Eighteenth Century Economics: Turgot, Beccaria and Smith and Their Contemporaries

By Peter Groenewegen | Go to book overview

3

New light on the origins of modern economics1

The historical interpretation and explanation of theories put forward in the past is the first and foremost task which the historian of political economy has to fulfil. But besides this great problem, which might be called the material problem, there are several others that are more or less formal in character. Three of them are of outstanding importance. They are indicated by the following questions: When did political economy arise? What were the phases in its evolution? How can it be defined and divided from other fields of thought? The first problem - the problem of origin - naturally and necessarily arises with regard to any science, but it is especially intricate in political economy.

(Stark, 1944, p. 59)

The process of ‘secularization’ manifested itself most significantly through the emergence of differentiated intellectual disciplines, each with its own expertise and, in time, with its own special experts. It was in jurisprudence and political philosophy, rather than in metaphysics, moral philosophy, economics, or even natural science, that ‘human reason’ first gained a large measure of autonomy from theology and the effective exercise of ecclesiastical authority.

(Viner, 1978, pp. 113, 115)

The origins of modern economics continue to attract attention from a variety of scholars. Such interest is not only inspired by the importance of this formal question for the historian of economic thought, 2 or for its relevance to understanding that broader secularization process with which Viner was concerned. The question of the emergence and origin of economics has the additional use of illuminating aspects of the development of economics after the well recognized breakthrough by Adam Smith and his contemporaries. The pre-Smithian period, for example, sheds light on the development of what is called the surplus approach to value and distribution (Garegnani, 1984), a view alternative to the perspective provided by some prominent writers (such as Hollander, 1986) who analyse post-Smithian development as a continuous completion and improvement of a supply-and-demand-inspired general equilibrium approach to value and distribution. In addition, study of the pre-Smithian era draws attention to historical problems and philosophical difficulties in interpreting the relevance of what is often described as the rise of economic liberalism (cf.

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