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History of Political Economy 33.2 (2001) 315-344

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Francesco Ferrara and Subjective Value Theory

Emilia Bonaccorsi di Patti

Economists generally acknowledge that the break between classical and neoclassical economic theory occurred in the early 1870s, with the major contributions of William Stanley Jevons, Carl Menger, and Léon Walras, who are credited with setting off the marginal utility or subjective value revolution. Occasional references are made to earlier precursors (e.g., Hermann Gossen, Augustin Cournot), but Francesco Ferrara is rarely mentioned. A close reading of Ferrara's work suggests, however, that he was more than a precursor on particular points of theory. It may be argued that Ferrara did, in fact, anticipate substantially the conceptual content of the analytical revolution, and did so in the 1850s.1 [End Page 315]

Moreover, Ferrara's approach to the theory of value, based on individual choice between subjectively valued alternatives, anticipated the notion of subjective cost of the Austrian school and that of the Virginia school of political economy (see Buchanan 1987a). His theoretical discourse may be of great interest for present-day authors in these traditions, since Ferrara applied consistently his ideas on value to a great variety of theoretical and policy issues in different fields of economics. Ferrara has been considered an anticipator of methodological individualism (da Empoli and Porta 1990; Nardi 1990), Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk's theory of capital goods (Faucci 1995, 172),2 the “theory of imputation” of the Austrian school (Weinberger 1940),3 and the equilibrium theory of the Lausanne school (Weinberger 1940; Guccione 1993).

Among the economists of his time, Ferrara was highly regarded for his eclectic work, ranging from economic theory to public finance, from the history of economic thought to economic history. His thought influenced many Italian scholars, particularly in public finance, including Vilfredo Pareto, Maffeo Pantaleoni, and Luigi Einaudi, among others. Nonetheless, according to the now-predominant view, Ferrara represents only a transitional figure: although his insights were suggestive, he was not able to accomplish the full marginal revolution. Currently, his work is almost unknown beyond Italy, and known only slightly among younger generations of Italian economists.

Such relative neglect may be due mainly to two factors. The first is that with the decline of the Italian school of public finance, of classical liberal inspiration, in Italy Ferrara's theoretical contributions were abandoned or overshadowed because of their policy implications. The ideas of Ferrara, in particular the theory of the cost of reproduction, were strongly opposed by academic socialists of his time, although the debate around his theory of value occasionally reemerged in the years immediately after his death.4 Consider, for example, the discussion published [End Page 316] in 1906 in the Giornale degli economisti between Achille Loria, who criticized Ferrara, and Tullio Martello and Domenico Berardi, who defended his theory of the cost of reproduction (Loria 1906a, 1906b; Berardi 1906a, 1906b; Martello 1906).5 After World War II, Einaudi, president of the Republic of Italy and past chairman of the central bank, encouraged the edition of the Opere complete, which required more than thirty years to be accomplished, but this did not lead to a significant revaluation or critical examination of Ferrara's economic thought (see Faucci 1995, 262–68, on Ferrara's fortune and misfortune).

The second reason is that none of Ferrara's work (originally written in Italian), aside from a few parts of prefaces contained in a French edition, is available in any other language, preventing wide international appraisal. The absence of an English translation of his work may depend partly on the lack of interest by mainstream Italian economists, and partly on the fact that he never wrote a complete treatise. Ferrara's economic thought is instead contained in his critical comments on other authors—the Prefazioni alla biblioteca dell'economista [Prefaces to the economist's library], a collection of translations into Italian of foreign writers that he edited starting in the 1850s—and in his university lectures. Also, the secondary literature in English is quite small. Among the few references in this century is...


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