William Kern, Western Michigan University
Amongst economists the name Edgeworth is a familiar one owing to the significant contributions of the British neoclassical economist Francis Ysidro Edgeworth. But what is less well known is that F. Y. Edgeworth was not the first in the Edgeworth family to have a considerable interest in economics. His aunt, the Victorian author, Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849), could claim the title of the first political economist in the Edgeworth family.
Maria was born in England, though she lived most of her life in Ireland. The family had owned property in Ireland for nearly two centuries when on Maria's fifteenth birthday her father, Richard Edgeworth, moved his family to the family mansion at Edgeworthstown. Edgeworthstown was her home until her death in 1847.
The family estate was a large one involving a myriad of activities including the assignment of leases, the collection of rents, and the improvement of the land. In addition, as the most significant property owner in the hamlet, her faather also had a degree of political influence and obligations. As one of the eldest of the twenty-two children which Richard Edgeworth fathered, considerable responsibility fell to Maria both in conducting the affairs of the estate and in educating her siblings. She was, in the words of one of her biographers, "his right hand." As a result, she acquired a familiarity with economic and political matters rare for a woman of her age.
Education had long been a particular interest of Richard Edgeworth's and the large number of children he fathered turned the estate into a laboratory of educational experimentation. In his attempt to mold his children into useful members of civilized society he enlisted Maria by encouraging her to write children's stories. These "moral fictions" were stories designed to inculcate the proper virtues. Values such as prudence, honesty, loyalty, and adherence to proper manners were emphasized in Practical Education (1798), The Parents' Assistant (1800), Early Lessons (1801) and Moral Tales for Young People (1801). The stories were instantly popular, exerting considerable influence on educational practice in the first half of the nineteenth century and earning Maria a significant literary reputation.
In 1800 Maria began a new literary enterprise as a novelist. Her first, and best known novel, Castle Rackrent, quickly established her reputation as a writer of adult fiction. Between 1800 and 1817 she published fifteen books and their success brought her wide-spread recognition and entry into the fashionable circles of London and Paris.
Her entry into fashionable society afforded Maria the opportunity to make the acquaintance of the leading figures of the literary, political and scientific world. Though Maria was a writer, she seemed naturally drawn to non-literary figures. The persons for whom she expressed the greatest admiration were persons of accomplishment in politics, engineering, and economic and scientific knowledge. Her friends included industrialists, scientists, politicians, artists, and political economists.
As a result of a visit to England in 1821, Maria made the acquaintance of David Ricardo, who she described as "exceedingly agreeable." Their mutual admiration and friendship continued until his death in September of 1823. In addition, Maria was also to make the acquaintance of other of the leading figures of classical economics including Thomas Malthus, James Mill, Jean Marcet, Francis Horner, Henry Brougham, and J.C. Sismondi. Maria made several visits to Ricardo's estate, Gatcombe Park, which afforded her the opportunity to interact socially with the Ricardo family as well as discuss political economy. We know from her letters that they had their differences of opinion regarding several matters, though she much enjoyed their debates. Of Ricardo she said she "had never argued or discussed a question with any person who argues more fairly or less for victory than for truth."
One of the "truths" they debated was Ricardo's theory of rent. In Ricardo's system, rents were the result of diminishing returns resulting from the decreasing quality of the soils brought under cultivation due to the pressure of population growth. Population pressures also induced the more intensive cultivation of previously farmed lands again producing diminishing returns. Since wages were determined by the cost of subsistence, and agricultural prices by the cost of producing grains on the least fertile lands, nominal wages and rents would rise, and profits would fall due to diminishing returns. Ricardo therefore deduced that the interests of landlords and labor and capitalists were opposed. Rising rents were indicative of the declining economic fortunes of the rest of society.
But Maria was not convinced that rising rents were explained by diminishing returns or that the interests of landlords and the rest of society were opposed. She accepted the views of one of Ricardo's critics, the Reverend Richard Jones, who had demonstrated that rents came into being independently of and rose without resort to diminishing returns. Furthermore, he had argued that improvements in agruculture, rather than diminishing returns, explained most of the increase in rents.
Edgeworth's diagnosis of the problems besetting Irish agriculture pointed in the direction of mismanagement in the agricultural sector rather than diminishing returns. The intrests of landlords had often lay elsewhere than in the improvement of their estates. They were often lazy, short-sighted, or absent, and therefore failed to provide adequate supervision or make sufficient investment in agricultural improvements.
Maria's most famous novel,Castle Rackrent, was a satire on Anglo-Irish landlords. Based in part on the history of her own family, it chronicles the history of the Rackrent estate. In the course of the novel, Maria demonstrates a variety of means by which mismanagement of Irish estates had occurred. The rackrent estate passes through the hands of a succession of incompetent, greedy and uncaring absentee owners who ultimately succeed in completely dissipating the Rackrent family fortune. The moral of the story was the need for more responsible management by the Irish landowning class.
Richard Edgeworth, and subsequently Maria, were the epitome of the sort of responsible landlords they hoped would one day characterize Ireland. They were fair and forgiving in their dealings with tenants and were actively involved in the management of the estate. They eschewed the common practice of the day of hiring a middleman to manage the estate who in turn would attempt to squeeze maximum rent from the tenants. Maria and her father believed that better management and the further application of science to agriculture would raise food production and lower prices, ameliorating the conditions of the Irish countryside and thereby mitigating political unrest. In contrast to Ricardo, Maria felt the interests of the different social classes need not be opposed to those of landlords.
A second point of contention between Maria Edgeworth and Ricardo concerned the wisdom of Ireland's excessive devotion to the raising of potatoes, particularly in the face of the on-going potato famine. Maria inquired of Ricardo as to his opinion on this matter, for she considered it "of vital consequence to this country," and because she found herself unconvinced by the riticisms of the practice offered by Malthus and J.R. McCulloch. In a series of letters, they debated the relative merits of the potato versus wheat as the primary basis of Ireland's food supply.
The issue, both finally agreed, was the relative security or risk associated with heavy reliance upon either crop. Ricardo offered the "risk averse" opinion that potatoes were subject to a much greater degree of possible crop failure than was wheat, and that he was unwilling to risk the possibility of watching his family suffer for a single year, even if potatoes were abundant in the other six or seven. Maria countered by arguing that reliance on potatoes had permitted Ireland to support a larger population than if it had relied upon wheat of other grains. She cited evidence from local agricultural experts that potatoes were no more likely to fail than grains. Protection against famine might be afforded by the newly discovered possibility of storing potatoes in the form of flour. Discussion concluded without either seeming convinced of the other's point of view or harm to their warm friendship.