Sunday, June 18, 2006

Francis Ysidro Edgeworth (1845-1926)

Another Great Dickhead of History

I discovered Francis Ysidro Edgeworth while flicking through Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers, looking for dirt on Stanley Jevons, one of the alleged inventors of consumption theory. Edgeworth was a contemporary of Jevons who, in 1881 published Mathematical Psychics a treatise on economics. According to Heilbroner (p171 in "my" copy):

... Edgeworth was not fascinated with economics because it justified or explained or condemned the world, or because it opened new vista, bright or gloomy, into the future. This odd soul was fascinated because economics dealt with quantities and because anything that dealt with quantities could be translated into mathematics...

To build up such a mathematical mirror of reality, the world obviously has tto be simplified. Edgeworth's simplification was this assumption: every man is a pleasure machine. [original emphasis, my literals and elisions]
Heilbroner continues with a few remarks on Edgeworth's character:
Of all men to have adopted such a view of society, Edgeworth seems a most unlikely choice. Hehimself was as ill-constructed a pleasure machine as can be imagined. Neurotically shy, he tended to flee from the pleasures to the privacy of his club; unhappy about the burden of material things, he received few of the pleasures that for most people flow from possessions... Perhaps his greatest source of pleasure was in the construction of his lovely economic Xanadu.

But regardless of his motives, Edgeworth's pleasure machine assumption bore wonderful intelletual fruit. For if economics was defined to be the study of human pleasure-mechanisms competing for shares of society's stock of pleasure, then it could be shown - with all the irrefutability of the differential calculus - that in a world of perfect competition each pleasure machine would achieve the highest amount of pleasure that could be meted out by society.
On reflection, I don't share Heilbroner's view that Edgeworth seems an unlikely person to have taken such a view of society - it's precisely the sort of idealised conception you might expect a neurotically shy person who shuns the pleasures of human company to take. And I'm inclined to doubt that his lovely economic Xanadu was his sole source of pleasure - my guess is that he had an impressively elaborate line in sexual fantasy as well. But given the era Edgeworth lived in, I'm happy to concur with Heilbroner's suggestion that the economic Xanadu was Edgeworth's greatest source of pleasure.

Edgeworth's character - neurotically shy, spartan, masturbative - would certainly explain his inability to understand why people, who ought if they were rational, to compete with each other for all the pleasure society had to offer - would insist on limiting their pleasures by combining in organisations such as trade unions (or more respectably, professional associations and chambers of commerce). Cut off from the pleasures of society by his shyness, he could not recognise that for most people, just hanging out is inherently enjoyable. And his intellectual solution to this problem - that hanging out, or combining with otheres to gain illusory "common benefit" is only effective in the short run and, in the long run, rationality, that is pure competition, will prevail is reminiscent of the chronic masturbator's belief that one day all the women in the world will come to their senses and break down his bedroom door.

Edgeworth's Mathematical Psychics included a chapter on a bloody struggle that was going on, at the time he wrote it, entitled "The Present Crisis in Ireland". I leave you with this interesting function, reproduced in Heilbroner, which Edgeworth used in his analysis of the crisis. I like to think of it as "Edgeworth's Irish Nationalism Function":