Philip Henry Wicksteed (October 25, 1844 – March 18, 1927) was an English Unitarian theologian, classicist, literary critic, and economist. His work on Dante Alighieri established him as one of the foremost medievalists of his time.
Wicksteed was deeply concerned about social inequality and ethics. When he turned to economics later in life, he sought ways to resolve social problems through the application of economic theories. He was one of the first disciples of economist William Stanley Jevons, expounding on his ideas of marginal utility theory. Wicksteed insisted that that human beings act based on purposefulness and rationality, not simply selfish greed. Wicksteed, therefore, has been classified along with those of the Austrian school of economics although he did not work directly with them. In contrast to the Austrians though, who were critical of socialism, Wicksteed was sympathetic to it, and was associated with the Fabian Society. However, his economic theories ran counter to those of Karl Marx, maintaining a "subjectivist" stance in economic thinking that placed the measure of value in the consumer's mind not simply in the goods themselves.
Wicksteed, while not acknowledged in his lifetime as a great economist, influenced the next generation of "Austrians," notable among them Ludwig von Mises, whose impact is much more visible.
Philip Henry Wicksteed was born in Leeds, West Yorkshire, England, the son of a Unitarian minister. He was educated at Ruthin Grammar School, and from 1861 to 1867 at University College, London and Manchester New College, where he received his master's degree, with a gold medal in classics. After graduation, he followed his father and became a Unitarian minister in 1867, a career path he followed for 30 years.
In 1868, Wicksteed married Emily Rebecca, the eldest daughter of the Rev. Henry Solly (1813-1903), a minister and a social reformer. The couple first lived in Taunton, but in 1870 moved to Dukinfield, near Manchester. They stayed there for four years before moving to the Little Portland Street Chapel in London, where Wicksteed served as minister. They remained there until 1897.
Wicksteed started to write on a wide range of topics, from theology to ethics and literature. He had a deep interest in Dante Alighieri, and published several works on him throughout his career. His reading of Henry George's 1879 Progress and Poverty led him into his economic studies.
In 1887, Wicksteed became a lecturer on economics for the University Extension Lectures in London, a sort of adult-education program established in 1870s for those who were not able to enroll into the main university programs. He lectured on Dante, political economy, William Wordsworth, and Greek tragedy.
Wicksteed was associated with the Fabian Society, the upper-middle-class, intellectual group founded in London in 1884 that supported and propagated socialist ideas. He sympathized with the goals of the Fabians, but was critical of the group’s support of Marx’s economics. He even tutored George Bernard Shaw in basic Ricardian economics, ideas that Shaw used in his later criticism of Marxian economics.
In 1894, Wicksteed published his famous An Essay on the Co-ordination of the Laws of Distribution, which further established him as a renowned economist.
Wicksteed served as lecturer for the University Extension Lectures until his retirement in 1918. He died on March 18, 1927, in Childrey, Berkshire, England.
In his early career, Wicksteed was primarily involved in theological and philosophical discourse, writing mostly on ethics. He was also deeply interested in Dante Alighieri, on whom he wrote numerous publications, which established him as one of the foremost medievalists of his time. However, it was Wicksteed's concern for the ethics of modern society, with its social inequalities and growing materialist culture, nurtured through his membership in the Fabian Society, that seems to have led him to turn toward economic studies. Wicksteed also read Henry George's 1879 Progress and Poverty, which deeply affected his ideas.
Wicksteed entered the field of economics rather late—in the middle of the fourth decade of his life. That led Joseph Schumpeter to comment that Wicksteed “stood somewhat outside of the economics profession” (Schumpeter, 1954). Wicksteed nevertheless soon started to publish numerous works of his own. He expounded on the theory of William Stanley Jevons, the English economist who developed the marginal utility theory of value in the 1860s, contemporaneously but independently of Leon Walras and Carl Menger of the Austrian School of Economics. Wicksteed’s interpretation of modern economics was thus drastically different from the one by Alfred Marshall, which dominated British economic though at the time.
In 1894, Wicksteed published his famous An Essay on the Co-ordination of the Laws of Distribution, in which he tried to prove mathematically that according to marginal productivity theory, the distributive system which rewarded factory owners would eventually exhaust the total product produced. Wicksteed also emphasized the opportunity cost and reservation demand in defining value, refusing to consider supply as an otherwise independent cause of value. It was his 1910 book, The Common Sense of Political Economy, that most transparently presented Wicksteed's economic ideas. That work is also often considered his best, most strongly connecting him with the Austrian School.
Wicksteed’s view on the role of cost in the theory of economic value brings him the furthest from Marshallian economics:
The school of economists of which Professor Marshall is the illustrious head may be regarded from the point of view of the thorough-going Jevonian as a school of apologists. It accepts … the Jevonian principals, but declares that, so far from being revolutionary, they merely supplement, clarify, and elucidate the theories they profess to destroy. To scholars of this school the admission into the science of the renovated study of consumption leaves the study of production comparatively unaffected. As a determining factor of normal prices, cost of production is coordinate with the schedule of demands (Wicksteed, 1905).
Wicksteed rebelled against the classical view of production activity, which saw production as separated from the marginal utility considerations governing consumption activity. He claimed that there was no such thing as an independent "supply curve," rather the supply curve was a part of what he called the "total demand curve."
Wicksteed generally supported the Austrian view of economics as a science of overall human action, in contrast to classical economists who focused mostly on the economic processes driven by selfish human motives. Wicksteed insisted that such a view was oversimplified, and that human beings act based on purposefulness and rationality. However, in contrast to Austrians who were critical of socialism, Wicksteed was deeply sympathetic to it.
Wicksteed’s work did not receive great attention from the academic community during his lifetime. Although some economists have now recognized his ingenuity, many simply regard him as a disciple of William Stanley Jevons. Wicksteed's impact had a greater impact on the followers of the Austrian School, such as Ludwig von Mises, who further advanced economics based on that tradition and frequently referred to Wicksteed’s work.
All links retrieved March 22, 2019.
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