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Antonio de Viti de Marco: A Story Worth Remembering

Author(s):Mosca, Manuela
Reviewer(s):Wagner, Richard

Published by EH.Net (September 2016)

Manuela Mosca, Antonio de Viti de Marco: A Story Worth Remembering. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. xvii + 141 pp. $100 (cloth), ISBN: 978-1-137-53492-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Richard Wagner, Department of Economics, George Mason University.

Who was Antonio de Viti de Marco (1858-1943), and why is his story worth remembering? In this slim book, Manuela Mosca (Professor of the History of Economic Thought at the University of Salento), answers these questions by presenting interviews she conducted during 2007-2008 with eleven people who collectively give an account of three sides of de Viti: his personal life, his political life, and his  life as a scholar. The interviews are accompanied by a splendid documentary that runs nearly an hour (see http://vimeo.com/29599475). One finishes reading this book with a fine awareness of de Viti’s interesting and tragic personal life, an understanding of his intense political involvement, and knowledge of his creativity as an economic theorist.

The longest interview in the book is with Emilia Chirilli, who was a biographer of de Viti and a confidant of de Viti’s younger sister, Carolina. Emilia came to live with de Viti’s family in the 1930s, and developed a close relationship with Carolina that continued until Carolina’s death in 1965. It is in this interview where much of the tragic quality that surrounded de Viti’s life comes to life, including the premature deaths of his parents, one of his sisters, and his two brothers. We learn also of de Viti’s multi-faceted character: among other things, he was a farmer, a carpenter, a businessman who established a winery that still operates today (Li Veli), and a horseman for whom equestrian activity brought into his life both joy — he met his wife while riding in the Villa Borghese in Rome — and sorrow, his older brother died after falling from a horse in 1884.

Antonio Cardini, also a biographer of de Viti, discusses de Viti’s life in politics where, among other things, de Viti served nearly twenty years in the Italian parliament as a representative from his home area near Lecce. His political efforts were largely unsuccessful as he attempted to shape Italian policy in a liberal direction by opposing monopoly and supporting free trade. Many of his political writings are collected in Un Trentennio di Lotte Politiche: 1894-1922 [Three Decades of Political Struggle]. In 1922, de Viti resigned his university position rather than sign a fascist loyalty oath, and at this point his political involvement ceased.

De Viti’s third side was as a creative economic theorist. While Pierluigi Ciocca explains in his interview that de Viti made contributions to the theory of banking, there is no doubt that de Viti’s primary scholarly contribution was to the theory of public finance. Indeed, seven of the interviews deal with this facet of de Viti’s scholarship. De Viti’s gift as a creative theorist was displayed in his 1888 book Il Carattere Teorico dell’Economia Finanziaria [The Theoretical Character of Public Finance]. Where public finance had been and still is identified mostly as a normative field of study concerned with setting forth maxims for good statecraft, de Viti sought to locate public finance as an explanatory field that did for collective action what market theory did for individual action.

In his interview, Domenico da Empoli explains that de Viti (1888) set forth a clear extension of the market-theoretic principles of supply and demand to politically organized activity. To be sure, some of de Viti’s creativity was displaced onto others. For instance, Knut Wicksell credited Ugo Mazzola (1890) for doing what de Viti did. More to the point, de Viti did not rework his 1888 book until 1923. In the intervening years, cohorts of students made lithographic copies of his lectures that extended and amplified his initial work. Quite often, someone would incorporate de Viti’s lithographed text into their own texts without attribution.

Matters of historical attribution aside, one can trace a clear lineage from de Viti in 1888 to the subsequent emergence of public choice in the 1960s. In the second-longest interview in the book, Riccardo Faucci summarizes de Viti’s significance within the history of the economics. Faucci mentions that Vilfredo Pareto did not think that public finance could be put on a wholly scientific basis due to discontinuities between fiscal and market phenomena, which Pareto expressed through his distinction between logical and non-logical action, though Pareto also made numerous contributions to public finance. Faucci also explains that de Viti embraced marginalist economics less fully than Maffeo Pantaleoni and his other contemporaries, maintaining closer contact with the classical themes that characterized the work of Francesco Ferrara. I found this claim particularly noteworthy because on several occasions I have asserted that the research program of Virginia political economy associated in particular with James Buchanan is more classical than neoclassical in its analytical orientation.

The book closes with four interviews that examine how de Viti has fared in the United States. Pier Francesco Asso explores significant aspects of de Viti’s American presence, starting with his having an American wife, continuing with his visits to the U.S. on two occasions, and culminating in the translation in 1936 of First Principles of Public Finance. This translation was arranged by the anti-Keynesian theorist Arthur Marget and was translated by his wife, Edith Pavlo Marget. The appearance of the English translation created intense controversy.

That controversy was broached by the interviewer in the final three interviews, with Steven G. Medema, Richard E. Wagner [the present reviewer], and James M. Buchanan. The interview with Buchanan is particularly noteworthy. Buchanan recounts that he became aware of de Viti during his student days at Chicago in the late 1940s, and explains how this awareness was an inspiration for his spending a year in Italy early in his academic career. Buchanan further explains that that year immersed in the Italian literature and culture had a decisive influence on the scholarly path he subsequently developed.

Manuela Mosca has crafted a book that can be read on multiple levels depending on a reader’s interests in the material. One can read it to obtain glimpses into the construction of a well-lived life, which de Viti did amid tragedies and failed dreams. One can also read this book for insight into how a significant economic theorist engaged in political activity without losing sight of his theoretical side, and yet finding himself out of step with many of the strong currents that were in play at the time. And one can read it for insight into the activities of a creative scholar who sought to bring political phenomena within the analytical purview of economic science. Manuela Mosca has assembled a book that illuminates nicely all three elements of de Viti’s life and times.

Richard E. Wagner [rwagner@gmu.edu] is Harris Professor of Economics at George Mason University. His most recent books are Politics as a Peculiar Business: Insights from a Theory of Entangled Political Economy (2016), Deficits, Debt, and Democracy: Wrestling with Tragedy on the Fiscal Commons (2012), and Mind, Society and Human Action: Time and Knowledge in a Theory of Social Economy (2010).

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Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII