From Body Politic to Economic Tables

The Debates of the Time

In the century stretching between William Petty’s writings and Adam Smith’s, economic thinking proceeded in many directions: reflections on economic phenomena were part of general reflections on society and man, and the same authors would in the course of time range over a vast field of issues.

As we have seen, Petty was an inventor, doctor and professor of anatomy, responsible for the geographical survey of Ireland and a landowner engaged in the management of his estates. His reflections on economic, institutional and demographic issues constituted for him at the same time a civic and intellectual pursuit, a means to exercise political influence and an instrument for the defence of his own private interests. John Locke dealt with strictly economic issues in pursuit of his philosophical enquiries, as a few years later did David Hume. Locke wrote, among other things, about monetary issues in the course of a debate that also saw the famous physicist Isaac Newton (1642-1727) taking part; in 1699 Newton was appointed director of the Mint. Bernard de Mandeville was a doctor and philosopher, Richard Cantillon an international banker. Francois Quesnay, a physician at the court of King Louis XV, joined in the intellectual debate of the time in the hope that his ideas might contribute to social amelioration. Here we isolate the strictly economic contributions from their context, but we must not forget that excisions of the sort would have been considered arbitrary by the protagonists of that time.

One line in economic thinking (reference here must be brief) took a markedly different stance from Petty, insisting on a combination of analysis and ethics. In this ambit we find the representatives of the ‘natural law’ doctrine, such as the German jurist Samuel Pufendorf (1632-1694), important for putting ideas of natural rights and natural laws into circulation but, in terms of strictly economic issues, still engaged


in ‘just price’ discussions. Within the same ‘natural law’ current we find the still numerous writings on monetary matters that, dealing in particular with determination of the rate of interest, were connected with the Scholastic debates on usury.

The numerous tracts designed to provide merchants with guidance in their activities display a curious analogy to this latter current. The most renowned among them is Le parfait negociant by Jacques Savary (The Expert Merchant, 1675). In Italy works of this kind were already flourishing in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries; for England we may mention - although on the borderline between this current and economic analysis - Malachy Postlethwayt’s Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce (1751-55), composed utilising a large number of plagiarised passages (including an almost complete version of Cantillon’s Essay on the Nature of Commerce in General).

We also have a long series of tracts On Trade, which generally dealt with monetary issues in connection with matters of international trade, in the wake of the mercantilist literature discussed previously. The most common arguments concerned the expediency of protecting national employment from foreign competition. However, we find also defenders of a liberal position, such as the merchant Dudley North (1641-1691) or Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), the well-known author of Robinson Crusoe (1719). The main argument in defence of free trade is a petition of principle, the idea that no obstacles should be opposed to the unfettered working of the ‘natural laws’.

In France, the main champion of free trade in this period was Pierre le Pesant de Boisguilbert (1646-1714), whose motto was laissez faire la nature et la liberte (let nature and freedom do their course). Boisguilbert (1695) criticised Colbert’s statism and policy favouring manufactures, blaming the depressed state of the French economy on stagnation in agriculture.

Finally, in the period between 1690 and the first decades of the eighteenth century, various authors propounded interesting ideas on economic development, such as the thesis that working class consumption had an influence on productivity and thus on growth.

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