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Harmony and the Balance

Harmony and the Balance

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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 atDallas.Historians of seventeenth-century economic thought in England find themselves trapped in arather curious dilemma. On the one hand, most are interested in understanding the intellectualorigins of a modern economic view of the world. Essentially this means investigating thehistorical development of the tools of modern economic analysis. Does a particular writer graspsome 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 thetools of economic analysis.On the other hand, many want to place economic ideas in the seventeenth century in one of avariety 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 daysuch as banking or trade crises shape the economic ideas of a particular writer? What specialinterests or biases might influence the development of one set of ideas rather than another? Herethe 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 graspeconomic ideas in terms of the general intellectual environment of the times. For example, howdo the assumptions of a modern scientific or an individualistic worldview affect the wayeconomic 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 froma variety of backgrounds, ranging from merchants seeking special privileges to intellectualscommitted 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 consistentscientific literature. Biographic context aims to help explain why certain economic ideas weredeveloped at particular points in time, and what their conceptual limitations might be. KarenVaughn's
 John Locke, Economist and Social Scientist 
(1980) is an excellent example of thisapproach.The problem facing the historian of economic thought is how to integrate the study of the toolsand 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, sheidentifies a number of key contributors to the century's economic debates. For Johnson, thesefigures 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, lookingat 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 figuresare generally recognized by historians of economic thought as the best that the century had tooffer.Second, she organizes her study of each trio of theorists around a few themes. Part I seeks toexplain how the balance of trade theory articulated by Malynes, Misselden and Mun provided anew perspective for viewing the self-interested behavior and the market alongside a moretraditional organic view of society as a harmonious whole. Many of the tensions andcontradictions in their thought must be understood in terms of the "logical impasse" created bythe attempt to accommodate balance of trade theory into a societal model of a harmoniousuniverse. Part II's analysis of Petty, Child, and Locke is held together by the idea that newmechanical models of society based on the work of Harvey, Descartes, and Hobbes displaced theold organic model of the body politic sometime during the middle decades of the seventeenthcentury. This new approach which stressed the uniformity of human behavior and the idea thatindividuals 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 nationalaccounting model. The central theme of part III is balance. Essentially what Finkelstein appearsto mean here is that each theorist sought to integrate some new notion of balance into the newmodels of polity and economy developed by earlier thinkers in the century.Third, Finkelstein spends considerable time providing a biographical background to each of thewriters. Each substantive chapter begins with an overview of the writer's life and career and ananalysis of the controversies that shaped his economic writings. Finally, most chapters concludewith an in-depth discussion of the key economic ideas that are found in a particular writer'swork, 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 thecentury. The choice of Davenant may surprise some, being a figure largely ignored in standardhistories of modern economic thought. His contributions to the economic and politicalcontroversies 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 isexcellent, moving beyond that of predecessors like Johnson and Letwin. Finkelstein takesseriously the idea that we must understand the context in which the author is writing if we are tograsp the ideas developed by an author. Similarly her analysis of various modern analytical ideasdeveloped 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 moderneconomists 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 intoan 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 welldeveloped and need a more careful elaboration. There is no doubt that the mechanistic universeof 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 tyingtogether the economic thought of Petty, Child, and Locke is suggestive at best. Her richdiscussion of each thinker's work seems to belie the fact that they are taken from a common

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