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History of Political Economy 34.1 (2002) 286
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Harmony and the Balance:
An Intellectual History of Seventeenth-Century English Economic Thought
Harmony and the Balance: An Intellectual History of Seventeenth-Century English Economic Thought. By Andrea Finkelstein. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. 364 pp. $49.50.
Andrea Finkelstein's study of seventeenth-century English economic thinking and writing is an intervention into the age-old debate of what was new and old in the economic discourse of this disruptive and revolutionary century. As is well known, authors like E. A. Johnson, William Grampp, Richard Wiles, Terence Hutchison—and, for that matter, the author of this review (although Finkelstein does not yet seem to have read my Mercantilism: The Shaping of an Economic Language, which will, I am afraid to say, not meet with her approval)—have argued that the seventeenth century in England saw the rise of an economics that eventually would turn into the Smithian synthesis of the late eighteenth century. Finkelstein's position, as I understand it, is to say that such an orthodoxy does not provide an accurate description either of the historical process or of the literature in question. The economics of Thomas Mun, Edward Misselden, Josiah Child, and even Nicholas Barbon and Charles Davenant was something quite different in kind. Rather, it belonged to an older age of bullionist illusions, that is, the belief in money par pro pari as a stable store of value. Hence she argues that these writers' preoccupation with concepts such as balance and harmony was as much Aristotelian as anything else. As does Adam Smith, she believes that the (fallacious) theory of the balance of trade was at the heart of their thinking, but she does not have anything to say to what extent this “theory” changed direction in the late seventeenth century and instead led to a (protectionist) theory of a balance of labor or foreign-paid incomes (e.g., wages paid to an English worker by [End Page 286] a foreign employer) (E. A. Johnson), which reached its maturity with James Steuart. As a consequence, she remains skeptical toward any notion—as for example put forward most acutely by Joyce Oldham Appleby (1978)—that the 1620s onward saw a “capitalist” or at least “market-oriented” revolution in economic thinking that reflected the commercial practices and the commercial boom of that day.
However, to be honest, this is only my own—and perhaps very subjective—interpretation of Finkelstein's book, which really is as difficult to review as it is to read. The bulk of the book is made up of portraits of a number of leading writers of the day: Gerard de Malynes, Edward Misselden, Thomas Mun, Sir William Petty, Sir Josiah Child, John Locke, Sir Dudley North, Nicholas Barbon, and Charles Davenant. Brilliant as several of these short presentations are, her book is best described as a bricolage of bits and pieces combining broad sweeps of intellectual history with doctrinal history, biographical notes, and some economic history. Unfortunately, those bits and pieces are not put together to form a coherent argument. Hence, when she claims to deliver an alternative to much of the previous writing on the subject, it remains somewhat obscure all through her study what this really means. Many of Finkelstein's rather minor remarks are extremely important ones that might upset older interpretations. Yet it is difficult in many cases to judge the consequences of her disagreements for older and perhaps more orthodox views. Moreover, Finkelstein does not provide the reader with clear definitions of broad concepts she uses such as zeitgeist and weltanschauung or, for that matter, bullionism and balance of trade. Mind you, this is probably intentional. Finkelstein's aim is to write a historical account of English economic thinking in the seventeenth century. Thus, her approach is the historicist one not to put (modern) words in the mouths of past authors; their words must be grasped in the manner that contemporaries would have understood them. However, it is a pity that...