Essays on the Intellectual History of Economics

Essays on the Intellectual History of Economics

by Jacob Viner, Douglas A. Irwin

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Ranking among the most distinguished economists and scholars of his generation, Jacob Viner is best remembered for his work in international economics and in the history of economic thought. Mark Blaug, in his Great Economists Since Keynes (Cambridge, 1985) remarked that Viner was "quite simply the greatest historian of economic thought that ever lived." Never before,


Ranking among the most distinguished economists and scholars of his generation, Jacob Viner is best remembered for his work in international economics and in the history of economic thought. Mark Blaug, in his Great Economists Since Keynes (Cambridge, 1985) remarked that Viner was "quite simply the greatest historian of economic thought that ever lived." Never before, however, have Viner's important contributions to the intellectual history of economics been collected into one convenient volume. This book performs this valuable service to scholarship by reprinting Viner's classic essays on such topics as Adam Smith and laissez-faire, the intellectual history of laissez-faire, and power versus plenty as an objective of foreign policy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Also included are Viner's penetrating and previously unpublished Wabash College lectures. "Jacob Viner was one of the truly great economists of this century as both teacher and scholar. This collection ... covers a wide range with special emphasis on the history of thought. Today's economists will find [the essays] just as thought-provoking and as illuminating as did his contemporaries. They have aged very well indeed."--Milton Friedman, Hoover Institution "Jacob Viner was a great and original economic theorist. What is rarer, Viner was a learned scholar. What is still rarer, Viner was a wise scientist. This new anthology of his writings on intellectual history is worth having in every economist's library--to sample at intervals over the years in the reasoned hope that Viner's wisdom will rub off on the reader and for the pleasure of his writing."--Paul A. Samuelson, MIT "I am frankly jealous of those who will be reading Viner's essays for the first time, marvelling at his learning, amused by his dry wit, instructed by his wisdom. But although I cannot share their joy of discovery, I shall be able to savor the subtleties that emerge from rereading these splendid essays."--George J. Stigler, University of Chicago "This volume will be a treat for the reader who appreciates scholarship, felicitous use of language, and the workings of a great mind. The Wabash lectures are gems, and the introduction by Douglas Irwin contributes significantly to our understanding of Viner's accomplishments."--William J. Baumol, Princeton University/New York University

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"This attractive collection of nineteen of Viner's richest essay efforts concerning the evolution of economists' thinking ... is a rare book, one which anyone who aspires for his mind to be more than an intellectual machine should read, reflect upon, react to, and then decide what he thinks about what some call economic science."Journal of the History of Economic Thought

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Essays on the Intellectual History of Economics

By Jacob Viner, Douglas A. Irwin


Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-04266-4



Delivered at Wabash College, Crawfordsville, Indiana June 1959


Early Attitudes toward Trade and the Merchant

There are surprisingly ancient origins for some of the modern ideas with respect to the nature and functions of trade, domestic and international.

Among the Greek and the Roman philosophers hostile or contemptuous attitudes towards trade and the merchant were common, based in the main on aristocratic and snobbish prejudice, and with no or naive underpinning of economic argument. Thus Aristotle maintained that trade was an unseemly activity for nobles or gentlemen, a "blameable" activity. He insisted that wealth was essential for nobility, but it must be inherited wealth. Wealth was also an essential need of the state, but it should be obtained by piracy or brigandage, and by war for the conquest of slaves, and should be maintained by slave-workers.

It was a commonplace of Greek and Roman thought, destined to be absorbed in the Christian tradition, that trade was either by its inherent nature, or through the temptations it offered to those engaged in it, pervasively associated with fraud and cheating, especially, according to Cicero, if it were "small," or retail trade. Horace decried trade as "unnatural" and "impious."

Foreign trade, or "sea-trade," was especially frowned upon by Cicero as involving in some way danger to the public weal, and by the elder Pliny as resulting in a drain of gold to India, a complaint destined to become a major aspect of mercantilist thought of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The early Christian Fathers on the whole took a suspicious if not definitely hostile attitude toward the trade of the merchant or middleman, as being sinful or conducive to sin, essentially as involving either necessarily or commonly fraud or exploitation or violation of charity. They relied in large part on Biblical texts, as, for instance, the association in Ecclesiasticus, xxvi 29, of trade with sin: "A merchant shall hardly keep himself from doing wrong; and an huckster shall not be freed from sin"; or the New Testament account of the ejection by Jesus of traders from the temple, interpreted as a condemnation of trade itself, and not merely as a condemnation of its practice at a wrong time and in a wrong place. An interesting instance was the emphasis by St. Augustine and others on a verse of the Psalms (LXXI. 15) as mistranslated in the Septuagint, and in the early Latin translations from the Septuagint, to read: "Because I have not known trading, [negotiationem], I will enter into the powers of the Lord."

In obedience to this apparent text, St. Augustine advises: "Let Christians amend themselves; let them not trade." He is troubled, however, and presents with apparently some sympathy the objection of a trader that it is not trading itself but its fraudulent pursuit which is to be condemned and that the trader could not escape the temptation to sin merely by turning to a craft such as shoemaking, where he would be tempted to lie as to when the shoes would be finished and to cheat by poor workmanship. Or if he turned to farming, he might sin by desiring a crop failure so that he could sell from his store at a high price to the famished poor.

For the early Christian Fathers, as for the pagan philosophers, it was the element in trade of the pursuit of a middleman's profit which they found specially objectionable, as demonstrating "avarice," and therefore "sin." St. Augustine referred elsewhere to an actor who told his audience that what they all wished for was the opportunity to buy cheap and sell dear. St. Ambrosius commented that Joshua was able to order the sun to stand still, but that he would have found it a more formidable task to subdue the pursuit of gain. St. Chrysostom, in a passage which was to continue to have influence into the Middle Ages and beyond because of its citation in Gratian's authoritative Decretals, said: "In chasing from the Temple sellers and buyers, the Lord signified the merchant almost never, and even never, can be pleasing to God. That is why no Christian should be a merchant; if he wishes to be one, let him be chased out of the church of God."

Underlying this condemnation of trade was an implicit economic analysis which failed to see any possible counterpart in service to the buyer or the community for the gain of a merchant selling at a higher price than that at which he had bought. This came nearest to being made explicit in a passage of St. Jerome, destined to have a lasting influence: "All riches proceed from sin. No one can gain without another man losing."

"If sin has not been committed by the actual proprietor of wealth, the wealth is the product of sin committed by his ancestors."

As in the case of Cicero and the elder Pliny, a number of the early Christian Fathers found foreign or "sea" trade especially objectionable from a moral point of view. Because sea-trade involved unusual hazards, addiction to it demonstrated a special degree of avarice. Since necessaries were always available nearby, sea trade meant catering to the sinful desire for luxury. Sea trade, moreover, carried with it special moral risks, contamination by contact with pagans, the absence of home discipline and consequently susceptibility to temptation to practice adultery, and so forth.

If these Fathers had been asked, How could society do without middlemen merchants? it seems clear that they would have answered somewhat as follows: In the absence of avarice and of a desire for luxuries, the material needs of society could be met without recourse to middlemen through the practice of subsistence agriculture, or through the exchange on a barter basis or its equivalent of the products of agriculture and of the crafts, or through voluntary sharing of surpluses.

This is, however, only one side of the story of early attitudes towards trade, the side which is familiar to modern scholars and theologians.

