William Stanley Jevons

The English economist, logician, and statistician William Stanley Jevons (1835-1882) did pioneering work in marginalist economics, index numbers of prices, and economic fluctuations.

The son of a merchant, W. S. Jevons was born in Liverpool on Sept. 1, 1835. At age 15 he went to secondary school in London and then to the University of London. His excellent record in chemistry led to an offer as assayer to the Royal Mint in Sydney, Australia. While there, from 1854 to 1859, he read widely and showed increasing concern for social problems. On his return to England, he resumed his studies, receiving the bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of London.

Jevons taught at Owens College, Manchester, from 1863 to 1876, when he became professor of political economy at University College, London. He resigned in 1880 to devote all of his energies to writing. He married Harriet Ann Taylor, daughter of the founder of the Manchester Guardian, in 1867. Despite ill health, his accomplishments, before he drowned at the age of 46, were highly impressive. However, he did not receive the recognition which the originality and quality of his work merited.

Two scholarly papers presented in 1862 foreshadowed Jevons's later work on the mathematical theory of economics and on business fluctuations. His first important publication, A Serious Fall in the Value of Gold (1863), was followed by Pure Logic (1864), The Coal Question (1865), Elementary Lessons in Logic (1870), The Theory of Political Economy (1871), Principles of Science (2 vols., 1874 and 1877), Money and the Mechanism of Exchange (1875), and The State in Relation to Labour (1882). At the time of his death he was working on Principles of Economics; it was published in incomplete form in 1905 and does not represent what would have been the full fruition of his thought.

Jevons was a utilitarian, treating economics as a calculus of pleasure and pain. The degree of utility of a commodity is some continuous mathematical function of the quantity available. The more one has, the less the utility of the additional unit. Here was the solution of the paradox that had troubled classical economists as well as Karl Marx—diamonds bring a higher price than water, even though water seems more useful. The marginal utility of a gallon of water is slight because much other water is available. The labor theory of value no longer ruled. But labor as a cost of production influences the quantity supplied and thereby affects the final degree of utility of amounts offered on the market.

Jevons found the economic theory of David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill, that value rests upon cost of production, to be unacceptable, but he did not succeed in getting wide acceptance of his own advances in economic theory. As a writer on practical problems of the time and on issues of social reform, however, he received considerable recognition for his work on applied economics and statistics: fluctuations of prices, business crises, and money and banking. Jevons developed concepts of market processes and economic equilibrium, using diagrams of the general type familiar to students of economics. He was a free-trader, doubting the effectiveness of trade unionism to raise the earnings of labor, and placed hope in cooperation.


Further Reading on William Stanley Jevons

Letters and Journal of W. S. Jevons was edited by his wife (1886).E. W. Eckard, Economics of W. S. Jevons (1940), includes a biography as well as a description of Jevons's theories.

Additional Biography Sources

Peart, Sandra, The economics of W.S. Jevons, New York: Routledge, 1996.