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  • Translating Empire: Emulation and the Origins of Political Economy by Sophus A. Reinert
  • Heather Welland
Translating Empire: Emulation and the Origins of Political Economy. By Sophus A. Reinert. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011. 456 pp. $55.00 (cloth).

In Translating Empire: Emulation and the Origins of Political Economy, Sophus A. Reinert argues that the science of political economy developed within a framework of “emulation” or “noble competition,” where successful ideas and practices were translated from one national context into another.

In eighteenth-century Europe, successful ideas and practices were English: England encouraged its manufacturing sector by enacting protectionist legislation, and it made war to win captive markets for these same manufactures. In short, commercial prosperity was the result of government intervention and coercion. Commerce was not the opposite of war, it was war—a hostile national competition in which emulation was crucial to beating England at its own game. English success was thought to have stemmed from a successful translation of Dutch practices; the Dutch, in turn, had emulated Italian city-states. Reinert thus rejects the “doux-commerce” thesis, in which classic liberalism’s [End Page 218] emphasis on mutual trade as foundational to international peace is projected into the past.

Reinert chooses as his subject John Cary (b. 1649), a Bristol merchant and pamphleteer whose Essay on the State of England became a key text for political economists across Europe. Cary was an advocate for what we might call “freer” trade: commerce protected and regulated by the state but free from monopolies like the East India Company. His arguments for manufacturing innovation and commercially funded long-term debt as crucial to economic growth, civil society, and English naval superiority were in keeping with Whig party ideology of his day. Cary was a correspondent of John Locke’s. He was an enthusiastic agent of William III’s Irish confiscations and devoted considerable attention to outlining a policy whereby Ireland might become a part of England’s empire, ruled directly from Westminster and encouraged to produce linen yarn for English textile manufacture. Cary’s emphasis on the production and consumption of commodities allowed him to argue that high wages were compatible with economic growth; technological improvement and expanding markets, not suppressed wages, were the basis for English commercial supremacy. Cary, Reinert argues, illustrates that mercantilism was not static, but dynamic. His work made political economy a science: a practical theory of trade based on observation and experience, which married the old reason of state to a new, participatory public sphere.

Translating Empire follows Cary’s Essay throughout Europe over the course of the eighteenth century, where it was translated into French (1755, by Georges-Marie Butel-Dumont), Italian (1757–1758, by Antonio Genovesi), and German (1788, by August Wichmann). Despite different approaches to translation—the French tendency was to capture the spirit of a text; the Italian to produce a more faithful word-for-word rendering—each new edition of Cary’s work managed to reflect the concerns of its country and decade. In France, for example, where fears of subsistence dominated political economic discourse, Cary’s argument for nationally directed industry became a powerful critique of the Old Regime’s failure to provide an adequate standard of living. It also provided a foil for physiocrats and their counter-insistence on the sterility of manufacture. In Naples, Cary provided a blueprint for how Italian states, once objects of economic emulation themselves, might again become competitive. Here state-encouraged manufactures might free resource-rich Naples from dependence on other nations, while simultaneously avoiding the lesson of Spain, where reliance on raw materials had caused decline. By the 1780s, as American independence and Irish struggles cast Britain’s mercantile system in a different [End Page 219] light, a German translation became an oblique criticism of Cary’s principles.

The concept of emulation will not surprise those familiar with Maxine Berg, who has argued for its importance to technological improvement. In eighteenth-century Britain, imitation bred invention in the attempt to create cheaper domestic versions of the foreign luxury imports so frequently assumed detrimental to both the balance of trade and British character (Luxury and Pleasure in Eighteenth-Century Britain [Oxford...


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