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Riccardo Faucci, A History of Italian Economic Thought

Pier Luigi Porta
p. 415-418
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Riccardo Faucci, A History of Italian Economic Thought, London: Routledge, 2014, x + 268 pp. ISBN 978-0-415-51983-0 (hbk), 978-1-315-78099-3 (ebk).

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A History of Italian Economic ThoughtAfficher l’image
Crédits : Routledge

1Riccardo Faucci, no doubt, can be singled out as the best writer to offer a comprehensive view of the history of Italian Economic Thought. This volume rightly and deservedly fulfils Mark Blaug’s auspices of including a text on Italy in the Routledge series of History of Economic Thought, a series launched by Blaug himself many years ago and edited by him for the rest of his life. Riccardo Faucci had produced, fifteen years ago (2000), a substantial book on the Italian economic tradition, L’economia politica in Italia, published by Utet-Libreria in Turin. The present book is no mechanical English version of the former book, although it follows rather closely the same pattern in the distribution of its contents: at the same time it is adapted to an Anglophone international readership and, on top of that, it takes recent new directions in the studies of the Italian tradition into due account.

2The book opens with remarks on method. The Schumpeterian distinction of ‘economic analysis’ and ‘economic thought’ is accepted by the author, although he does not wish to take sharp sides on the issue. On the contrary he rather favours a mixed approach, as “no clear-cut demarcation can be made between a merely internal (theoretical) approach, and the so-called external approach focusing on the intellectual and material context in which economic ideas arose”. “Paraphrasing Kant—he writes (2)—pure theory separated from its historical context is empty, while descriptive history without theory is blind”. This is sound good sense, which allows the author to avoid the curse of infinite details on one side and the excessive focus on de-contextualized abstract reasoning on the other.

3Beyond method, a substantial feature of this volume, which is shared also by its Italian predecessor, is the time span covered by the study, which goes from the 16th century down to the present day. It is a reasonable choice and a fairly defensible one. Much could be said of the Medieval period as a formative period of Italian economic studies: but, no doubt, the special characters of the Italian tradition emerged with the Modern Age. It is the Modern Age that brings about the scientific spirit and leads to establish a science “composed of observation or theorization” (18), as the author observes. Though I fully agree that the scientific element is fundamental, I should perhaps wish to emphasize another angle here, under which the advent of modernity can be looked at, with a view to accounting for the spirit of the Italian tradition. Faucci is not laying great emphasis on that, but there is little doubt that modernity, especially in Italy, also meant the rise of humanism, i.e. the new culture built on merging the Christian tradition together with the re-discovery of the ancient Pagan tradition. There was a time when the Christian era came to be seen not so much as the fulfilment (or perhaps simply the development) of the Jewish legacy: it rather acquired a new significance in the light of Greek and Roman cultural heritage. On that side of the coin there is, of course, a fairly large literature. Just to mention a recent instance, an idea of the economic significance of the humanistic approach can be gained from the recent Treccani Encyclopaedia on the Italian contribution to economic thought, of which Faucci is himself a distinguished participant. Also in the present Routledge volume quite a number of references are in fact articles from the Treccani Encyclopaedia (See Negri Zamagni and Porta (eds), 2012)

4It must be acknowledged that Mark Blaug had a marvellous intuition in launching this series of Routledge volumes, where each of the volumes is devoted to a specific national tradition. At the time when Blaug launched the series the idea was perhaps not so popular and it was more common to think of the economic discipline as cosmopolitical rather than national. Gradually, through time, the field of study of the national traditions has now become more prosperous and promising.

5As far as Italy is concerned, among the more recent books, a remarkable contribution in that perspective is given by the work of Alberto Quadrio Curzio (2007) on Italian economists from the 18th to the 20th century. When Quadrio Curzio discusses, for example, the great Milanese economists of the 18th century, Pietro Verri and Cesare Beccaria, he speaks of economia civile per il governo. The notion of economia civile has the imprint of the Italian tradition. It is a fact that cosmopolitanism does not necessarily mean convergence of all schools to a unique approach, but rather a method and a drift to bringing together different traditions. The Italian case is interesting indeed in that perspective and Faucci’s book goes a great deal in the direction of showing that Italian political economy, in its formative stages, cannot be subsumed either in a Mercantilist or a Physiocratic frame of mind, although the Italians were obviously influenced by both schools. Thus Faucci is right to emphasize the importance of civil philosophy and economic reformism, especially evident in what he rightly calls (chapter 3) “the heyday of eighteenth-century Italian economics”. Of signal relevance are the Italian contributions that belong to the time span between the appearance of Quesnay’s Tableau in 1758 and the publication of Smith’s Wealth of Nations in 1776. Those contributions include, among other first-rate achievements, the most successful work produced by the Italian school at the time: Of Crimes and Punishment, by Cesare Beccaria, of 1764. Faucci makes it clear (52-53) that the famous pamphlet is the work of an economist, a fact not always taken into due account. Beccaria in Milan, after Genovesi in Naples, was one of the first incumbents in the world to a Chair of economics.

