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Harmony and the Balance: An Intellectual History of

Seventeenth-Century English Economic Thought | Book


Reviews
Published by EH.NET (June 2002)

Andrea Finkelstein, Harmony and the Balance: An Intellectual History of Seventeenth-Century


English Economic Thought. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. x + 381 pp. $49.50
(cloth), ISBN: 0-472-11143-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Edward J. Harpham, School of Social Sciences, University of Texas at
Dallas.

Historians of seventeenth-century economic thought in England find themselves trapped in a


rather curious dilemma. On the one hand, most are interested in understanding the intellectual
origins of a modern economic view of the world. Essentially this means investigating the
historical development of the tools of modern economic analysis. Does a particular writer grasp
some aspect of marginal utility theory or the quantity theory of money? What are the limits to a
particular theorist's view of economic problems? Following the lead of Joseph Schumpeter,
students adopting this perspective often turn the history of economic ideas into a history of the
tools of economic analysis.

On the other hand, many want to place economic ideas in the seventeenth century in one of a
variety of contexts. One context, for example, involves the specific historical context out of
which specific economic ideas emerge. How did the economic and political events of the day
such as banking or trade crises shape the economic ideas of a particular writer? What special
interests or biases might influence the development of one set of ideas rather than another? Here
the history of economic thought is turned into one dimension of a broader sociology of
knowledge. Barry Supple's Commercial Crisis and Change in England, 1600-1642 (1959) is
perhaps the classic example of such an approach. A second contextual approach tries to grasp
economic ideas in terms of the general intellectual environment of the times. For example, how
do the assumptions of a modern scientific or an individualistic worldview affect the way
economic theorists conceptualize economic problems? Joyce Appleby's Economic Thought and
Ideology in Seventeenth Century England (1978) is a notable contribution to this genre. Finally,
there is the biographical context. English economic writers in the seventeenth century came from
a variety of backgrounds, ranging from merchants seeking special privileges to intellectuals
committed to a particular political agenda to officials trying to justify governmental policy.
Moreover, their ideas were expressed in a number of different genres rather than a consistent
scientific literature. Biographic context aims to help explain why certain economic ideas were
developed at particular points in time, and what their conceptual limitations might be. Karen
Vaughn's John Locke, Economist and Social Scientist (1980) is an excellent example of this
approach.

The problem facing the historian of economic thought is how to integrate the study of the tools
and concepts of modern economic analysis with one or all of these contextual approaches.
Andrea Finkelstein's strategy echoes that of E.A.J. Johnson's Predecessors of Adam Smith (1937)
and William Letwin's The Origins of Scientific Economics (1963) in many ways. First, she
identifies a number of key contributors to the century's economic debates. For Johnson, these
figures were Gerard de Malynes, Edward Misselden, Thomas Mun, William Petty, and
Nehemiah Grew. For Letwin, they were Josiah Child, Nicholas Barbon, John Collins, William
Petty, John Locke, and Dudley North. Finkelstein splits the difference between the two, looking
at Malynes, Misselden and Mun in Part I, at Petty, Child and Locke in Part II, and at North,
Barbon, and Davenant in part III. She is unapologetic in her selection, noting that these figures
are generally recognized by historians of economic thought as the best that the century had to
offer.

Second, she organizes her study of each trio of theorists around a few themes. Part I seeks to
explain how the balance of trade theory articulated by Malynes, Misselden and Mun provided a
new perspective for viewing the self-interested behavior and the market alongside a more
traditional organic view of society as a harmonious whole. Many of the tensions and
contradictions in their thought must be understood in terms of the "logical impasse" created by
the attempt to accommodate balance of trade theory into a societal model of a harmonious
universe. Part II's analysis of Petty, Child, and Locke is held together by the idea that new
mechanical models of society based on the work of Harvey, Descartes, and Hobbes displaced the
old organic model of the body politic sometime during the middle decades of the seventeenth
century. This new approach which stressed the uniformity of human behavior and the idea that
individuals acted from a pleasure-pain calculus became the philosophical foundation of
economic thought for two new models of economic life: a circulatory model and a national
accounting model. The central theme of part III is balance. Essentially what Finkelstein appears
to mean here is that each theorist sought to integrate some new notion of balance into the new
models of polity and economy developed by earlier thinkers in the century.

Third, Finkelstein spends considerable time providing a biographical background to each of the
writers. Each substantive chapter begins with an overview of the writer's life and career and an
analysis of the controversies that shaped his economic writings. Finally, most chapters conclude
with an in-depth discussion of the key economic ideas that are found in a particular writer's
work, such as money, demand, value, circulation and the like.

There is much to be learned from Finkelstein's book. It is hard to argue with her choice of
figures. All but one is commonly recognized as a leading contributor to economic thought in the
century. The choice of Davenant may surprise some, being a figure largely ignored in standard
histories of modern economic thought. His contributions to the economic and political
controversies of the day are undeniable and his inclusion may help to broaden most economists'
understanding of early founders of their discipline.The biographical analysis of these figures is
excellent, moving beyond that of predecessors like Johnson and Letwin. Finkelstein takes
seriously the idea that we must understand the context in which the author is writing if we are to
grasp the ideas developed by an author. Similarly her analysis of various modern analytical ideas
developed by each of the theorists is thoughtful and creative, while not being overly critical.
Finkelstein is sensitive to the idea that these writers might have something to teach modern
economists about the way we have come to think about economic issues and problems.
The problem with the book resides in the larger themes that Finkelstein tries to use to make the
book a unified whole. Some of these themes work well. For example, the idea that the balance of
trade theory of Malynes, Misselden and Mun may have introduced an irreconcilable tension into
an organic view of the body politic is intriguing. Finkelstein does a pretty good job arguing her
case in Part I. But the unifying themes of mechanism and balance in Part II and III are less well
developed and need a more careful elaboration. There is no doubt that the mechanistic universe
of Harvey, Descartes, and Hobbes played a major role in shaping the intellectual climate of
seventeenth-century England. But Finkelstein's contention that it may be a unifying feature tying
together the economic thought of Petty, Child, and Locke is suggestive at best. Her rich
discussion of each thinker's work seems to belie the fact that they are taken from a common
cloth. Similar problems haunt the analysis of the idea of balance in Part III. Davenant's civic
humanist concerns over balance in a commercial society seem to be a far cry from the concerns
of North or Barbon. Throughout Part III, it is often difficult to understand what is being balanced
or what is balancing what. As in Part II, some of the grand themes of the book tend to get in the
way of the rather intriguing discussions of each individual thinker

Other problems exist with Finkelstein's attempt to place an individual's economic ideas into
larger intellectual contexts like Baconian authoritarianism, millenarianism, civic humanism,
natural law theory, or theories of Aristotelian harmony. While readily using these terms to situate
the economic ideas of seventeenth-century England, Finkelstein does not always carefully
explain the complexity and mixed meanings built into these concepts. Nor does she ever
adequately explain why some authors appealed to one set of ideas while others appealed to
another. Was an economic way of thinking about the world trapped in a variety of competing
perspectives or was it integrally connected to them?

One shouldn't be too critical of Finkelstein's effort to bring some order to a myriad of economic
arguments developed by thinkers in the seventeenth century. Finkelstein's study reminds us how
complex intellectual discourse was in the early modern era and why we should be wary of one-
size-fits-all interpretations. Faults aside, Finkelstein has presented us with an insightful and, at
times, thought-provoking book on economic ideas in seventeenth-century England. It is a good
starting point for anyone interested in gaining a deeper insight into the controversies and ideas
that shaped early modern economic thinking.