This book comes highly commended, by its author, as a work that “sheds new light on Ricardian economics,” offers an interpretation based on “a solid reading of texts,” pays attention to “context,” and is sensitive to the nature and role of “speech utterances” (172–73). How far others will agree with this glowing assessment is another matter. What we are dealing with is a work of incontinent speculation, the construction of a world of “may-believe,” whereby the author convinces himself of the plausibility of ideas and influences that may have held sway over Ricardo, the paucity of supporting evidence regardless or, in cases where the evidence is disobliging, dismissed as “speech utterances” that cannot be taken literally. For this reviewer, the Ricardo who emerges is one who resides more in the author's imagination than the surviving historical record.
Cremaschi is convinced that Ricardo did not suffer from a “neglected education” (xii), was not an agnostic or atheist, and was not a “utilitarian” in his ethics, politics, or economics. Then, on a more positive note, he advances the novel thesis that Ricardo “seems to propend to epistemological anti-realism,” with his focus on “permanent” causes and effects resulting from “an awareness of the limits of human knowledge” (107–8). Also deserving of mention is the portrayal of Ricardo's relationship with James Mill, a man seemingly devoid of intellectual and personal merit, which carries the implication that Ricardo was an appallingly bad judge of character in befriending someone who he described as having “always been a good master and guide to me” (Works and Correspondence 8:60). I take these points in turn.
Far from suffering a “neglected education,” Cremaschi avers that Ricardo's occasional visits to the London Institute's library “provided [him] with a proxy for higher education” (59) and, more importantly, that “the university [i.e., ‘university'] he attended was the London Geological Society” (173), from which he may have derived ideas about “experimental farming” and the “model farm,” as well as various “meta-scientific” ideas (61–63). Yet, while Ricardo may have heard all manner of things, the most one can point to is similarities between some ideas articulated by him and, not exclusively, by members of the Geological Society, such as the importance of exact terminology (as to “farming,” Ricardo doubted “that I shall ever be conversant with agricultural subjects” [Works and Correspondence 6:150], although this is dismissed as a disingenuous “speech utterance”). Moreover, to put these possible influences in perspective, we know from the memoir attributed to Ricardo's brother, Moses (nominally accepted by Cremaschi as “the most detailed report we have on his early life” ), that “about the age of 25 . . . his [David's] leisure hours were devoted to some of the branches of mathematics, chemistry, geology, and mineralogy . . . and [he] was one of the original members of the Geological Society”; but, the memoir continues, “he never entered very warmly into the study of these subjects, and his interest in them totally vanished, when he became deeply involved in the investigation of his favourite topic [i.e., political economy]” (Works and Correspondence 10:6). We also know from the memoir that Ricardo “had not the benefit of what is called a classical education” and that his “common-school education” ended at the age of fourteen (10:3–4), which were, presumably, the realities behind his own complaints about “all the disadvantages . . . of a neglected education, which it is now in vain to seek to repair” (7:190), and of “years of neglect at the most essential period of life [that] cannot be balanced by weeks or months of application” (7:305). To dismiss Ricardo's lamentations as deceptive “speech utterances” is as little convincing as conjectures about what he may have learned from subjects with which he was never “warmly” engaged.
On religion, Cremaschi is dismissive of J. S. Mill's claim that Ricardo was not “a believer in Christianity,” which is met with the scornful retort, “How could he have known unless by recourse to necromancy?” (41), a less implausible answer being that both J. S. Mill and his father had known the living Ricardo personally. For Cremaschi, the “facts are that he was just one more Jewish convert to Christianity, and adhered to Unitarianism” (41). But those are just the (alleged) bare facts, which are supplemented with gratuitous conjectures about his religious inclinations (he may have attended Quaker prayer meetings and may have gone through a transitional period of considering himself as a Jew before his supposed conversion to Christianity). However, although it is indeed a fact that Ricardo was a “hearer” at Unitarian meetings, hearers were not, necessarily, “believers,” and it is equally a fact that there is no surviving statement of Ricardo's belief in any religious doctrine. One intriguing item that does survive is Ricardo's response to arguments he encountered in Pierre Bayle's Dictionnaire historique et critique: “I have not a word to offer against them. On these difficult points I keep my mind in a state of doubt from which in this world I never can be relieved. To account for evil in a world governed by a Being of unbounded benevolence and power is or appears to be impossible” (Works and Correspondence 7:206). Now, if it is “impossible,” then the very existence of such a “Being” is called into doubt. But, if that was Ricardo's position, whither the religiosity that Cremaschi seems determined to foist upon him? Faced with this dilemma, Cremaschi chooses to italicize “in this world” (159), as if Ricardo had declared his belief (which, patently, he had not) that there is a world to come. All things considered, the suggestion that Ricardo was an agnostic (if not an outright atheist) is at least as plausible as Cremaschi's “religious” alternative.
