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Economists in Parliament in the Liberal Age (1848-1920)

Author(s):Augello, Massimo M.
Guidi, Marco E.L.
Reviewer(s):Barnett, Vincent

Published by EH.NET (October 2006)


Massimo M. Augello and Marco E.L. Guidi, editors, Economists in Parliament in the Liberal Age (1848-1920). Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2005. xviii + 315 pp. $100/?55 (cloth), ISBN: 0-7546-3965-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Vincent Barnett, Centre for Russian and East European Studies, Birmingham University.

This book is a major part of the results of a long-term project on the academic institutionalization of economics as a discipline. According to the editors, the period chosen for investigation — 1848-1920 — represents a period of crucial change in the subject under consideration, witnessing for example the spread of classical economics and the founding of associations devoted to propagating free trade ideas. In particular, they argue that classical economics implied a precise program of institutional reforms aimed at transforming the attitudes of government vis-?-vis economic regulation. It also involved the spread of economic ideas and the attempted enlightenment of public opinion on relevant topics. With these particular points highlighted, the emphasis on the role and effect of economists in parliament is explained as following naturally from the themes that are selected for examination. In terms of goals, the editors explain that their aim was to stimulate more detailed research on the relationship between economics and politics and on the consequences of the political commitments displayed by economists.

One aspect of the book worthy of praise is the wide range of national case-studies that forms the bulk of the book. Most are European (Spain, Britain, Italy, Germany, Portugal, Belgium, Greece and France) but two are not (Japan and the U.S.). Each chapter is brimming with detailed information about the particular economists who played a role in their respective parliaments, which will be of significant use to those investigating related issues in more detail. For example, Roger Backhouse charts twenty-five economists who entered the British parliament between 1848 and 1920, including thirteen as Whigs and Liberals, three as Radicals and six as Conservatives and Liberal-Unionists. Backhouse notes that, with the exception of J.S. Mill, prominent theorists were conspicuous by their absence in this area of activity. Explaining the observed decline in the number of economists in the British parliament in the second half of the nineteenth century, Backhouse cites the poor quality of raw materials on the supply side, with few quality candidates passing through the Cambridge route. Economic theory itself underwent significant change, with the ‘marginal revolution’ coinciding with increased emphasis on the investigation of individual behavior. Backhouse concludes that the role of economists in Parliament was greatest when political economy itself chimed with political and religious arguments for desired economic policies such as free trade.

The introduction by the editors brings out various national contrasts to good effect. Reading through the chapters, the contrast between Britain and Germany is particularly striking, albeit not that unexpected. As outlined by Harald Hagemann and Matthais Rosch, prominent historical political economists in Germany like Bruno Hildebrand were openly hostile to the British classical school, and Hildebrand played a significant role in the foundation of governmental statistical offices. However, in this chapter the reader also learns that at the University of Munich, F.B.W. von Hermann laid the foundations for a German brand of classical economics. Hermann represented the electoral district of Munich in the Frankfurt National Assembly. On a different plane of contrast, the chapter on the American anomaly by Bradley Bateman asks why there were no economists in the U.S. Congress in the nineteenth century (with the single exception of F.A. Walker). Possible answers provided include lack of interest and the dominance of a liberal ‘stand back’ conception of the state. The chapter by the two editors (from the University of Pisa) on the Italian case stresses the importance of the political commitments of economists to their perceived roles in parliament, and explores the idea of political economy as a ‘science of the statesman or legislator’ that arose after Italian unification. In general the importance of national context comes through in all the case-studies that are presented.

In evaluation it is possible to say that this book is an excellent contribution to understanding the role played by economists in the parliaments of more developed countries. The scholarship is impressive and the comparative approach yields many insights. However, the book is weighted more towards the empirical documenting of the topic, rather than an in-depth exploration of the influence of currents of economic theory on the policies adopted within governmental institutions. Hence historians of economics with a penchant for the ‘internal’ history of the evolution of doctrines might be a little disappointed. Similarly the relationship between the political beliefs of economists and their economics is not fully investigated on the intellectual plane, more in terms of tracing policy links and party affiliations. But in terms of exploring the context of the role of economists in the wider world, this book can be recommended as a valuable contribution to the field.

Vincent Barnett is the author of A History of Russian Economic Thought (London: Routledge, 2005).


Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII