SCROPE, George Poulett (1797-1876)

George Scrope was born George Julius Buncombe Thomson 10 March 1797 in London, and died near Cobham, Surrey 19 January 1876. He was the second son of the head of a firm trading with Russia, and brother of Charles, later Lord Sydenham, governor-general of the British Provinces in North America from 1839-41.

Educated at Harrow, Pembroke College, Oxford and St John’s College, Cambridge (BA 1821), fellow of the Geological Society 1824, of the Royal Society 1826. At Cambridge Professor Edward Clarke, the mineralogist, and Professor Adam Sedgwick, the geologist imparted a lifelong interest in volcanic activity further encouraged by observations of volcanoes in Italy in 1817 and 1818 and by witnessing the great eruption of Vesuvius in 1822. His book, Considerations on Volcanos (1825) was the earliest systematic textbook on vulcanology and an important influence on the geologist Charles Lyell.

In 1821 he changed his name to George Poulett Scrope on marriage to the heiress Emma Phipps Scrope of Castle Combe, Wiltshire. As a landowner, magistrate and Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Wiltshire, he participated in county affairs and took up the cause of rural poverty. In 1832 he unsuccessfully contested Stroud in the parliamentary elections then was elected there in May 1833 after the sitting MP, David Ricardo, son of the leading classical economist Ricardo, resigned after electoral malpractice. His major work in parliament was on the Irish poor law; he continued with the writing of seventy pamphlets earning the sobriquet 'Pamphlet Scrope'. After his wife’s death in 1866, he moved to Fairlawn, near Cobham, Surrey. He was married again in 1867 to Margaret Savage, aged 26, who cared for him in his late years of blindness. His only child, Arthur Hamilton, son of an actress, was adopted by the Scropes in 1856. He left an estate worth 180,000.

In his economics writings he dissented from many of the dogmas of the Classical School, as is evident in The Political Economists (1831). His sympathies lay more with Nassau Senior, and like him expounded an abstinence theory of profits, than with Ricardo and his disciples. He opposed the classical views that capital is accumulated labour, that value is based on labour rather than utility, that rent is a distinct surplus and not the return to capital improvements and location, and that a general glut is impossible. Writing in a very Keynesian way he reasoned that '…a general increase in the propensity to save, as compared with that to spend, would proportionately diminish the demand as compared with that to spend, and occasion a general glut (p. 23). The cherished foundation of Ricardian rent theory, the law of diminishing returns, he challenged in Jones on the Doctrine of Rents (1831) quoting evidence for the greater fertility of distant land. To Scrope the most expedient objects for economic science were encouraging agriculture, free trade and finding employment for paupers.

The errors of Malthusian population theory repeatedly excited his disapproval. He challenged the assumption of diminishing returns in agriculture and questioned the efficacy of moral restraint as a check to population growth. To refute Malthus further, he produced evidence that the means of subsistence grows faster than the human population and that the starving multiply the fastest.

Linked to his interest in population was his examination of the poor law and of the condition of Ireland. Private charity should not replace the poor law for the alleviation of poverty he argued in Dr Chalmers on Political Economy (1832). Scrope wanted a return to outdoor employment creation measures and the abandonment of wage subsidies.  Friendly societies, he asserted, were appropriate for insuring against sickness and funeral expenses but not for the general relief of the poor. When the poor law was reformed in 1834, he was quick to oppose the use of workhouses in The New Poor Law (1834). He argued that parishes should borrow on the security of their rate revenue to finance local works such as road repairs, and to pay the transport costs of emigrants.

Scrope proposed an immediate extension of the poor law to Ireland to relieve the starving, pacify the lawless and attract inward investment. In Poor Law for Ireland  (1831), and subsequently, he suggested that through the arterial drainage of bogs, the compulsory purchase of wastelands so that tenants with security of tenure could settle and employment measures the inherent energy of the Irish would be released to bring the prosperity. Later, in How is Ireland to be Governed? (1846), he had the vision of Ireland as 'a Belgium on a large scale, with its Catholic population, its five to ten acre farms cultivated with a minute and untiring industry, by a prudent, thrifty, contented and comfortable peasantry' (p. 65).

