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Translating Empire: Emulation and the Origins of Political Economy

Author(s):Reinert, Sophus A.
Reviewer(s):Nakhimovsky, Isaac

Published by EH.Net (July 2013)
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Sophus A. Reinert, Translating Empire: Emulation and the Origins of Political Economy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011. xiii + 438 pp. $55 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-674-06151-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Isaac Nakhimovsky, Faculty of History, University of Cambridge.

This prize-winning book presents an important new account of the emergence of political economy as a discipline in the eighteenth century. It mounts a strong challenge to histories of economic thought that limit their attention to highly abstract treatises on political economy, particularly those that seek to trace the emergence of principled arguments for free trade. Reinert shows that intensifying competition between states formed the backdrop for eighteenth-century reflection on political economy. The book draws attention to a wide-ranging practical literature that focused on the imperatives of economic survival in a hostile international environment. The claim Reinert develops is that the process by which such practical economic knowledge began to be formalized and institutionalized cannot be understood without appreciating the significance of interstate rivalry. Reinert shows that this process can be illuminated by tracking eighteenth-century translations of publications on political economy. As he vividly shows, such translations were much more than mere renderings in foreign languages: understood as creative vehicles for the transmission, evaluation, and appropriation of economic knowledge, these translations themselves represent an important facet of international competition. They were among the means by which France sought to catch up to Britain, and by which lesser powers across Europe sought to avoid becoming the victims of economic imperialism. The formalization and institutionalization of political economy, Reinert?s book suggests, took place in this politically charged and mediated fashion.

An expansive introductory chapter illustrates the potential of this approach to the history of political economy through a statistical analysis of translations in the magnificent Kress Collection (covering economic literature before 1850) at the Baker Library of Harvard Business School, where Reinert is an Assistant Professor. The heart of the book, however, is an elegantly framed narrative revealing how, over the course of the eighteenth century, John Cary?s 1695 Essay on the State of England was thoroughly transformed by its French, Italian, and German translators. The 1745 English edition of Cary?s slim essay became a two volume French treatise published in 1755 by Georges-Marie Butel-Dumont, an associate of Vincent de Gournay; this in turn became a three volume work by the famed Neapolitan professor Antonio Genovesi in 1757-58; and finally, elements of all three of these editions were recombined in truncated form in a German edition of 1788, prepared at the instigation of a former Danish official by a Saxon political economist named Christian August Wichmann. As Reinert shows to great effect, Cary?s essay was vastly expanded and systematized over the course of its ?grand tour? to Paris, Naples and Leipzig, and in the process what began as a Bristol merchant?s ?primer of economic imperialism? was transformed into a ?general guidebook for escaping de facto colonial dependencies? (p. 203).

Cary?s essay, long cited as a classic statement of mercantilism, is revealed by Reinert to be a practical guide for how England could secure its urban manufacturing base as the engine of its economic development. Cary?s aim was to explain how England could remain at war with France without destroying the foundations of its wealth. Resisting the threat of Catholic absolutism, according to Cary, required England to have an economy powered by export-oriented manufacturing, even if this meant brutally suppressing the industrialization of potential low-wage competitors in Ireland as well as on the continent. Cary?s debate over Ireland with William Molyneux already prompted him to attempt giving his essay a more scientific cast. However, this process began in earnest when Butel-Dumont injected his revised and updated version of Cary?s essay into 1750s French debates about how to respond to England?s economic success. In the spirit of Gournay?s project to build up public knowledge of political economy in France, Butel-Dumont provided the essay with an impressive new bibliographic apparatus, but the most ambitious conceptual transformation of Cary?s essay was undertaken in Naples. From Genovesi?s perspective, Cary?s Anglican republican vision of an ?honest hive? was indistinguishable from Mandevillian atheism. It pointed to a historical model of cyclical decline and fall, which would condemn Naples to becoming an English colonial dependency. For Genovesi, avoiding this result required reworking Cary?s theoretical starting point and equipping his conjectural history of society with a stronger providential purpose. The final reformatting of Cary?s essay by Wichmann was intended for a Cameralist audience, whom Reinert compellingly places in a new light, describing Cameralism as fundamentally concerned with the problem of how to respond to the rise of maritime empires despite not having access to their superior imperial technologies.

Reinert draws two far-reaching conclusions from this impressively erudite investigation into the fate of Cary?s essay. The first has to do with the importance of manufacturing for England?s rise, which Reinert develops into a full-throated attack on ?the equality assumption? of neo-classical economics. Against James Buchanan?s assumption of ?constant returns to scale of production over all ranges of output,? (p. 82) Reinert claims that manufacturing industry enjoyed increasing returns to scale that could not be matched by agriculture. He traces this insight back to a pioneering early-seventeenth-century treatise by Antonio Serra that Genovesi later studied and that Reinert has recently translated into English. Cary?s eighteenth-century translators had no doubt that England?s great success was the product of an ?exceedingly conscious policy? favoring industrialization (p. 202). To forego such a policy was to submit to a fate of colonial dependency; perhaps the most provocative suggestion in Reinert?s book is that the rise of free-trade doctrines and their subsequent canonization can be attributed to English efforts to suppress foreign competition. Reinert?s fundamental point is that a history of doctrines of free trade yields at best na?ve dogmas and may even serve as a mask for economic imperialism. A more realistic political economy for our own times, in his view, requires a more realistic historical vision.

At the same time, Reinert draws out a second major insight from his history of Cary?s essay: all of Cary?s translators strove to purge his essay of what they regarded as his toxic variety of patriotism. Cary had equated English prosperity with the defeat and impoverishment of its rivals. His translators sought to substitute this ?jealousy of trade? with a more cosmopolitan vision that allowed for the possibility of ?emulation? or ?noble competition,? but without resorting to an agrarian utopianism. In eighteenth-century terms, they were for Colbertism without Machiavellism (p. 176): they entertained a vision of how a world of competitively industrializing states could be stabilized. In addition to mounting a powerful realist critique of free trade dogma, then, Reinert also advances recent reinterpretations of Enlightenment optimism in terms of a search for non-lethal forms of competition, and opens up a fascinating new prospect on the development of the discipline of political economy. His account goes a long way toward explaining why it was that the transformation of English practical economic experience into a systematic theory of political economy initially took place not in England itself, but in Ireland, Scotland, and continental Europe.

Isaac Nakhimovsky is author of The Closed Commercial State: Perpetual Peace and Commercial Society from Rousseau to Fichte (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011).

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Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):17th Century
18th Century