Petty's Place in the History of Economic Theory/5

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V.

 

The notion is more or less prevalent that, in his general attitude towards industrial society, Petty was somehow a forerunner of Adam Smith, a "founder of political economy." What "political economy" may mean in this connection is not altogether clear; but it is, at any rate, something which an intelligent man may be expected to "know," and it appears to culminate in the dogmatic preaching of free trade. Tried by the free-trade shibboleth, Petty has been found to merit a condescending approval. "He is one of the first in whom we find a tendency to a view of industrial phenomena which was at variance with the then dominant mercantilistic ideas." He was "generally opposed to government interference with the course of industry," and contributed in his way, as did Dudley North's "most thorough-going and emphatic assertion of the free-trade doctrine against the system of prohibitions," to lay "the foundations of a new and more rational doctrine than that of the mercantilists."[1] Such views of Petty are due, I think, rather to the influence of Roscher[2] than to an exhaustive examination of Petty's writings. Travers Twiss, who reviewed the development of economics only four years before Roscher, and was properly anxious to commend his countrymen by showing that they had cherished the enlightened views of Smith and Ricardo a century or more in advance, mentions Petty's writings three times;[3] but even with the help of McCulloch he finds in them no such "able statement of the true principles of commerce" as North's Discourses upon Trade contained.[4] Roscher, therefore, may be credited with originating, and Kautz[5] with promptly adopting, the idea that Petty, North, and Locke constituted a sort of free-trade triumvirate. The grouping seem to me of doubtful propriety.

Petty is a copious and vivacious writer, abounding in comment and digression. He is primarily interested in taxation, not in trade,—a sort of an English cameralist. When he does turn his attention to trade, we find that he has progressed far enough beyond the cruder expedients of mercantilism to condemn restrictions on the export of coin,[6] and even to suggest that a nation may have too much money; "for Money is but the Fat of the Body politick, whereof too much doth as often hinder its Agility as too little makes it sick."[7] At times he goes further still in his dissent from current views, and it is quite possible to cull from his pamphlets scattered passages that appear to support Roscher's classification.[8] There are, for example, several remarks about the Laws of Nature[9] which read almost as if he shared that belief in a pre-established harmony of interests which, in the ease of Adam Smith, reduced the free-trade proposition to the rank of a mere corollary. But it would be a mistake to consider such passing remarks as indices of Petty's true position. Not only can each specific condemnation of some restriction upon trade be offset by a specific commendation of some other restriction, but, what is far more important, it is clear also that to represent Petty as an advocate of laissez-faire on principle is altogether to misrepresent him. On the contrary, he not only assumed, like the political disciple of Hobbes that he was, that the government is justified in doing anything whereby the national wealth will be increased, but he was unwearying in devising schemes, sometimes legislative, sometimes administrative, for that end. Some of his schemes are little short of fantastic.[10] Many of them evince an entire disregard for the wishes and interests of individuals. In short, if we understand mercantilism to consist, broadly speaking, in a tendency to force the transition from local to national economic coherence by means of governmental interference with the activities of individuals in business, then Petty was one of the most extreme among English mercantilists.

Charles H. Hull.

Cornell University.

 

  1. J. K. Ingram on Petty, Encyclopædia Britannica, xix. 358 (1885); also, Ingram's History of Political Economy, 47-53, reprinted from Encyclopædia Britannica.
  2. Zur Geschichte der englischen Volkswirthschaftslehre im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert, Leipzig, 1851, in Abhandlungen der k. sächs. Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften, 3er Bd.
  3. View of the Progress of Political Economy since the Sixteenth Century (1847) pp. 64, 87, 164.
  4. Ibid., 83.
  5. Die geschichtliche Entwickelung der Nationalökonomie (1860), § 46: " Die anti-merkantilistische Richtung und die Anfänge der wissenschaftlicheren Nationalökonomie in England," pp. 308-317.
  6. Writings, i. 57, 58, 87; ii. 440, 445, 446.
  7. Vol. ii. 113.
  8. Cf. especially chap. vi. of the Treatise of Taxes; Writings, i. 54-61.
  9. Vol. i. 9, 48, 243; ii. 445; cf. i. 60.
  10. E.g., the plan to reduce Ireland to a cattle ranch by deporting three-fourths of the Irish to England. Treatise of Ireland, Writings, ii. 545-621.