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History of Political Economy 33.3 (2001) 627-639

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The Flow and Ebb in Mixter's Treatment of Rae:
A Note

Syed Ahmad

As is well known to the students of John Rae, C. W. Mixter was primarily responsible for the revival of interest in Rae at the turn of the twentieth century. Mixter had written a series of articles on Rae and had edited Rae's great book, New Principles on the Subject of Political Economy (1834). Mixter's edited version of Rae's book was well received by many prominent economists, among them James Bonar (1906), Irving Fisher (1905), Adolphe Landry (1907), and Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk (1906), and later by Knut Wicksell ([1923] 1934). But despite that adulation, several scholars today believe that Mixter gave the book, in Douglas Mair's (1990) words, “a kiss of death” by renaming it The Sociological Theory of Capital (1905)—given the attitude of mainstream economists toward anything sociological!

Mixter not only changed the title of the book; he switched around its chapters, paragraphs, and even sentences, relegating over half of the text to an appendix, and some to what he called the “residua,” while adding running critical commentaries, mostly as footnotes, as he went along—all to the detriment of Rae's text, in my view. I know of no other book in economics, and I doubt there are many in other subjects, that have been subjected to such a treatment. [End Page 627]

Among Mixter's contemporaries cited above, only Landry expressed reservations about his radical revisions. Even he, however, objected only to Mixter's rearrangement of the material, and not to his commentaries or the change in title. And although most later commentators have not been so tolerant, none has questioned why Mixter did what he did. By default, then, the only explanation we so far have is that given by Mixter himself, that he did this because “the chief part of [Rae's] undertaking consisted not in strictures on the doctrines of Adam Smith, but in an independent, elaborate, and profound treatment of the general subject of capital. It is this last which has recently brought Rae into notice with the present generation of economists in connection with the world-wide discussion of capital, upon new and fruitful lines, inaugurated by Böhm-Bawerk” (1905, xv).

In my view this explanation, even if we add to this his other relevant remarks in the preface, is still not complete, and may even be misleading. I submit that Mixter's decision to drastically revise Rae's book originated in a change of attitude he experienced regarding Rae vis-à-vis Smith that coincided with changes in his position on topics addressed by Rae and Smith. In the case of Rae vis-à-vis Böhm-Bawerk, Mixter's shift in attitude had no such basis and merely reflected his change in attitude regarding Rae and Smith. Indeed, Mixter had always considered Rae a better economist than Böhm-Bawerk; but implicit in Mixter's above-quoted 1905 statement is the notion that Rae can be appreciated only in light of the latter's achievements.

Rae vis-à-vis Böhm-Bawerk

The change in Mixter's argument in relation to Böhm-Bawerk can be rather easily disposed of. In his first paper on Rae and Böhm-Bawerk, Mixter (1897a, 161) wrote the following: “When in 1884 Böhm-Bawerk, in his Geschichte und Kritik der Kapitalzins-Theorieen, passed in review the world's literature on capital and interest, he did not so much as mention John Rae. And yet Rae had published fifty years before not only by far the best account of the nature of capital and interest which had been written previous to Böhm-Bawerk,1 but had even anticipated the essential features of that writer's own theory.” Had Mixter left the matter there, perhaps his 1905 assessment that Rae was a precursor of Böhm-Bawerk [End Page 628] could have been at least in part justified. But in the...


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