As for “the myth of Ricardo's Utilitarianism” (69), it is a matter of record that Ricardo aired various objections to utilitarian doctrine. At the same time, he revealed that it was Bentham's arguments (not Paley's or Burke's, as Cremaschi would have it) that had convinced him of the necessity of parliamentary reform; he endorsed Bentham's view that the only legitimate aim of government is “the happiness of the many” (Works and Correspondence 7:299) he described himself as “a disciple of the Bentham and Mill School” (9:52), and he declared that “my motto, after Mr. Bentham, is ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’” (9:239). Almost needless to say, Cremaschi dismisses this counterevidence as another batch of “speech utterances,” with Ricardo attempting to conceal his dissent from the very positions he was ostensibly endorsing. Alternatively, I suggest that he had found a way to reconcile the Bentham-Mill doctrine with his own position—by positing a direct relationship between material consumption and utility—and that he was quite sincere in regarding himself as a utilitarian, albeit with reservations, especially in his pursuit of parliamentary reform. Granted, utilitarianism had little imprint on Ricardo's economics, but, even here, Cremaschi overstates his case by attributing to Ricardo the view that utility “cannot account for differences in value between distinct commodities” (112), in direct opposition to Ricardo's explicit allowance that it can account for such differences when supplies are fixed. If I may be allowed a conjecture of my own, it is tempting to surmise that Cremaschi's unbalanced treatment of Ricardo's utilitarianism owes more to his morbid distaste for James Mill (to which I return) than a judicious evaluation of available evidence.
I come to what is, by far, the most startling of Cremaschi's imagined discoveries, that Ricardo had subscribed to a “kind of limited scepticism” or “epistemological anti-realism,” with his “awareness of the limits of human knowledge” having led him to the conclusion that “causes are unknowable” and “fall outside the scope of enquiry” (105–9). While the inspiration for Ricardo's “scepticism” is unclear, one favored option is that it may have derived from Thomas Belsham's Elements of the Philosophy of the Mind (1801), despite there being no record of Ricardo having owned, read, or discussed that work. Other options, also bereft of supporting evidence, are that Ricardo may have absorbed the ideas from discussions at the Geological Society or, perhaps, from dipping into some other philosophical treatise. But these inconclusive attempts to hunt down a doctrinal inspiration raise the question of whether there was a doctrine to inspire, and that is where the real problem lies.
In correspondence with Malthus, Ricardo set out very clearly his position on how causes and effects should be dealt with: “There are so many combinations,—so many operating causes in Political Economy, that there is great danger in appealing to experience in favor of a particular doctrine, unless we are sure that all the causes of variation are seen and their effects duly estimated” (Works and Correspondence 6:295); and, “Perhaps you estimate . . . temporary effects too highly, whilst I am too much disposed to undervalue them. To manage the subject quite right they should be carefully distinguished and mentioned, and the due effects ascribed to each” (7:120). Plainly, the ideal procedure was not to discard “causes” (and their effects) as falling “outside the scope of enquiry,” but to identify and distinguish between them, with “the due effects ascribed to each.” And that is precisely the task that Ricardo set himself in his attempts to distinguish between “permanent” and “temporary” causes, albeit with decidedly mixed results. That said, there was one publication, On Protection to Agriculture (1822), overlooked by Cremaschi, in which Ricardo did “manage the subject quite right” by addressing directly “the subject of the causes of the present [agricultural] distress” (Works and Correspondence 4:209), distinguishing between those causes and providing quantitative estimates of “the due effects ascribed to each.”
The closest Ricardo came to an appearance of “scepticism” was in evidence to the Commons Committee on Cash Payments (1819), when he was invited to acknowledge the impact of “counteracting causes.” According to one reported answer, those were causes “of which I know nothing, nor can know nothing” (Works and Correspondence 5:376), which might seem to point in a “philosophical” direction. However, as he later clarified, his meaning was that the “counteracting causes” were “not sufficiently within my knowledge” and that “I have no sufficient facts to judge by” (5:399), not that they were philosophically unknowable. In sum, if we were to follow Cremaschi in awarding prizes to “discoverers of strange ideas on Ricardo's ‘true method’” (106), the “gold medal” would surely belong to Cremaschi himself.
Finally, one might imagine that the role of the intellectual historian is to reconstruct the viewpoint of the subject, rather than interposing the historian's own judgments and prejudices. When it comes to James Mill, however, Cremaschi can barely contain his negativity: among his failings, Mill was “condescending,” “arrogant,” “proud,” “prejudiced,” and an unworthy “intellectual partner” who was “never the source of original ideas” (50, 75). No wonder, then, that the influence of this loathsome character on Ricardo should be limited to the barest minimum that could withstand even cursory examination: Mill “almost bullied” Ricardo into writing the Principles and launched him on his “political career” (74). If, instead, we adopted Ricardo's viewpoint, we would find that Mill was already described as a friend by 1811, that the two of them had “so often compared our opinions” on the “bullion question” that they came to designate their opponents as “our adversaries” (Works and Correspondence 6:53), and that Ricardo admired Mill as a man of “acknowledged talents” whose writings were invariably “interesting, and instructive” (7:231) and whose History of British India (1817) “leads the mind into the right track . . . respecting the philosophy of laws and government, and the means of promoting and securing the happiness of the human race” (7:237). From this perspective, it is not at all surprising that Ricardo came to regard himself as “a disciple of the Bentham and Mill School” (Works and Correspondence 9:52), or to find that Mill's exhortations to publish were rewarded not only with the Principles but also with other works, including Proposal for an Economical and Secure Currency (1816) and Funding System (1820). As for “original ideas,” Cremaschi appears blinded to the reality that the “law of markets”—a central doctrine for Ricardo, referred to by him as “Mr. Mill's theory” (6:148)—derived not from J. B. Say, as Cremaschi maintains, but from James Mill's Commerce Defended (1808). As Ricardo wrote after meeting with Say in 1814, “Mr. Say, in the new edition of his book . . . supports, I think, very ably the doctrine that demand is regulated by production” (6:164). Say was evidently not acknowledged as the originator of the doctrine, let alone as Ricardo's source. Here, as elsewhere, Cremaschi has fallen victim to his own febrile misconceptions.