The Analysis of Interest and the History of Economic Thought

By Walter, Ryan | Parergon, July 2011 | Go to article overview

The Analysis of Interest and the History of Economic Thought


Walter, Ryan, Parergon


I: The Analysis of Interest and the History of Economic Thought

James Tully described the analysis of interest as 'the major competing approach' to natural law understandings of politics in the seventeenth century. (1) If this is true, then we know comparatively little about this genre of political argument. (2) It was developed in the English context following the translation and publication of Henri duc de Rohan's A Treatise of the Interest of the Princes and States of Christendome in 1641, with its Preface reading: 'The PRINCES command the People, & the Interest commands the Princes'. (3) Rohan portrayed Europe as dominated by two powers, the Houses of France and Spain, while other rulers shifted their alliances as served their own interests. (4) Rohan's text was intended to aid Cardinal Richelieu's task of forming French external policy by identifying national interests and the dynamics by which they were shaped. In England, Rohan's arguments were adapted to royalist and republican purposes alike: (5) royalists asserted that only in the person of the monarch were private and public interests united, (6) while republicans demonstrated the necessary incompatibility between monarchy as a form of government and the end of realizing the common interest. (7)

Above these factional uses, a shared supposition emerged that there existed a set of interests common to European territories as territories, that is, as entities independent of the rulers by whom they were governed. The interests most commonly discussed were security, religion, and trade, but their precise specification was adjusted for particular circumstances, such as geography and the form of government. Actions inconsistent with these interests were construed as the consequences of misguided judgements or corrupt motivations on the part of rulers. The analysis of interest therefore made the polity and its policy both visible and calculable.

This was especially true of foreign affairs, where wars and alliances were opened up to public calculation. This fact largely explains both the popularity of the genre amongst pamphleteers wishing to guide or impugn the action of statesmen on the international stage, and the hostility of governments to such presumption from subjects. The genre was descriptive, prescriptive, and predictive. In the words of Slingsby Bethel, one of the most prolific interest theorists of seventeenth-century England, 'it is certain, that all Nations will increase, or decline more or less, according as their Interest is pursued'. (8) In relation to natural law arguments, the analysis of interest appears less as a genre of argument that legitimated rule and more as one purporting to offer practical and technical advice. Its first use was thus not to establish the rights and duties of subjects and states, but to identify the concrete actions that would serve national interests. It was thus good administration for a ruler to act in line with a territory's interests, while the neglect of them could be evidence of incompetence or corruption.

The technical and calculative character of the genre was clearly on display in the context of debates over the alliance England had formed with France against the Dutch in the Third Anglo-Dutch War of 1672-74. These debates are treated as a case study in what follows to develop an anatomy of the analysis of interest, in particular, to identify the key analytical moves that typified the examination of England's interstate affairs. The third war against the Dutch is a worthy case study not only because at this time the genre had begun to assume a stable form, but also because the war was so widely perceived to be directly opposed to England's true interests. It will therefore be possible to see how discussion of England's interests was used to make the case against the war. This sketch will also service the second part of the essay, where the significance of this genre for the history of economic thought is explored. …

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