6Much of the above is giving substance to the conception of what are the basic ingredients of the Italian tradition through the five centuries covered by the book. “Two main ‘styles of thought’ can be discerned”, Faucci argues (13-14): “The first may be defined as ‘thinking-for-acting economics’ style”, while the “second approach could be defined as ‘economics of the common good’”. The former “implies a pragmatic view of economic research”; the latter “holds that economists cannot remain indifferent to the realm of ought-to-be”: “economics must be at the service of the ideal of improving social relations, establishing better interpersonal confidence, reaffirming the importance of reciprocity in exchange, and so forth”. The focus on policy issues on one side and the close link of economics with ethics and politics are among the basic ingredients of the Italian tradition. While the Italian predecessor to this volume went on at this point simply to say (13) that the Italian tradition has produced three undisputably excellent names (identified in Ferdinando Galiani, Vilfredo Pareto and Piero Sraffa), in the present volume the argument becomes much more sophisticated and proceeds with the description of a whole line of contributors, either sharing the two styles of thought just described or emphasizing one or the other of the two. Sraffa, in particular, is singled out here as a remarkable exception. The intellectual and scientific figure of Piero Sraffa stands out in relative isolation. It is remarkable that Faucci describes him to be “undoubtedly the most ‘abstract’ of the major Italian scholars of economics, a true descendant from the classics and above all from Ricardo” (15). Faucci is perhaps extreme when he adds that only Ortes and Fuoco show an “ideal affinity with Sraffa’s approach”. (The cognoscenti will appreciate this unusual remark). At the same time this does not prevent Faucci from treating in some detail those aspects of Sraffa’s thought that did have (at least potentially) a practical influence, starting from his dissertation on inflation and going on the other stages of Sraffa’s production, including of course “The Sraffa Debate” of the post-war years, when Sraffa published a book, “certainly the book written by an Italian-born economist that was destined to be the most widely read and discussed in the world” (219). Faucci never paid lip service to the Sraffa mythology in the past: nor does he trespass the limits of an objective and fair assessment in this book, where the treatment of Sraffa is followed by an analysis of Italy’s “independent voices” of Federico Caffè, Claudio Napoleoni, Paolo Sylos Labini.

7Through the pages of the book the effort is discernible of giving a fair idea of the variety of voices and the richness of Italian economic thought. The transition from the 18th to the early 19th century is treated with great care under the title of “Strengths and weaknesses of the early nineteen century”. Francesco Ferrara and the subsequent rise of pure economics near the turn of the century are of course great chapters in any history of Italian economic thought, and Faucci is second to none on both chapters. As we come to the post-Pareto generation, Faucci’s approach is that “it should be mentioned, at the start, that Italian intellectuals learned very early the art of coexisting with Fascism” (164).

8As a general character of the book there is a constant effective attention to situate and contextualize the developments of scientific economics through the historical settings of a country that has undergone great changes during the relevant centuries. Just to mention a few major breaking points, during the 19th century the progress of achieving political unity of the country is constantly present to the narrative; at the end of the Second World war, the demise of the Monarchy and the new Constitution are treated for their connections with economic and economic policy reflections. History provides the flesh and blood to discovering the drift and meaning of the analytic achievements.

9This is not, on the whole, an easy book to read. It will certainly be highly stimulating to all those, both inland and abroad, who have a genuine interest into an understanding of the Italian contribution to the history of economic thought.

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Faucci, Riccardo. 2000. L’economia politica in Italia. Dal Cinquecento ai nostri giorni. Torino: Utet-Libreria.

Negri Zamagni, Vera and Pier Luigi Porta (eds). 2012. Il contributo italiano alla storia del pensiero: Economia. Roma: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana.

Quadrio Curzio, Alberto. 2007. Economia ed economisti. Per un’Italia europea: Paradigmi tra il 18° e il 20° secolo. Bologna: Mulino.

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Référence papier

Pier Luigi Porta, « Riccardo Faucci, A History of Italian Economic Thought », Œconomia, 5-3 | 2015, 415-418.

Référence électronique

Pier Luigi Porta, « Riccardo Faucci, A History of Italian Economic Thought », Œconomia [En ligne], 5-3 | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2015, consulté le 18 décembre 2017. URL :

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Pier Luigi Porta

University of Milano-Bicocca.

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Les contenus d’Œconomia sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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