distinguish between a theory and the application of a theory.

We shall never have a science of economics unless we learn to discern the operation of law even among the most perplexing complications and apparent interruptions.

Over-production is not possible in all branches of industry at once, but it is possible in some as compared to others.

A spade may be made of any size, and if the same number of strokes be made in the hour, the requisite exertion will vary nearly as the cube of the length of the blade.

Ina regular and constant employment the greatest result will always be gained by such a rate as allows a workman each day, or each week at the most, to recover all fatigue and recommence with an undiminished store of energy.

An isolated man like Alexander Selkirk might feel the benefit of a stock of provisions, tools and other means of facilitating industry, although cut off from traffic, with other men.

Capital simply allows us to expend labour in advance.

What capital I give for the spade merely replaces what the manufacturer had already invested in the expectation that the spade would be needed.

One pound invested for five years gives the same result as five pounds invested for one year, the product being five pound years.

The whole result of continued labour is not often consumed and enjoyed in a moment; the result generally lasts for a certain length of time. We must then conceive the capital as being progressively uninvested.

Some of the gold possessed by the Romans is doubtless mixed with what we now possess; and some small part of it will be handed down as long as the human race exists.

I consider that interest is determined by the increment of produce which it enables a labourer to obtain, and is altogether independent of the total return which he receives for this labour.

I feel quite unable to adopt the opinion that the moment goods pass into the possession of the consumer they cease altogether to have the attributes of capital.

We often observe that there is abundance of capital to be had at low rates of interest, while there are also large numbers of artisans starving for want of employment.

To me it is far more pleasant to agree than to differ; but it is impossible that one who has any regard for truth can long avoid protesting against doctrines which seem to him to be erroneous. There is ever a tendency of the most hurtful kind to allow opinions to crystallise into creeds. Especially does this tendency manifest itself when some eminent author, enjoying power of clear and comprehensive exposition, becomes recognised as an authority. His works may perhaps be the best which are extant upon the subject in question; they may combine more truth with less error than we can elsewhere meet. But "to err is human," and the best works should ever be open to criticism. If, instead of welcoming inquiry and criticism, the admirers of a great author accept his writings as authoritative, both in their excellences and in their defects, the most serious injury is done to truth. In matters of philosophy and science authority has ever been the great opponent of truth. A despotic calm is usually the triumph of error. In the republic of the sciences sedition and even anarchy are beneficial in the long run to the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

Truth indeed is sacred; but, as Pilate said, "What is truth?" Show us the undoubted infallible criterion of absolute truth, and we will hold it as a sacred inviolable thing. But in the absence of that infallible criterion, we have all an equal right to grope about in our search of it, and no body and no school nor clique must be allowed to set up a standard of orthodoxy which shall bar the freedom of scientific inquiry.

I protest against deference to any man, whether John Stuart Mill, or Adam Smith, or Aristotle, being allowed to check inquiry. Our science has become far too much a stagnant one, in which opinions rather than experience and reason are appealed to.


Memorable Quotations: Economists