A 'Short Treatise' on the Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1613)

A 'Short Treatise' on the Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1613)


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Although no less an authority than Joseph A. Schumpeter proclaimed that Antonio Serra was the world's first economist, he remains something of a dark horse of economic historiography. 'A 'Short Treatise' on the Wealth and Poverty of Nations' presents, for the first time, an English translation of Serra's 'Breve Trattato' (1613), one of the most famous tracts in the history of political economy. The treatise is accompanied by Sophus A. Reinert's illuminating introduction which explores its historical context, reception, and relevance for current concerns.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780857289735
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 07/01/2011
Series: Economic Ideas that Built Europe
Edition description: First
Pages: 270
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Antonio Serra (f.1613) was a Neapolitan lawyer and political economist.

Sophus A. Reinert is Research Fellow in History at Gonville & Caius College, University of Cambridge, UK. He has previously held fellowships at the University of Erfurt, Germany and at the Fondazione Luigi Einaudi in Turin, Italy.  He has written widely on the history of political economy in journals and edited volumes.

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A Short Treatise on the Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1613)

By Antonio Serra, Sophus A. Reinert, Jonathan Hunt

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2011 Sophus A. Reinert
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85728-973-5


When Luigi Einaudi — eminent economist, bibliophile, winemaker, and future President of the Italian Republic — first entered the house of the philosopher Benedetto Croce in Naples, it was to ask him a question of the utmost importance. The year was 1931, Benito Mussolini was in power, and, like all university professors, Einaudi was faced with a vexing predicament: should he swear loyalty to fascism, or resign from academia? Curiously, their subsequent correspondence gives no indication of what Croce advised, though one can surmise that he feared a Diaspora of the righteous would leave the field free for fascism. In fact, for various reasons, only fifteen or so of more than twelve hundred academics stepped down, and Einaudi was among those remaining to fight the regime from within. But the Einaudi-Croce correspondence is nonetheless interesting. Rather than ruminating on the ruinous state of affairs, their letters were devoted to a centuries-old economic treatise. Croce admitted he had been too absorbed by the political argument at hand during their meeting to take notice, but his daughter Elena perceived the 'admiration and desire' in Einaudi's eyes upon seeing a redoubtable little volume by the Calabrian Antonio Serra in the family library. Croce immediately and characteristically asked the historian Fausto Nicolini's son Benedetto to send his personal copy, which Einaudi joyfully accepted as 'a sign of comfort and absolution' for the difficult choice he felt forced to make. Beyond its sheer collectible value, there was something about the book he received which soothed his mind, something which, across the centuries, spoke to the problems of scholarship, of oppression, and of economic depression with which he himself was struggling.

Given Einaudi's interests, his reaction was not surprising. The book he received, which here sees its first full English translation, remains the highlight of an already extraordinary collection of economic literature housed at the Fondazione Luigi Einaudi in Turin, and is one of the most legendary in the history of economic thought: Antonio Serra's Breve trattato delle cause, che possono far abbondare li regni d'oro, & argento, dove non sono miniere, or, A Short Treatise on the Causes that Can Make Kingdoms Abound in Gold and Silver even in the Absence of Mines.3 Only ten copies are currently known to exist, though until the nineteenth century it was believed that only one had survived the ravages of time, a single volume which, as Croce put it, was passed down the generations like a 'lampada di vita' — like a 'lamp of life'. Still today, the book is a Holy Grail of economics, gripping the imagination of economic bibliophiles for its extraordinary contents as well as for its mythical rarity.

Serra's treatise was published in Naples in 1613 by Lazzaro Scorriggio, one of the most audacious and, it seems, most prescient printers of his age. Not only was he responsible for what perhaps was the first Italian edition of Matteo Ricci's celebrated account of the Jesuit mission to China, but he also published Foscarini's defence of Copernican Heliocentrism, which was put on the Church's Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the List of Prohibited Books, 16 years before Galileo's Dialogo saw the light of day. And Serra's volume was no less pioneering. At the very dawn of the modern economy, Serra wrote a penetrating analysis of the causes of the wealth and poverty of nations. But though his contribution to the history of political economy truly was epochal, and the way in which he formulated his insights theoretically extraordinary, it must be said that he was hardly the first to attempt such a thing. Indeed, he explicitly drew on past theories and practices to weave his argument.

All across Europe, observers had begun to express preferences regarding the structure of their home economies at least since the opening years of the sixteenth century. More specifically, common theories of economic analysis emerged in different regional and national contexts by which writers argued that there was something revolutionary about the manufacturing process, and that one should specialize in competitively importing raw materials and exporting finished goods. Thomas Starkey had observed already around 1530 that England should manufacture its raw wool before exporting it as well as limit the import of luxuries, remarking generally that English workers only could find employment and English merchandice only could conquer the continent with 'the helpe of the prynce'. John Hales followed suit in 1565 (published 1581) when he noted the reasons why Venice was 'that moste flourishing citie at these daies of al Europe'. For studying their successful example one realized that, as far as economic matters were concerned, Englishmen were pretty daft: 'what groseness of wits be we of', he lamented, 'that will suffer our owne commodities to go and set straungers a worke, and then buy them againe at theyr handes'? In other words, where Venice and other Italian city-states imported raw materials and exported manufactured goods, England was doing the exact opposite, losing out both ways. In the long run, Hales maintained, it would be 'better for us to buy our owne though they were dearer', because only this could establish a national manufacture necessary to compete in the international economy.

