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Eighteenth-Century Studies 37.1 (2003) 141-146
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Learning to Calculate
Cynthia J. Koepp
Carol Blum. Strength in Numbers: Population, Reproduction, and Power in Eighteenth-Century France(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002). Pp. 261. $48.00.
Yves Citton. Portrait de l'économiste en physiocrate: Critique littéraire de l'économie politique(Paris: L'Harmattan, 2000). Pp. 348
Gilbert Faccarello, ed. Studies in the History of French Political Economy: From Bodin to Walras(London: Routledge, 1998). Pp. 464. $130.00.
Gérard Klotz, ed. Politique et économie au temps des Lumières(Saint-Étienne: Publications de l'Université de Saint-Étienne, 1995). Pp. 276.
In 1724, the Abbé Castel de Saint-Pierre offered Louis XV a rare bit of quantitative information. Rather than list the typical moral or social costs of beggary in France, he calculated the precise monetary losses the nation sustained every year from beggars not working—by their not being useful and productive. This kind of quantitative thinking would only become more and more common through the eighteenth century—as people began to measure things more in terms of money, utility and productive value—and the changes that resulted in some sense are deeply connected to our notions of modernity. The four books reviewed below each say something about the influence of quantitative thinking: on debates about population and gender roles, on physiocracy, on the growing discipline of political economy, and on the history of economic thought.
Strength in Numbers is a rich and well-craftedbook, the author of which views the Enlightenment through the lens of the popularly-held-but-mistaken notion that the French population was declining—what J-C Perrot has called the "fertile error." Focusing on the intense debates that followed from widespread depopulation anxiety, Blum argues that belief in this misperception had untold consequences in the realm of eighteenth-century institutions and ideas. Since overcoming decline would seem to require real procreation, worries about population inevitably led to much commentary on matters of private sexuality, gender, marriage, and divorce that eventually weakened the status of women in French society in ways that persisted for decades.
Blum is particularly adept at combining the different kinds of sources that participated in a sort of extended dialogue throughout the eighteenth century. She provides a close reading of major texts of Montesquieu and Rousseau, alongside many of the influential (but now often less known) voices of reformers, administrators, encyclopedists, journalists, policy makers, moralists, abbés, and others who responded to each other and to a host of social and moral issues. In addition, she has put together a monograph that is well grounded in much of the best recent work in economic and demographic history. Sylvana Tomaselli has spoken of "an Ariadne's thread" of populationism, but Carol Blum shows us in great detail where that thread could lead and the complex set of paradoxes woven throughout the tapestry. [End Page 141]
Chapter One begins at the moment when the new kind of economic or quantitative thinking led to a conceiving of the population in new ways. Under Louis XIV, to know the kingdom came to mean to understand it in terms of numbers: how many hearths, people, heads of cattle, and even birds flying overhead. Thanks to the writings of Fenelon, Vauban, and the early economist Boisguilbert, more and more people were learning to count. But interestingly, unlike physiocrats who in the 1760s would defend "iron-clad" subsistence wages to increase profit, Blum suggests that these early quantitative thinkers considered more than the bottom line. Those intent on increasing productivity and utility began to make qualitative assessments of the condition of the populace—and in that regard Louis XIV looked particularly vulnerable. The putative father of his people seemed to be presiding over a declining population of miserable peasants subject to high taxes and wars. Yet, as he tried to censor criticism of his policies, others found in the fear that France was losing population a "pretext for widespread criticism of the monarch and church" (2). Philosophers, physicians, and reformers put forth radically new speculations about sexuality, denouncing...