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Seiichiro Ito, English Economic Thought in the Seventeenth Century: Rejecting the Dutch Model

Ted McCormick
p. 167-169
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Seiichiro Ito, English Economic Thought in the Seventeenth Century: Rejecting the Dutch Model, Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2021, viii+215 pages, 978-036746239-0

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1Seventeenth-century Anglo-Dutch relations have long been a major theme in political, cultural and intellectual historiography, and the power of the Dutch example figures incidentally but inescapably in many accounts of early English economic thought. In structuring an account of the emergence of a “properly English economic discourse” (186) around English writers’ engagement with the economic activities and policies of the United Provinces, then, Seiichiro Ito’s concise study finds a ready-made place in existing historiography and makes a welcome and useful addition thereto. Perhaps because Ito identifies Skinner-style contextualism as his method (9), the book stands in contrast to recent efforts to integrate the history of economic thought into social and cultural history, the history of transatlantic empire, and the history of science. It is conceived rather as a study of economic discourse analogous to a history of political thought, taking its subject as a distinctive kind of activity, conducted through characteristic literary genres (printed pamphlets and, to a lesser extent, manuscript proposals), and formulated—with the singular exception of Locke (108)—by authors less interested in capturing timeless truths than in doing things, economic things, with their words.

2Though the question is narrowly framed, Ito draws on a wider literature. For much of the seventeenth century, what English writers wanted their words to do was to get England to adopt or adapt items from a list of Dutch practices and policies. This was no mere metaphor, as Josiah Child’s example makes clear; Ito notes Vera Keller’s work on lists of scientific desiderata by way of locating this practice in a larger history of “improvement” (5). Likewise, the author notes and occasionally benefits from recent work on “projecting” in and around the transnational Hartlib Circle of the 1630s-50s, on “mercantilism” in Atlantic contexts, and on the social history of credit, even while retaining an exclusively English and discursive focus in his own analyses. A brief introduction lays out the main thrust of the argument, which is that over the course of the century the idea of imitating Dutch success gave way to a sharper sense of English and Dutch differences, and thereby to a distinctively English discourse of economic policy. Four thematic chapters follow, each pursuing an item from the list: first, a long survey of English writing on the herring fishery, where the emphasis on emulating the Dutch was strongest (13-91); then, successively shorter chapters looking at debates over interest rates (92-136), banking (137-165), and the registration of lands (166-192), respectively. A short postscript (193-196) describes the author’s evolving interest in economic thought in the context of 1980s Japan, and suggests parallels between the uncertainties of the seventeenth century and those of our own time.

3Each chapter pursues its theme through a chronological examination of key texts and debates. This makes the book a useful guide to important works on the selected subjects, and it allows Ito’s attention to detail to come through in comparing different texts (and different editions of texts) as they shaped discussions over time. At some points, however, this manner of presentation buries the central argument beneath a series of close readings. This is unfortunate, since the author’s claims about the emergence of English economic thought as a distinctive historical phenomenon are significant and merit more attention. As it is, the argument is sustained by Ito’s analysis of Restoration-era debates about the role of low interest rates in national prosperity and the logistical requirements of institutionalizing credit. Only now did authors problematize the feasibility of imitating the Dutch and articulate plans to “outdo” (180) them by means other than emulation. At this point, however, readers outside the subfield may wonder about a selection of themes that sidelines Dutch geography, says little about empire, and excludes such contentious aspects of Dutch society as religious toleration from sustained examination. These choices may be dictated by the boundaries of economic thought as a category. If so, this suggests the category’s limitations for capturing English thinking about the Dutch, at a time when colonialism and the politics of religion were important aspects of political life.

4The selection of topics and the handling of sources raise other questions, some of which are best seen as avenues for further work. It is not news that Jacobean works by the likes of Thomas Mun (on trade) or Tobias Gentleman (on fisheries) were printed or reprinted decades later, but Ito’s analysis brings up so many instances of such re-publication that some interpretation of the persistence of early works in later debates seems worthwhile. The absence of Ireland from the analysis—brief discussions of William Petty and William Temple notwithstanding—is striking, the more so as land registries (the topic of chapter 4) were a major issue in a kingdom subject to a succession of plantations and land settlements over the period under discussion. So too is the omission of both colonial plantation and slavery (except metaphorical), despite mention of Francis Cradock’s 1661 bank scheme—an “experiment” (171-172) thought suitable for Barbados but unsafe for England. The presence of Huguenot herring enthusiasts Hugh L’Amy and Pierre Le Pruvost provokes similar questions about the transnational origins of “English” economic thought, both in terms of personnel and in terms of comparisons beyond the Dutch case.

5In all of this, Ito’s work suggests connections and comparisons beyond the scope of the question as framed, and beyond the scope of economic thought as still widely conceived. There are opportunities here for deeper engagements with the kind of recent work Ito cites but does not emulate; to put it another way, a wider range of scholarly audiences should find useful discussions and interesting questions here than the author may have anticipated. However that may be, this is first and foremost a very helpful contribution to the history of seventeenth-century English economic thought, and one which goes a long way toward filling an important gap.

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Référence papier

Ted McCormick, « Seiichiro Ito, English Economic Thought in the Seventeenth Century: Rejecting the Dutch Model »Œconomia, 12-1 | 2022, 167-169.

Référence électronique

Ted McCormick, « Seiichiro Ito, English Economic Thought in the Seventeenth Century: Rejecting the Dutch Model »Œconomia [En ligne], 12-1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2022, consulté le 09 août 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/oeconomia/12174 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/oeconomia.12174

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Ted McCormick

Concordia University, Montreal. ted.mccormick@concordia.ca

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Creative Commons - Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/

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