Tuesday, May 24, 2016

I Confess, Graunt Didn't Invent Economics...

Aristotle did. As Philip Kreager reminded me:
Historians of economics have for some time treated his [Aristotle's] writings as formative, even though relevant passages in the Politics and Ethics amount to only a few pages.
Wait. There's more:
In the Politics, however, population is a recurring topic, extensively discussed and integral to the overall argument. "The first part of a state's equipment," Aristotle says, "is a body of men, and we must consider both how many they ought to be and with what natural qualities,"
The almost obsessive focus on proportionality I noted in Graunt and Locke is no proof of Graunt's influence on Locke. The proportional view was central to Aristotle's Politics and everybody in early modern humanism "up to and including Adam Smith" was doing Aristotle. You didn't have to read Aristotle. The commentaries on Aristotle were ubiquitous. For Aristotle,
The logic of proportional versus numerical relationships also describes the economy of the household in relation to its size, and this in turn shapes the wider demography of constituent groups. Oikos, the household, is the root of oikonomia, the art of household management, from which we derive the modern term "economics."
What Graunt did contribute was a brilliant synthesis of humanist Aristotelianism with the techniques of merchant bookkeeping.
Graunt's work brilliantly synthesized humanist methods of natural history and rhetorical communication that were basic to Aristotelianism with techniques of merchant bookkeeping in which population totals are treated as open or relative accounting balances, rather than closed aggregates; his method arose as a direct response to the need to calculate balances in the body politic.
So no, Graunt didn't invent economics. He did invent the science of population statistics, though, and thus laid the foundation for modern social sciences. As for Graunt's contribution relative to Petty's, Walter Wilcox aptly summed up my own impression, "To the trained reader Graunt writes statistical music; Petty is like a child playing with a new musical toy which occasionally yields a bit of harmony."


rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

Actually Xenophon is probably the first, a Socratic dialoguer before Aristotle, and almost certainly the first to use the term "oeconomicos" in its sense of household economics, as Aritstotle did. Xenophon provided an initial discussion of the division of labor, although certainly Aristotle went far beyond Xenophon. But to the extent there is an inventor using the word, Xenophon beat Aristotle to the punch.

Sandwichman said...

Ha ha ba, Barkley!

You seem to suggest that some historical wrong has been committed by those 17th century humanists following Aristotle instead of Xenophon. Offhand, I do not think you have made the case, ancient as Xenophon is.

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

This is not a case of Xenophon versus Aristotle, more like Aristotle followed Xenophon and absorbed him. Just a question of who really got it going, who turned oikos nomos (that is it), which literally means "household management" in ancient Greece into applying to discussions of what we now think of as economics, such as the question of the division of labor, and Xenophon is the guy who started it, only to be followed by and expanded on by Aristotle.

Sandwichman said...


You appear to think that what matters here is who was first, who gets credit. It's OK if that's what you care about but that is not why I am writing about Graunt and Aristotle. What I am concerned with is the undoing the muffling and misrepresentation of a valid and important perspective by generations of polemicists who neither respected nor understood the arguments they were castigating. I couldn't give a flying fuck whether Xenophon or Aristotle was "first" or even whether Petty wrote Graunt's book, as some claimed.

"...if there is but a certain proportion of work to be done..." raises an important issue, from an Aristotelian perspective and to denounce that issue as the fallacious assumption of a "fixed amount of work" suppresses a valid concern about proportionality and replaces it with a vulgar -- and I use the term vulgar advisedly -- preoccupation with aggregates.

I apologize if my rhetorical hook about "inventing economics" has led you to believe that this is all about who takes the prize for being first. That is not what it is about. It is about the substance of the arguments.

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

Fine, I know, S-man. I am notoriously anal about many things. I have been a journal editor for well over a decade, and journal editors are notorious for such tendencies, and I have them, with some of this having to do with References being accurate. This obsession led to me becoming a historian of economic thought, basically because indeed, you are right, I worry about who is before whom and should be properly recognized.

So, Sandwichman, we agree, I am a ridiculously pathetically anal obsessive about priorities. Such obsessions probably just distract from more important issues. I throw ashes on my head and weep for my sins in the corner, alone and unloved, (sob!).

Sandwichman said...

Alright, Barkley, enough with the sackcloth serenade. But here's a morsel I dug up for you to chew on:

M.I. Finley, “ARISTOTLE AND ECONOMIC ANALYSIS” Past & Present, No. 47, May, 1970.

"Even as observation, furthermore, Xenophon's remarks do not merit the accolades they have received. As Schumpeter pointed out, economics 'constitutes a particularly difficult case' in any study of the origins of a 'science' because:

“'common-sense knowledge goes in this field much farther relatively to such scientific knowledge as we have been able to achieve, than does common-sense knowledge in almost any other field. The layman's knowledge that rich harvests are associated with low prices of foodstuffs or that division of labour increases the efficiency of the productive process are obviously prescientific and it is absurd to point to such statements in old writings as if they embodied discoveries.'

"The key for antiquity rests not with Xenophon or Plato but with Aristotle. It is agreed on all sides that only Aristotle offered the rudiments of analysis; hence histories of economic doctrine regularly feature him at the beginning. 'The essential difference' between Plato and Aristotle in this respect, writes Schumpeter, 'is that an analytic intention, which may be said (in a sense) to have been absent from Plato's mind, was the prime mover of Aristotle's. This is clear from the logical structure of his arguments'."

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

Oh dear, more sackloth and ashes for me. Schumpeter has said that Aristotle is the real founder, and Xenophon's use of a term literally meaning "household management" to discuss the role of the division of labor in the broader economy was just "common sense," something that applies to Adam Smith's discussion as well, I am sure. Shame on me.

Sandwichman said...

I don't really see the point of all the sarcasm, Barkley. You made some disparaging comments about the argument I was presenting and I replied with arguments and evidence in support of my case. It doesn't mean that you are wrong; it just means that I am not wrong.

Schumpeter, by the way, was full of shit about a lot of stuff. Finley didn't cite him as "final authority" and I don't take Finley's analysis as final authority. His article, by the way, concludes that Aristotle was not doing economic analysis (but neither was Xenophon).