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History of Political Economy 35.3 (2003) 596-598
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Physicians and Political Economy. Edited by Peter Groenewegen. London: Routledge, 2001. 148 pp. €55.00.
This slim volume contains studies of six doctor-economists. In order of appearance, they are Petty, Locke, Barbon, Mandeville, Quesnay, and Juglar.
The authors largely rely on secondary sources for an account of the medical interests and activities of their subjects; William Coleman's essay on Locke is particularly well served by the accounts written by Kenneth Dewhurst (1963) and Patrick Romanell (1984), while Tony Aspromourgos draws upon an Oxford D.Phil. of 1977. It is, however, strange that the work of Roy Porter is hardly referred to in the book, and then only tangentially.
The basic approach of the book is historical, rather than analytical. The standard of scholarship is high, although such an approach tends to leave on one side issues that deserved to be probed—as in Marina Bianchi's treatment of Barbon and the rate of interest. It may be the historical approach that leads to some other points at which a greater precision seems to be called for. Aspromourgos refers several times to Petty's use of "algebra"—which is very puzzling indeed, in view of the content of Petty's writings. Where Petty actually excelled was in the use of numbers, largely as a rhetorical device, and without any degree of precision. Indeed, mathematics was not Petty's strong point, and it is apparent from one of his interpolations that he was ignorant of logs.
As editor of the volume, Groenewegen links the essays to a comment by Marx about doctors writing on economics, and Marx is referred to as one of the first major [End Page 596] historians of economics. I suppose it all depends on what one means by "one of" and "major." But he was long preceded by the work of Say and (especially) McCulloch, and the history of economic thought as a study flourished during the nineteenth century from the 1820s onward. Nonetheless the aim of the book is stated explicitly in Groenewegen's epilogue—it is to vindicate the "importance of the link between medical experience and excellence in economic practice as originally perceived by Marx" (142). Judged by that strict standard, it has to be said that the book is not a success. Coleman is perfectly clear that Locke's empiricism was the hallmark of his medicine, while his approach to economics was a priori. Bianchi is laudably frank that Barbon's medical training had nothing to do with his economics. Other authors are able to find stronger links. Thus both Aspromourgos and Groenewegen find a "deep philosophical basis" for Petty's Political Arithmetick. But anyone knowing Petty would not be surprised to find more venal considerations, as his younger contemporary Charles Davenant explained ( 1967, 130–31). Again there is no convincing evidence that the theory of the circulation of the blood actually led to that of the velocity of circulation of money, although the medical background provided a handy analogy.
More seriously, implied in the overall aim of the book, as stated by the editor, are two value-judgments: that the medicine itself was good, and that it led to good economics. Yet both judgments seem questionable. Readers of this journal will have their own views on the ultimate merits of the economics of, say, Locke, so there is no need to explore that further here. But what of the medicine? There is a persuasive view, taken for instance in James Le Fanu's brilliant book (1999), that modern medicine can only be dated from about 1845. Neil De Marchi quotes a passage from Mandeville that refers to diabetes. Yet it was only in 1922 that Sir Frederick Banting and Charles Best took the vital step in the investigation of diabetes mellitus, by isolating the hormone insulin, the structure of which was not understood until 1969. Example after example of the futility of much earlier medical practice can be found in Roy Porter's great book (1997). It is true that...