Front Page Titles (by Subject) Political Economy & Geology - Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1982, vol. 5, No. 3
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Political Economy & Geology - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1982, vol. 5, No. 3 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Political Economy & Geology
“Political Economy and Geology in the Early Nineteenth Century: Similarities and Contrasts.” History of Political Economy 13 (Winter 1981): 726–743.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, political economy was the most popular social science in England, while geology was the most popular natural science. Popular interest was no doubt heightened by the belief that both subjects were advancing and by the widespread opinion that the British were the leaders in both fields. Newspapers of the day and major periodicals made it a point to present extended accounts of the progress of both subjects.
It was no accident that both economics and geology made great strides between 1775 and 1830. These were the years of the Industrial Revolution and rapid economic growth. The consequent necessity of rethinking economic questions was the chief cause of the superiority of the British in this field. The influence on geology was more indirect. The minerological needs of the Industrial Revolution stimulated work on geological maps and led to the valuable maps of William Smith and others. James Hutton even wrote a paper on how best to distinguish coal from culm for purposes of taxation.
Since the two sciences were popular, it was not uncommon for men to maintain an active interest in both subjects. At its meetings, the Geological Society regularly discussed current economic problems, such as those connected with currency or the Corn Laws. In the other direction, no less an economist than David Ricardo regularly attended sessions of the Geological Society.
The different methodological biases of the two nascent subjects may best be seen by considering the salient doctrines of the period. Surprisingly, Adam Smith's great work left no clear methodological guidelines. The principal effect of The Wealth of Nations was to make a new metaphysical value judgment acceptable to serious thinkers: i.e. the existence of a pre-established harmony in economic affairs.
The corresponding judgment which evolved in geology was the acceptance of Time as the sole source of change in the geological world. Providence was no longer called upon to act in the geological universe. Geology was thus important in providing the first major example (soon to be followed by biology) of a subject concerned with the causal analysis of past events. From the twentieth-century viewpoint, the economists intruded a nonscientific presumption into their subject, while the geologists dispensed with one.
It was not until David Ricardo's Principles of Political Economy and Taxation in 1817 that economics came to possess a tightly knit, coherent, but largely abstract structure. The theoretical framework for geology erected by James Hutton presented a considerable contrast to Ricardo's. In Hutton's structure, a closer correspondence between fact and theory was continuously maintained. Hutton argued that the most important geological forces were those of erosion and denudation in combination with subterranean volcanic forces.
The sway of a priori notions in political economy eventually led to questions about its scientific character. By 1878, Sir Francis Galton went so far as to propose the removal of Economics (Section F) from the British Association. On the other hand, geology, with its emphasis on precise measurements and definite laws, was able to preserve its prestige intact.