There was another trend of thought, important in classical pagan and in early Christian thought, but which has been for the most part overlooked, or assumed to have originated in much later times by modern scholars. This other doctrine substitutes eulogy for condemnation with respect at least to overseas trade. This is the doctrine which has been labelled the doctrine of "Universal economy," a phase of the more general doctrine of the "universalism" of mankind. In its earliest form it is naturalistic, or at least without express supernatural or teleological reference. Thus Euripides, in his Suppliants, makes Theseus say: "Each country provides for itself what its climate refuses to it by maritime expeditions of its vessels." The historian, Florus, in the time of Augustus, says: "Suppress commerce and you tear apart the bonds of the human race." And Plutarch says:

[The sea] has rendered sociable and tolerable our existence which, without this, would have been fierce and without commerce, by making available through mutual assistance what otherwise would have been lacking, and by bringing into existence, through the exchange of goods, community and friendship.

To Libanius, a fourth century professor, although he was a pagan, is probably due a large part of the credit for the entrance of the doctrine into the Christian tradition, to remain a part of it until very recent times. Among his students were at least two of the Christian Fathers, St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom. He seems to have been the first to give the doctrine a theological flavor and thus to make it attractive to the religious-minded. He was the first to give, in germ at least, an express support of the doctrine in terms of what might be regarded as economic analysis. In the 17th Century, Grotius, in stating the doctrine, with due reference to Libanius, made it known to and authoritative for latitudinarian and rationalistic Protestantism, as well as for the Enlightenment in general. Libanius' statement was as follows:

God did not accord all things to all parts of the earth, but he has divided his gifts among different countries, so that peoples should have need one of the other, in order that from their mutual dependence they should be led to maintain society (community) together. Thus He has brought commerce into existence as a means available to all the world of enjoying in common all things wherever they were produced.

The economist will see that if "all things" in this passage of Libanius is interpreted to cover climate, resources, human aptitudes, as well as products, it leads logically to a doctrine of free trade based on international division of labor. In fact, it did over the years undergo such development, and I think the doctrine thus has claims to be the oldest and longest-lived economic doctrine we know of. Its original function in the Christian tradition, however, was not to describe on an objective basis the rationale of economic process, still less, to praise commerce, but instead to serve as evidence of the providential design of the universe, and of the universal brotherhood of man as part of that design. It was only much later, beginning with Grotius, Vittoria, and Suarez, that it was invoked as a support to a legal doctrine of freedom of the seas and of the right of strangers to carry on commerce in all regions—though not necessarily on the basis of what we now call "free trade." It was apparently not until the nineteenth century, when Cobden, for example, insisted that "free trade was the international law of God," that it was invoked in support of the doctrine that all artificial barriers to foreign trade were both morally and economically evil.

None of the Christian Fathers, and none of the medieval scholastics, seem to have noticed the existence side-by-side of these two doctrines apparently completely contradictory of each other, one of which treated commerce as sinful or close to sin, and the other of which treated commerce as one of the temporal instruments by which Providence promoted its benevolent design on behalf of mankind. It would be interesting if an instance could be found of a writer who maintained both doctrines. St. Thomas Aquinas has been credited with the universal economy doctrine, although I have so far failed to find a confirmatory text. What is clear, however, is that, under the influence of Aristotle, St. Thomas does, at times at least, deal suspiciously with trade. At one point, following Aristotle almost word for word with reference to the relation of trade to nobility, he stops short, however, where Aristotle says that trade is "blameable." Trade, Aquinas says, is in itself not virtuous, or evil. It can become licit if directed to a legitimate end, such as maintenance of one's household (as distinguished presumably from pursuit of enrichment); acquisition of means to be used in relief of the poor; and the rendering of a service to the community. At another point, however, he recommends that foreign trade be kept to a minimum, so as not to cater to luxury, so as not to bring dangerous contacts with foreign ideas and customs, and on the metaphysical ground that self-sufficiency and order of moral merit are positively correlated, one of the many instances where the propensity to find a hierarchical ordering of merits or virtue by classes has had only obfuscation as its product.