In Spain, Luis Ortiz similarly explained in 1558 why the Spanish Empire, in spite of the immense treasures of the New World, would suffer from thinking oceans of precious metals could serve as a substitute for domestic manufacturing. An economy, he in effect argued, could not prosper on raw materials, even if said raw materials were gold and silver. And in France Barthélemy de Laffemas, Controller General of Commerce under Henry IV, published a series of pamphlets around the turn of the sixteenth century encouraging the development of domestic industries. This, he made clear, was the only way of escaping dependence on, and subsequent subjection to, foreign powers. It was on the basis of this that the phrase 'political economy' first came to be used in the title of a book, when Antoine de Montchrétien published his voluminous 1615 Traicté de économie politique, or Treatise on Political Economy, arguing that France should emulate English and Dutch manufactures. 'Our life', he maintained, 'is almost entirely conducted by example'. In Germany, Veit Ludwig von Seckendorff echoed them all after returning from a formative sojourn in Holland in 1665, stating that states 'act[ed] wrongly in exporting and selling raw materials only to pay a higher price taking them back as manufactures once people have worked them'.

Political thinking about economic concerns in the early modern period was an inherently international, comparative endeavour. As Cardinal Richelieu put it in his Political Testament, 'Natural reason teaches man to pay attention to his neighbours', and only 'Mediocre minds limit their thoughts to the space of the States in which they are born'. But, as a secondary literature obsessed with precursorism has repeatedly noted, Serra remains astonishing within this wider European tradition of analyzing the consequences of the manufacturing revolution for having explained the underlying mechanisms of the modern economy as they first became visible. From Starkey to Seckendorff, from London to Gotha, it was obvious to European observers that there was a clear relation between a country's wealth and power on the one hand and the economic activities which it pursued on the other. Only in late Renaissance Italy, however, and only as their own stars were waning, did thinkers truly attempt to theorize the reasons for this, the nature of the manufacturing revolution and the mechanisms by which political economies rose and fell. The core of Serra's analysis was simple but powerful: the realms of manufacturing and agriculture were subject to different economic laws. In manufacturing, an increased volume of production would lead to falling unit costs: 'production can be multiplied ..., and at a proportionately lower cost'. In agriculture, Serra indicates, the opposite effect would tend to occur. The distinction Serra made is now known as that between increasing and diminishing returns to scale. The theory, in short, that different economic activities have different potentials for creating wealth, and that what a firm, region, or nation produces has profound consequences for its material welfare and competitive viability alike. This, furthermore, was not simply an off-handed remark in Serra's treatise, but an integral part of what in effect was a 'model' of economic development, a set of carefully chosen abstractions explaining why some parts of Europe were rich and others poor.

Not surprisingly, the Breve trattato has affected its select readers as few comparable works have in the intervening centuries. The eighteenth- century philosopher Ferdinando Galiani, the first to mention Serra in print after his mentor Bartolomeo Intieri (ostensibly the 'father' of the Neapolitan Enlightenment) discovered a copy in Naples, thought him the father of political economy as a field of scientific inquiry, wished to republish his treatise in the 1750s, and paraphrased his insight about increasing returns in his best-selling 1770 Dialogues sur le commerce des blés, or Dialogues on the Grain Trade. Attacking an influential 'sect' of French economists known as the Physiocrats, who argued that only agriculture could produce a 'surplus' of wealth, Galiani rehearsed Serra's argument regarding the power of industry: 'And voilà the great difference between manufactures and agriculture. Manufactures increase with the number of arms you put in, while agriculture decreases'. Galiani's colleague Antonio Genovesi, Italy's first professor of political economy, also followed Serra's idiom when he explained the causes of England's wealth, noting that manufactures allowed it to 'multiply wealth' and by that establish dominion over countries only producing raw materials. Genovesi's intellectual heir Giuseppe Palmieri cherished the copy of Serra he had been bequeathed by his predecessor, the only one then known, and passed it on to Francesco Saverio Salfi, a Freemason and political theorist. The latter styled Serra the consummate Neapolitan — even Italian — republican patriot in his 1802 Elogio di Antonio Serra, or Eulogy of Antonio Serra, and even wrote despondent pieces of poetry in Serra's voice. Salfi's copy finally ended up in the hands of his friend Baron Pietro Custodi, who broke all logic of chronology by initiating his fifty-volume collection of Italian economic writings, aimed at animating 'patriots' and 'zealots of the common good', with the Breve trattato in 1803, ahead of even earlier texts like Gasparo Scaruffi's 1582 Alitinonfo.

