|April 18, 1772
|September 11, 1823
David Ricardo (April 18, 1772 – September 11, 1823), a political economist, is often credited with systematising economics, and was one of the most influential of the classical economists, along with Thomas Malthus, and Adam Smith. He was also a businessman, financier and speculator, and amassed a considerable fortune.
Born in London, Ricardo was the third of seventeen children in a Sephardic Jewish family (from Portugal) that emigrated from the Netherlands to England just prior to his birth. At age 14, after a brief schooling in Holland, Ricardo joined his father at the London Stock Exchange, where he began to learn about the workings of finance. This beginning set the stage for Ricardo's later success in the stock market and real estate.
Ricardo rejected the orthodox Jewish beliefs of his family and eloped with a Quaker, Priscilla Anne Wilkinson, when he was 21, leading to estrangement from his close family. It seems likely, for example, that his mother never spoke to him again. This was around the same time Ricardo became a Unitarian.
Ricardo became interested in economics after reading Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations in 1799 on a vacation to the English resort of Bath. This was Ricardo's first contact with economics. He wrote his first economics article at age 37 and within another ten years he reached the height of his fame.
Ricardo's work with the stock exchange made him quite wealthy, which allowed him to retire from business in 1814 at the age of 42. He then purchased and moved to Gatcombe Park, an estate in Gloucestershire.
In 1819, Ricardo took a seat in the British parliament as a representative of Portarlington, a borough of Ireland. He held the post until the year of his death in 1823. In 1846 his nephew, John Lewis Ricardo, MP for Stoke-on-Trent, advocated free trade and the repeal of the Corn Laws.
Ricardo was a close friend of James Mill, who encouraged him in his political ambitions and writings about economics. Other notable friends included Jeremy Bentham and Thomas Malthus, with whom Ricardo had a considerable debate (in correspondence) over such things as the role of land owners in a society. He also was a member of London's intellectuals, later becoming a member of Malthus' Political Economy Club, and a member of the King of Clubs.
He died at Gatcombe Park at 51 years of age.
Ricardo's most famous work is his Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. Ricardo opens the first chapter with a statement of the labour theory of value. Later in this chapter, he demonstrates that prices do not correspond to this value. He retained the theory, however, as an approximation. Ricardo continued to work on his value theory to the end of his life.
This book introduces the theory of comparative advantage. According to Ricardo's theory, even if a country could produce everything more efficiently than another country, it would reap gains from specialising in what it was best at producing and trading with other nations. (Case & Fair, 1999: 812–818). Ricardo believed that wages should be left to free competition, so there should be no restrictions on the importation of agricultural products from abroad.
The benefits of comparative advantage are both distributional and related to improved real income. Within Ricardo's theory distributional effects included that foreign trade could not directly affect profits because profits respond only in changes to the level of wages. The effects on income are always beneficial because foreign trade does not effect value.
Comparative advantage forms the basis of modern trade theory, reformulated as the Heckscher-Ohlin theorem, which states that a country has a comparative advantage in the production of a product if the country is relatively well-endowed with inputs that are used intensively in producing the product. (Case & Fair, 1999: 822).
Like Adam Smith, Ricardo was also an opponent of protectionism for national economies, especially for agriculture. He believed that the British "Corn Laws" — tariffs on agriculture products — ensured that less productive domestic land would be harvested and rents would be driven up. (Case & Fair, 1999: 812, 813). Thus, the surplus would be directed more toward feudal landlords and away from the emerging industrial capitalists. Since landlords tended to squander their wealth on luxuries, rather than investments, Ricardo believed that the Corn Laws were leading to the economic stagnation of the British economy. Parliament repealed the Corn Laws in 1846.
Another idea associated with Ricardo is Ricardian equivalence, an argument suggesting that in some circumstances a government's choice of how to pay for its spending (i.e., whether to use tax revenue or issue debt and run a deficit) might have no effect on the economy. Ironically, while the proposition bears his name, he does not seem to have believed it. Economist Robert Barro is responsible for its modern prominence.
Ricardo is responsible for developing theories of rent, wages, and profits. He defined rent as the difference in the costs of the production between different tracts of land. The model for this theory basically said that while only of one grade of land is being used for cultivation, rent will not exist, but when multiple grades of land are being utilised, rent will be charged on the higher grades and will increase with the ascension of the grade. As such, Ricardo believed that the process of economic development, which increased land utilisation and eventually led to the cultivation of poorer land, benefited first and foremost the landowners because they would receive the rent payments either in money or in product.
Ricardo believed that in the long run, prices reflect the cost of production, and referred to this long run price as a Natural price. The natural price of labour was the cost of its production, that cost of maintaining the labourer. If wages correspond to the natural price of labour, then wages would be at subsistence level. However, due to an improving economy, wages may remain indefinitely above subsistance level:
(On the Principles of Political Economy, Chapter 5, On Wages).
In his Theory of Profit, Ricardo stated that as real wages increase, real profits decrease because the revenue from the sale of manufactured goods is split between profits and wages. He said in his Essay on Profits "Profits depend on high or low wages, wages on the price of necessaries, and the price of necessaries chiefly on the price of food."
Ricardo's publications included: