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History of Political Economy Annual Supplement to Volume 33 (2001) 111-136

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Reflections from the Age of Economic Measurement

Judy L. Klein


In this perspective, I use six images to sketch a chronology and economic history of the age of economic measurement. These six images are not from canonical works in the history of economics. Rather they are drawn from fertile “borderlands” (see Theodore Porter's essay in this volume), “trading zones” (Galison 1997), or “bridges” between commercial, political, and scientific arithmetics (Klein 1997). The six visualizations bear witness to the eras in which they were crafted and reflect the important studies discussed in other essays in this volume.

Playfair's Inquiry into the Propensity of Nations to Decline

A few years after Adam Smith published his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, William Playfair published several tracts examining the causes of the decline of nations. Playfair used what he described as a “linear arithmetic” to examine these causes—almost every publication of his is graced with stunning colorful graphs including area charts, line graphs, bar graphs, and circular charts. He was the first to publish several of these forms of presenting commercial data (he [End Page 111] argued that he was the first to apply the principle of geometry to matters of finance), and his stained copper-plated charts were well received by the Academy of Science in France, German writers, and at least Thomas Jefferson in the newly formed United States. Playfair acknowledged the difficulty of separating the permanent and accidental causes for national decline voiced by contemporary writers such as Edmund Burke. He asserted, however, that his “mode of painting” could isolate and capture the essence of permanent causes (1786, 5).

Playfair thought that his inquiries would be of particular interest to those in his own country because England had risen “high above the natural level assigned to it by its population and extent” (1805, v). In his late-eighteenth-century publications, Playfair was particularly concerned that England's trade deficit and the level of its national debt—incurred in fighting the American War of Independence, the war with the Republic of France, and the war with Napoleon (the latter being addressed in his later work)—could spell the beginning of the end for its commercial strength. Most of the graphs in his 1786 Commercial and Political Atlas and his 1801 Statistical Breviary visually displayed measurements of national exports and imports (with deficits stained in red) or government revenues, expenditures, and debt. The price of wheat was the other major focus of Playfair's charts (see Klein 1995)—between one-third and one-half of family expenditures at that time went to wheat flour or bread, and no other important price fluctuated so greatly. For Adam Smith (see the article by Kevin Hoover and Michael Dowell in this volume), Playfair, Sir George Shuckburgh Evelyn, and other late-eighteenth-century writers, tables or graphs of time series of the price of wheat spoke to the changing value and well-being of labor and to the balance between the agricultural and manufacturing sectors.

The graph I wish to highlight here is his “Universal Chart of Commercial History” (fig. 1). Playfair (1805) wanted to capture the “propensity” of all wealthy and commercially powerful nations to decline to states of desolation and poverty. He asserted that national phenomena were “exempt from accidental vicissitudes” because “number and magnitude reduces chances to certainty” (xii). Accident could only appear to be a cause for the decline of wealth of nations; a nation had to be ripe for ruin. It was the cause of this “ripeness” that Playfair addressed in his essay. In his graph he used dimension, without number or magnitude, to indicate the general course of the rise and fall of the wealth of nations that had been distinguished for their prosperity and power. The chart [End Page 112] begins midway through the height of the Egyptian empire in 1500 B.C. and ends in A.D. 1804. Time series of internationally consistent...


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