At the centre of his monetary proposals was his plea for a freer banking system employing paper currency. In On Credit Currency (1830) he called for a 'pure credit currency' to balance the supply of and demand for money: by following Scottish free banking principles there would be no over-issue of notes. Also he suggested a 'tabular standard of value' to measure changes in value. In An examination of the Bank Charter Question  (1833), he constructed a table of the average market prices of a hundred commodities, with an overall arithmetic mean, a clear precursor of a base-weighted price index. He also recommended a return to the pre-1773 silver standard in place of the 'vacillating and inconvenient gold standard'.

In Principles of Political Economy (1833) Scrope integrated his principal contributions to economics. Central to this book are his theories of population and income distribution. He believed that Europe could support a population one hundred times greater because of the increasing productivity of agriculture. A widespread increase in economic welfare would not spring from creating communities on the lines of Owen and St Simon nor from increased would government interference. He insisted that the daily miracle' of providing necessaries comes from 'the Principle of competition: the free and open rivalry of thousands of individuals…each actuated by the unerring instinct of self-interest’ (p. 78).  Decades ahead of his contemporaries he recommended a national insurance scheme financed by employers’ contributions in place of the poor law’s provision for the aged, sick and destitute: employers had profited from workers’ labour so should provide for them. In the second edition of 1873 he noted the increasing incidence of cycles in business activity linked, as John Stuart Mill had suggested, to human moods, and the defects of the banking system under the rigid central banking rules of the 1844 Bank Charter Act.

Scrope was important both as an economic theorist and as a policy maker. Schumpeter declared `When dates are considered, the insight – I repeat: the analytic insight…places him above the common run of the economists of his time’ (p. 25 footnote), who disposed of the whole Western-Ricardo tradition by seeing 'how the mechanism of demand and supply, turning on everybody’s tendency to maximise returns, solves both the problem of the allocation of resources (production) and the problem of income formation (distribution)…' (p. 489). The contribution to the development of a price index in his tabular standard is the most memorable feature of his work. Jevons had a high regard for it and bracketed it with a similar proposal in Joseph Lowe’s The Present State of England in regard to Agriculture, Trade and Finance  (1822).

Bibliography

`The political economists’, Quarterly Review, vol. 44 (1831), pp 1-52.

`Jones on the doctrine of rents’, Quarterly Review, vol.46 (1831), pp 81-117.

`Malthus and Sadler – population and emigration’, Quarterly Review, vol.45 (1831), pp 97-145.

`Dr Chalmers on political economy’, Quarterly Review, vol. 48 (1832), pp 39-69.

On credit currency and its superiority to coin (1830).

On the poor laws, and their abuse (1832).

An examination of the Bank Charter question, with an inquiry into the nature of a just standard of value, and suggestions for the improvement of our monetary system (1833).

Principles of political economy, deduced from the natural laws of social welfare and applied to the present state of Britain (1833).

Political economy for plain people. Applied to the past and present state of Britain  [second edition of Principles of Political Economy] (1873).

Further Reading

Black, R.D. Collison (1960) Economic Thought and the Irish Question 1817-70. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jevons, W.S. (1884) Investigations in Currency and Finance. London: Macmillan

Opie, R. (1929) 'A Neglected English Economist: George Poulett Scrope', Quarterly Journal of Economics 24: 101-37.

Pashkoff, S. (1993) 'Two Contributions to the Decline of Ricardian Economics: Samuel Read and George Poulett Scrope', Contributions to Political Economy 12: 47-69.

Rashid, S. (1981) 'Political economy and geology in the early nineteenth century: similarities and contrasts', History of Political Economy 13: 726-44.

Schumpeter, J. (1954) History of Economic Analysis. London: George Allen & Unwin.

Stack, D. (2000) 'The “Secret Concatenation” in the Mid-Nineteenth Century: The Case of George Poulett Scrope, a Still Neglected Political Economist', History of Political Economy 32: 553-84.

Sturges, P. (1984) A Bibliography of George Poulett Scrope: Geologist and Local Historian, Kress Library Publication No. 24, Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Back to 'The Descent of Hughes'