Whatever one might think of precursorism and the endless search for 'origins' and 'antecedents' of ideas or practices that are currently in vogue (what Quentin Skinner has called 'the mythology of prolepsis'), it remains undeniable that Serra's work has led an extraordinary afterlife. The owners of the scarce treatise have been spellbound by it, and it truly passed, in Croce's apt phrase, like a 'lamp of life' through the hands of Italy's greatest political economists from Intieri to Einaudi. At times the Breve trattato was hailed as the founding text of economics, at times as the first to have analyzed the vexed 'Southern Question' in Italy, the question of why the 'South' of the peninsula has failed to catch up with the 'North' in the wake of national unification, and to have offered practicable solutions to the dilemmas of dependency and underdevelopment. Serra was even praised as a beacon of pride for the newly forged Italian nation in 1870, at the height of the movement for national unification known as the Risorgimento. But his influence reached farther afield than that. Serra's ideas were rediscovered and harnessed in the nineteenth century by Karl Marx, who found a source of 'surplus value' in increasing returns, and by Friedrich List and Wilhelm Roscher when they argued that Germany should follow England's path to industrialization. Particularly, they drew on Serra's insights about the interdependence of industrial might and political life. It has been argued that Serra invented the 'Industrial System' and that he 'spelled out' the 'economic consequences' of 'Machiavellianism' for the world; and the illustrious Harvard economist Joseph A. Schumpeter, author of one the greatest histories of economic analysis ever undertaken, concluded that Serra should 'be credited with having been the first to compose a scientific treatise ... on Economic Principles and Policy'.

But on the basis of this distinguished readership, the historiography of the Breve trattato is surprisingly anaemic. The book is often mentioned in passing in the more thorough historical surveys of economic thought, but is seldom given more than a few sentences or, at best, a brief paragraph. In fact, Serra's treatise remains something of an 'insider'-text, more prone to being discussed after hours by bibliophiles and book-dealers in Naples or on the Rive Gauche than in undergraduate classrooms. The purpose of the present translation, and of this introduction, is to remedy the situation by introducing the Breve trattato to a wider audience. For apart from being an extremely sophisticated example of late Renaissance economic thought, a fruitful field of analysis which only recently has come to the forefront of historiographical debates, it was also of foundational importance, analytically and culturally, for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century political economy in Italy and elsewhere. And it is a fascinating window both onto the economic and political situation of early modern Naples and onto the wider European debates on the nature of good government and the means of achieving the good life at the time for the population at large.

This introduction will explicate these points, at times in some detail. First, it will introduce what little we know of Serra and his Breve trattato, considering the surviving archival evidence and what the book tells us of his life and aims. Then, it will consider Serra in the intellectual context of political and economic thought in late Renaissance Italy, discussing his traditional indebtedness to canonical arguments as well as the innovative points of divergence for which he would later be lionized. This will require a longer discussion of the emergence of a commercial ethos in Italy in relation to the cultural heritage of sacred and secular history, both of which Serra actively engaged with in his treatise. Thirdly, the introduction will place Serra in his historical context of crisis and destitution in Naples, an ancient city often dominated by foreign powers, to better explain the specific points of his analysis and the material world to which he reacted. Fourthly, it will analyze the Breve trattato itself in light of its different contexts to explain the multi-layered model it theorized for economic development, focusing particularly on its insistence on the importance of manufactures and sound politics in the process of material melioration. Fifthly, it will examine the text's complex historiography and its uses by economists, historians, and politicians to explain why the Breve trattato became such a symbolic work in the cultural history of political economy — and how it still might be illuminating today.

A Man, his Book, and the Renaissance

So who was Antonio Serra, and what was his seductive message? Unfortunately, very few facts concerning Serra and his life are available to us, and the most certain of them may be derived solely from the frontispiece of the Breve trattato. A native of Cosenza, a pre-Roman city in the Calabria region of the Spanish- dominated Southern Italian Kingdom of Naples, he was a doctor, probably of law. A nineteenth-century local history of Cosenza refers to an unspecified and possibly apocryphal 'old little manuscript chronicle' by which Antonio Serra is shown to be the son of one Ludovico Serra, a rather powerful lawyer who, in the 1530s, had apparently composed a work entitled Speculationes novae. Furthermore, it claims that Serra the younger's formation was in 'law, but also philosophy and mathematics', and that he 'very soon dedicated himself to the study of the Kingdom's economy'. Nothing is really known of his activities, but the Breve trattato reveals that he intended to write a book on the Forza dell'ignoranza, or the Power of Ignorance. A notarial contract dating from 1591 suggests that Serra could have been the owner of an estate of five 'moggia', roughly the equivalent of 1.6 hectares, or 4.2 acres, with 'houses and mulberry trees' that provided him with 80 ducats per annum in rent, twice the salary of a University Professor at the time.


Excerpted from A Short Treatise on the Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1613) by Antonio Serra, Sophus A. Reinert, Jonathan Hunt. Copyright © 2011 Sophus A. Reinert. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements; Introduction; Critical Bibliography; A Note on the Text; Antonio Serra, ‘Breve trattato delle cause, che possono far abbondare li regni d’oro, e argento, dove non sono miniere (1613)’; Antonio Serra, ‘A Short Treatise on the Causes that Can Make Kingdoms Abound in Gold and Silver even in the Absence of Mines (1613)’, translated by Jonathan Hunt; Analytical Index

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