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History of Political Economy 34.1 (2002) 83-110
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Pietro Verri's Political Economy:
Commercial Society, Civil Society, and the Science of the Legislator
Pier Luigi Porta and Roberto Scazzieri
Pietro Verri (1728–1797) emerged in the latter half of the eighteenth century as one of the outstanding figures of the European Enlightenment. Within the Milanese school of the time, by initiative, cultivation, and age, Verri was the natural leader of the group of young intellectuals he had gathered at the newly founded Accademia dei pugni. His overall intellectual image was destined, however, to be somewhat diminished by the presence among his younger followers of Cesare Beccaria. Beccaria's lightning rise to international fame came soon after the publication of Dei delitti e delle pene in 1764, the world-famous pamphlet on crimes and punishment. Its message provided a plea for dropping the death penalty, argued from an economic conception of public law as well as with a perceptive and timely application of utilitarian principles.
That Verri had in fact inspired Beccaria to write the pamphlet hardly got Verri any credit at all. Concerning his views on polity and society, [End Page 83] Verri's fame came largely from the image of him as an applied economist and an active intellectual.1
Listing Verri among his own crowd of “consultant administrators” seemed a proper choice for Joseph Schumpeter's History. At the same time, Verri's activity as a writer was indeed multifarious. A considerable amount of scholarly work, particularly in literature, philosophy, history, law, and economics, has been exploring, to the present day, Verri's contributions to the different fields.2 What seems to be needed in order to understand his personality more fully is an effort to bring out Verri's own analytical framework as a political economist. The aim of the present essay is to reconsider Verri's approach to political economy as well as to history and society in the framework of the European Enlightenment.
Verri's contributions touch directly some of the better-known eighteenth-century themes, including the nature of commercial society and of civil society at large, together with what is sometimes termed (echoing a well-known Smithian expression) the “science of the legislator” (see Haakonssen 1981). In particular, in Verri the “science of the legislator” will be shown to provide an essential qualification to his own conception of commercial society and competitive markets; without that, the significance of his practical reformist inclination toward the abolition of restrictive practices can only be imperfectly understood. Verri's direct or indirect indebtedness to some of the greatest European thinkers of his own time, including Montesquieu as well as Adam Smith, David Hume, and John Locke, will also be highlighted. In our view, Pietro Verri can be shown to belong to a specific tradition in European eighteenth-century thought, a tradition that blends civil society and commercial society and, more precisely, considers civil society and its institutions at the root of the market economy and of political economy in general.
In discussing Verri's political economy, we shall proceed along two distinct, although closely related, lines. First, we consider the concept [End Page 84] of commercial society. This notion has a critical place in Verri's Meditazioni sulla economia politica as well as in other writings dealing with competitive markets, money, and taxation. Second, it will be shown that Verri's approach to political economy can ultimately be reduced to an economic conception of civil society. It is particularly along the latter line that the present essay goes beyond the received wisdom on Verri's thought. As we shall demonstrate, Verri's economic conception of civil society resulted from the inner unity of several strands in his thought. The concept of civil society that we use in the present context embodies a normative element that bears natural strong connections with Verri's own fact-mindedness, as well as with his deep belief in the unity of legislation and political economy; it also, not unexpectedly, links...