Nassau William Senior: A Pioneer of Political Economy
Zatrun Published at July 19, 2023

If you are interested in the history of economic thought, you may have heard of Nassau William Senior (1790-1864), an English lawyer and economist who was one of the first professors of political economy in England. He was also a influential adviser to the British government on various economic and social issues, such as the Poor Law reform, trade unions, and population growth. In this article on, we will explore some of his main contributions to economic theory and policy, and why he is still relevant today.

Nassau William Senior

Who is Nassau William Senior?

Nassau William Senior was born in Compton, Berkshire, in 1790. He studied at Eton and Oxford, where he was a pupil of Richard Whately, a prominent logician and theologian. He became a lawyer in 1819, but his passion was economics. He was elected as the first Drummond Professor of Political Economy at Oxford in 1825, a position he held until 1830 and again from 1847 to 1852. He also authored several books and articles on economic topics, such as “An Outline of the Science of Political Economy (1836)”, which was one of the first systematic treatises on economics.

One of Senior’s most original contributions to economics was his “theory of abstinence” or abstinence interest. He argued that capital accumulation was not only a result of saving, but also of abstaining from consuming one’s savings. Therefore, capitalists deserved a reward for their abstinence, which he called interest. This theory was an attempt to justify the existence of profits in a competitive market, and to refute the labour theory of value that was popular among classical economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo.

Another important concept that Nassau William Senior developed was that of “rent”. He defined rent as the difference between the actual produce of land and the produce that would be obtained from the worst land in cultivation. He showed that rent depended on the margin of cultivation, or the point at which it was no longer profitable to cultivate more land. He also demonstrated that rent did not enter into the cost of production, but was a surplus that accrued to landowners.

His Other Works

Nassau William Senior was a critic of Thomas Malthus’s theory of population, which predicted that population growth would inevitably outstrip food production and lead to misery and starvation. Senior argued that Malthus’s theory was based on faulty assumptions and empirical evidence. He pointed out that living standards and population growth had both increased in England since Malthus’s time, and that there were other factors that influenced population size, such as moral restraint, prudential habits, and preventive checks.

Nassau William Senior was not only a theorist, but also a practitioner. He was involved in several commissions and inquiries that shaped the economic and social policy of his era. He was a member of the Poor Law Commission of 1832-1834, which recommended the abolition of outdoor relief and the establishment of workhouses for the poor.

He was also a member of the Royal Commission on Handloom Weavers of 1837-1841, which investigated the plight of this declining industry and suggested some measures to improve their condition. He advised the government to oppose trade unions and strikes, which he regarded as harmful to both workers and employers.

Nassau William Senior died in London in 1864. He was a pioneer of political economy who made significant contributions to economic theory and policy. His ideas influenced many economists who came after him, such as John Stuart Mill, Alfred Marshall, and John Maynard Keynes. He also left behind a rich legacy of writings that are still worth reading today.

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