John Elliott Cairnes (1823-1875), British political economist, was born at Castle Bellingham, Ireland, in 1823. After leaving school he spent some years in the counting-house of his father, a brewer. His tastes, however, lay altogether in the direction of study, and he was permitted to enter Trinity College, Dublin, where he took the degree of B.A. in 1848, and six years later that of M.A. After passing through the curriculum of arts he engaged in the study of law and was called to the Irish bar. But he felt no very strong inclination for the legal profession, and during some years he occupied himself to a large extent with contributions to the daily press, treating of the social and economical questions that affected Ireland. He devoted most attention to political economy, which he studied with great thoroughness and care. While residing in Dublin he made the acquaintance of Archbishop Whately, who conceived a very high respect for his character and abilities. In 1856 a vacancy occurred in the chair of political economy at Dublin founded by Whately, and Cairnes received the appointment. In accordance with the regulations of the foundation, the lectures of his first year's course were published.
The book appeared in 1857 with the title Character and Logical Method of Political Economy. It follows up and expands J.S. Mill's treatment in the Essays on some Unsettled Questions in Political Economy, and forms an admirable introduction to the study of economics as a science. In it the author's peculiar powers of thought and expression are displayed to the best advantage. Logical exactness, precision of language, and firm grasp of the true nature of economic facts, are the qualities characteristic of this as of all his other works. If the book had done nothing more, it would still have conferred inestimable benefit on political economists by its clear exposition of the true nature and meaning of the ambiguous term "law." To the view of the province and method of political economy expounded in this early work the author always remained true, and several of his later essays, such as those on Political Economy and Land, Political Economy and Laissez-Faire, are but reiterations of the same doctrine.
His next contribution to economical science was a series of articles on the gold question, published partly in Fraser's Magazine, in which the probable consequences of the increased supply of gold attendant on the Australian and Californian gold discoveries were analysed with great skill and ability. And a critical article on M. Chevalier's work On the Probable Fall in the Value of Gold appeared in the Edinburgh Review for July 1860.
In 1861 Cairnes was appointed to the professorship of political economy and jurisprudence in Queen's College, Galway, and in the following year he published his admirable work The Slave Power, one of the finest specimens of applied economical philosophy. The inherent disadvantages of the employment of slave labour were exposed with great fulness and ability, and the conclusions arrived at have taken their place among the recognized doctrines of political economy. The opinions expressed by Cairnes as to the probable issue of the war in America were largely verified by the actual course of events, and the appearance of the book had a marked influence on the attitude taken by serious political thinkers in England towards the southern states.
During the remainder of his residence at Galway Professor Cairnes published nothing beyond some fragments and pamphlets mainly upon Irish questions. The most valuable of these papers are the series devoted to the consideration of university education. His health, at no time very good, was still further weakened in 1865 by a fall from his horse. He was ever afterwards incapacitated from active exertion and was constantly liable to have his work interfered with by attacks of illness. In 1866 he was appointed professor of political economy in University College, London. He was compelled to spend the session 1868-1869 in Italy but on his return continued to lecture till 1872. During his last session he conducted a mixed class, ladies being admitted to his lectures. His health soon rendered it impossible for him to discharge his public duties; he resigned his post in 1872, and retired with the honorary title of emeritus professor of political economy. In 1873 his own university conferred on him the degree of LL.D. He died at Blackheath, near London, on the 8th of July 1875.
The last years of his life were spent in the collection and publication of some scattered papers contributed to various reviews and magazines, and in the preparation of his most extensive and important work. The Political Essays, published in 1873, comprise all his papers relating to Ireland and its university system, together with some other articles of a somewhat similar nature. The Essays in Political Economy, Theoretical and Applied, which appeared in the same year, contain the essays towards a solution of the gold question, brought up to date and tested by comparison with statistics of prices. Among the other articles in the volume the more important are the criticisms on Bastiat and Comte, and the essays on Political Economy and Land, and on Political Economy and Laissez-Faire, which have been referred to above. In 1874 appeared his largest work, Some Leading Principles of Political Economy, newly Expounded, which is beyond doubt a worthy successor to the great treatises of Smith, Malthus, Ricardo and Mill. It does not expound a completed system of political economy; many important doctrines are left untouched; and in general the treatment of problems is not such as would be suited for a systematic manual.
The work is essentially a commentary on some of the principal doctrines of the English school of economists, such as value, cost of production, wages, labour and capital, and international values, and is replete with keen criticism and lucid illustration. While in fundamental harmony with Mill, especially as regards the general conception of the science, Cairnes differs from him to a greater or less extent on nearly all the cardinal doctrines, subjects his opinions to a searching examination, and generally succeeds in giving to the truth that is common to both a firmer basis and a more precise statement. The last labour to which he devoted himself was a republication of his first work on the Logical Method of Political Economy.