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History of Political Economy 32.1 (2000) 83-102

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Nicholas Barbon and the Quality of Infinity

Andrea Finkelstein

To construct an intellectual history of economics, one must consider the comparative virtues of the internalist, sociological, and contextual perspectives. This article attempts to fill in a possible lacuna in the last, namely, to suggest plenitude as the most likely intellectual source of Dr. Nicholas Barbon's attack on the organic analogy underlying seventeenth-century balance of trade theory. Much work has been done in recent decades on the intellectual context of seventeenth-century economic writers, but some of this work is limited to applying such broad labels as Cartesian rationalism, natural law, or Baconian empiricism to the work of particular economic writers without considering the almost overwhelming complexity of the seventeenth-century intellectual mix. Such scholars as Peter Buck (1977) and James Tully (1993) have offered welcome correctives that uncover the many influences (economic, political, and intellectual) on these writers. 1 [End Page 83]

Before I discuss Barbon's rejection of seventeenth-century balance of trade orthodoxy, a brief review of the positions taken in his three pamphlets--An Apology for the Builder (1685), A Discourse of Trade (1690), and a Discourse concerning Coining the New Money Lighter (1696)--on other economic issues of the day (e.g., money, value, interest, and wealth) may help uncover the major influences on his thought.


Barbon's understanding of money contained both innovative and traditional elements. For Barbon, "money" rather than "silver" was "the instrument and measure of commerce" (1696, 12). Not only was silver nothing but a commodity without its government stamp, but periodic devaluation was a necessary precaution for any state that did not wish to see fluctuations in silver's value cause export of its coin (Barbon [1690] 1905, 16-17; 1696, 61, 71-72, 75, 80). Thus he argued against John Locke [1696] 1989, 31-32, 157, 160) and with William Lowndes (1695, 6-8) for a de jure recognition of the de facto standard of the circulating clipped coin, as "no man will deny, but that the Broad Unclipp'd Money will buy as many Goods of the same Value, as the New-mill'd Money will do: And that all Bonds and Contracts are as well paid and satisfied by such old Money, as by the new" (Barbon 1696, 30).

As Douglas Vickers pointed out, Barbon's writings contain "a clear attempt" to distinguish "money" as an analytical concept from "currency" as its usual physical expression (1959, 87). 2 However, Barbon clung to the traditional view of his century that saw "money" as the independent and "trade level" as the dependent variable, as can be seen [End Page 84] in his fear of "the murmer and disorder . . . that attends a nation that wants money to drive their trade and commerce" (1696, 71). Barbon was, like William Petty and John Locke, a physician trained in William Harvey's theory of the circulation of the blood (Viner 1952, 37). 3 This new way of looking at money as it moved through the economy (rather than as it entered or left it in trade balance theories) probably reinforced the view of money as the independent variable, even though this line of reasoning went back through the century to the insights of Gerard de Malynes. 4 The more unusual view (for its day) that trade level drove money supply can be found in the works of Sir Dudley North (Grassby 1994, 306-7). 5 With the new insights derived from Harvey's theories, Barbon proposed that the mechanism pumping this money throughout the "Great Body of Trade" was the metropolis: "For the Metropolis is the heart of a Nation, through which the Trade and Commodities of it circulate, like the blood through the heart, which by its motion giveth life and growth to the rest of the Body; and if that declines, or be obstructed in its growth, the whole body falls into consumption" (Barbon 1685, 30).

Barbon also recognized, like Lowndes and unlike Locke, that a de facto functional identity had...


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