Later scholastics occasionally expressed hostility to specific effects of or aspects of foreign trade. It was often impracticable to enforce on foreign merchants or on dealers in foreign merchandise the canonist or civil law regulations or percepts with respect to "just price," either because foreigners were not subject to local jurisdiction or because the variability of conditions in foreign trade and the lack of necessary information made ascertainment of the "just" price impossible. Usury was believed to be specially associated with foreign trade transactions, concealed in foreign exchange operations or in bottomry contracts. Some of the scholastics were uneasy about marine insurance, since it seemed to involve rejection of the decrees of Providence. With the advent of Colonial expansion, there was associated with foreign trade systematic cruelty to and enslavement of natives, the slave-trade, and the notorious avarice of some of the conquistadors and colonial merchants. All of this gave concern to some of the scholastics.

On the other hand, the Renaissance, especially in its Italian manifestations, brought new attitudes with respect to the dignity of the merchant, his usefulness to society, and the general legitimacy of the moderate pursuit of wealth through commerce, provided the merchant who thus attained riches used it with taste, with liberality, and with concern for the welfare and the magnificence of his city. Perhaps most significant, there were now for the first time great merchants, powerful, cultured, educated, and able and willing to speak out effectively on behalf of their role in society. To some extent, there was a corresponding change of attitude on the part of some of the leading Italian scholastics of the period, notably in Florence and in Venice, reflecting, no doubt, the influence of a new kind of environment where merchants were also the rulers, the aristocrats, the patrons of the Church and of the arts, and able spokesmen for their own interpretation of the place of commerce and of wealth in a well-governed society. In general, however, the theologians continued to regard commerce, the pursuit of gain, and business activity in general, as dangerous to morality and to religion, and to be uncertain of or indifferent to their role in contributing to the temporal welfare of mankind.

No one has succeeded in tracing any link between scholastic theology or economics and mercantilism, and some scholars of repute have positively denied any link in the sense that scholastic doctrine provided the mercantilists with any elements of doctrine, or that any important scholastics expounded mercantilist doctrine themselves. In general, the universalistic as distinguished from nationalist orientation of the Catholic Church and its traditions, and the traditional theological suspicion of the merchant and of commerce, kept Catholic doctrine free from important entanglements with mercantilism.

On one point, however, there was an intellectual link, fortuitous but nevertheless of some practical importance, between the economic doctrines of the Church and mercantilism. The doctrine that one man's gain is another man's loss which some theologians had expounded was taken over by mercantilism and transformed into the doctrine that one country's gain was another country's loss, as well as into its converse, that one country's loss was another country's gain. Out of this doctrine evolved the doctrines of the essential rivalry, instead of harmony, between the economic interests of nations, and the belief that the use of power to gain wealth, including its use to impoverish rival countries, was a rational and often more effective program for the promotion of a country's economic welfare than the pursuit of efficiency in production and the sharing between countries through peaceful competition of the mutual benefits of friendly trade. There was here, of course, the sharpest of conflicts between the doctrine of the universal economy and mercantilist doctrine. The doctrine of the universal economy, as I have pointed out, had been absorbed into Christian doctrine.

It was not, however, until the period of the Enlightenment, and largely under secular auspices, that it was used in a frontal attack against mercantilism. Meanwhile, mercantilists who could not ignore the doctrine of universal economy were ingenious enough to find ways of invoking it in defense of nationalistic restrictions on commerce. For instance, since Providence had assigned to England wool as its special resource, it must have intended also that the processing of the wool should be an English vocation; it was therefore in keeping with, rather than in conflict with divine will, that by export prohibitions and other devices, England should prevent its wool from going abroad in its raw form. One should never underestimate the ingenuity of the human mind in finding bad uses for good arguments—or good uses for bad arguments—and many an originator of an idea, whether good or bad, would have been astounded and shocked if he could have foreseen the strange uses to which it was destined to be put. The doctrine of a universal economy provides only one example of many.


Excerpted from Essays on the Intellectual History of Economics by Jacob Viner, Douglas A. Irwin. Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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