Monday, September 26, 2011

Who Was William Thomas Thornton (and Why Should We Care?)

For two weeks now we've been telling you about some Dead White European Male by the name of William Thomas Thornton, and the book he wrote in 1847 during the worst year of the Great Famine in Ireland, and published in 1848: A Plea for Peasant Proprietors. Joseph Schumpeter mentioned Thornton briefly in his monumental History of Economic Analysis (which you should have purchased years ago when the "trade paperback" could be had for around $20 instead of the $90 they're charging now for the same thing, and, oh, gee, the Kindle is $81, but you can rent it for $36.14 . . . better renew your library card; it's free most places) in connection with the "wage fund doctrine" of Nassau W. Senior (there's a name for you; English economist, 1790-1864; won't be on the test) and that's about it. So why should we get all worked up over somebody who wrote about something that is ancient history, and who wasn't even Irish?

Because Thornton focused on the need for systemic change in light of the growth of industrial capitalism and the continuation of agricultural capitalism, especially in Ireland, Britain's "Elder Sister." As Charlotte Brooke said in the introduction to her 1789 anthology, Reliques of Irish Poetry, "The productions of our Irish bards exhibit a glow of cultivated genius. The British muse is not yet informed that she has an elder sister in this isle." Thornton evidently felt some respect and consideration was overdue.

Thornton saw that a "one crop economy," such as had been inflicted on the Irish, was a certain recipe for disaster, and (like Harold G. Moulton in the 1930s and the shift to Keynesian economics), had the misfortune to see his predictions come true in the same year in which he originally published his solution in Over-Population and Its Remedy (1846). The system in Ireland badly needed change, and (within certain limitations), the solution Thornton proposed would have gone a long way toward establishing a more just system based on the private property and free markets to which the Powers-that-Be of 19th century Great Britain paid so much lip-service and from which they kept the great mass of people from sharing in the benefits.

So, although "Thornton" isn't uncommon in Ireland — remember John Ford's The Quiet Man, the greatest movie ever made? (Unless you're from the South, in which case we'll spot you GWTW . . . and there was a bit of the Irish there, too) — William Thomas Thornton was an English (gasp) economist. He was born at Burnham, Buckinghamshire, on February 14, 1813. In 1836 he became a clerk in the London office of the Honourable East India Company, "John Company." In 1858, after the British Crown assumed direct rule of India following the Great Mutiny (one of these days we'll tell the economic story of that and its aftereffects), he became secretary for public works in the India office, a post that he held until his death, a servin' of 'Er Majesty the Queen. In 1873 Thornton was created a C.B., not "Crunchberry Beast," but a "Companion of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath," a title and order conferred on British and Commonwealth citizens in recognition of conspicuous service to the Crown.

As we mentioned above, Thornton's first major work was Over-Population and its Remedy (1846), a counter to Thomas Malthus's 1798 Essay on Population. It was in this book that Thornton first proposed a plan by means of which propertyless Irish peasants could "homestead" waste (unused) land in Ireland after a fashion by having the government purchase undeveloped land at a low price and allocate it to people who would develop the land and repay the government out of future profits, becoming freeholders in the process.

In 1848 Thornton published A Plea for Peasant Proprietors, in which his proposal was developed in greater detail and urgency in light of the Great Famine. This was followed by On Labour (1869) in which he engaged in a friendly dispute with John Stuart Mill over the latter's adherence to the "wage fund doctrine"; and Old-Fashioned Ethics and Commonsense Metaphysics, a volume of essays, published in 1873. The following year, in response to the reoccurrence of famine and an upsurge in discontent in Ireland over the ineffectiveness of the various land reform acts, Thornton published a revision of A Plea for Peasant Proprietors.

William Thornton died in 1880.



Now you know.

#30#

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