This volume adds up to probably the best collection of studies available on one of the leading economists—together with Botero and the monetary theorists of the 16th and 17th centuries—of early Italian mercantilism. The little we know about the life of Antonio Serra is soon summed up: he was born in Calabria, acquired a grounding as a jurist, and wrote a book (much sought after by bibliophiles) of great importance for the history of economic ideas. His Breve trattato delle cause che possono far abbondare li Regni d’oro, et argento dove non sono miniere con applicatione al Regno di Napoli (“A brief Treatise on the Causes which can make Gold and Silver plentiful in Kingdoms where there are no Mines with reference to the Kingdom of Naples”), was published in Naples by Lazzaro Scoriggio in 1613; it was dedicated “from the prison of Vicaria” (where he was confined, probably for forgery) to the then Spanish Viceroy of Naples, the Count of Lemos. Serra gave important contributions to the progress of economic science in three fields: investigation of the causes of (monetary) wealth, the beginnings of industrialism, and the theory of the international balance of payments. The bulk of the texts collected in the volume consist of contributions to the international study conference celebrating the fourth centenary of the publication of Breve trattato, held in Naples in October 2013. Unfortunately, a number of texts have subsequently been added, none of which appears to have been subjected to a rigorous refereeing process. The first of these, by Gabriel Paquette (The place of Naples in the 17th century Spanish Empire) deals with the historical–political and historical-economic background to Serra, but without any specific reference to him. It is, of course, possible and indeed useful to trace out the features of a background that implies practically the whole intercontinental history of early modern Europe, and many contributions to the conference, to be found in this volume, had obviously gone in this direction. But their more or less organic links with the historical source, viz. Serra himself, could not, and should not, be disregarded. Another aspect of Serra’s background, his imprisonment, tragically relevant to the very person of Serra, is dealt with by Francesca De Rosa (The Vicaria prison of Naples in the time of Serra). Her text is rather ostentatiously based on primary sources, all calling for verification, and betrays the author’s evident lack of maturity. For example, here the famous Note XXIX introduced in the second (1780) edition of Galiani’s Della moneta—a major source of the entire historiography on Serra—is given by her (p. 35) with several resounding errors of reference to the first (1750) edition. Naturally, the text by the well-known economist Jan Kregel (Serra’s Breve trattato and the theory of economic development) is on quite a different level, and yet it disconcertingly adopts the viewpoint typical of the a-historical economists when they deal with economists of the past, simply assessing them in terms of present-day economic theory. Thus, to the eyes of an economist like Kregel, our Serra, compared with the eminent present-day “pioneers of development” in terms of “external capital flows”, may well become “not only a precursor of Adam Smith in analysing the causes of the wealth of nations but also a pre-pioneer development economist” (p. 316). Another two papers included in the volume but not given at the conference are by well-known academic historians. Since the conference volume already includes contributions (in particular by Addante and by the present writer) revolving around the figure of Francesco Saverio Salfi and his effective—indeed truly important—discovery of Serra (Salfi, Elogio di Antonio Serra primo scrittore di Economia civile, Milano 1802), one would have expected some significant historiographical novelty in the contribution by Antonio Trampus (Francesco Saverio Salfi and the Eulogy for Antonio Serra: politics, freemasonry, and the consumption of culture in the early 19th century). What we actually find in it, however, is the statement of an alleged Masonic motivation for the Elogio which in fact remains rather vague (indeed, it finds no place in the list of motivations set out by Trampus himself on p. 277), and a rather unilateral emphasis on a thinker dear to Trampus, who has studied him at length in the past, namely Filangieri and his Scienza della legislazione. But to provide adequate grounding for the connection between Salfi and Serra sights must be set well beyond Filangieri, looking to the whole Genovesian tradition that gave rise to Salfi and his Elogio. Even more debatable, perhaps, is the contribution by another well-known historian of 18th century ideas, also in the field of economics, viz. Koen Stapelbroek. Right from the title itself (“To console and alleviate the human mind”: Ferdinando Galiani’s attempted republication of Serra in the 1750s), Stapelbroek clearly aims at impressing us with his innovative thesis, to the effect that Galiani’s—but not only Galiani’s—knowledge of Serra’s treatise would amply predate the second edition of Della moneta (1780). According to Stapelbroek, for the group of Neapolitan thinkers and economists who revolved around Bartolomeo Intieri, founder in 1754 of the Economics Chair which would be taken on by Antonio Genovesi, Serra’s Breve trattato “became a cult classic”! (p. 238). To appreciate the novelty of this thesis, suffice it to reflect that in the entire work of Genovesi there is not a single reference to Serra. This certainly does not mean that Genovesi did not play a major part in the effective discovery of Serra, which however came about only with the Elogio of 1802 by the Genovesian Salfi, making use of a copy of Serra’s treatise handed on to him by another eminent Genovesian, Giuseppe Palmieri. In other words, it came about within a Genovesian (and Galianian) tradition of late-mercantilist stamp (a far cry from a laissez-faire theorising dreamed up by the author, p. 255) that found great success and fame, but only after the master’s death, i.e. after 1769. Stapelbroek instead offers us a highly unlikely thesis that would place Galiani’s acquaintance with Serra in the early 1750s. The only source for this thesis appears to be a short, confused manuscript by Galiani among the many well-known manuscripts conserved in Società Napoletana di Storia Patria. According to Stapelbroek, the manuscript “seems to be an attempt to write an introduction for the republication of early 17th century texts” (no reference to Serra’s treatise, however!), datable to the early 1750s (although, the author confesses, this is only “my guess”: p. 248). In reality, it is Stapelbroek’s approach to the sources, which seems to be problematic here. He is perhaps also misled by the often unreliable digital entries in the so-called Archivio storico degli economisti (see pp. 260–61). We also find evidence of the author’s difficulties with the sources elsewhere in this text. For example, Stapelbroek boasts (p. 258) that he is well aware of the book by Luigi Diodati (Dello stato presente della moneta), published in 1790. This book is relevant, Diodati being the third economist (after Doria and Galiani: see Di Battista in this volume, p. 285) to have become acquainted with Serra’s treatise in the 18th century, but Stapelbroek does not appear to have taken any notice of the significant pages that Diodati dedicates to Serra himself in that volume. It is not only the debatable inclusion of these contributions that raises doubts about the work of the editors of this volume. The book is also full of errors and misprints; even the index of names, indispensable for consultation in the case of a collection of essays, is rife with mistakes and gaps. The biographical data of the authors are meagre and in some cases wrong, while citations and notes are often attributed to non-existent bibliographic sources. The insistence on translating every part of the sources into English, including book titles, leads to frankly grotesque results, especially given the lack of attention to consistency on the part of the editors (see, for example, the variety of translations the authors come up with for the title of Salfi’s Elogio). However, the interest of this volume lies in the excellent level of specialist study shown—despite the variety of approaches—in general by the texts of the contributions to the 2013 conference published here. These contributions can be distinguished in terms of the viewpoints adopted by their authors, and in fact by their backgrounds and research methodologies. The two basic viewpoints are those, on the one hand, typical of economists, greatly inclined to look at their past appraising it retrospectively in the light of their own present theories and, on the other hand, the perspectives of the historians, who look back to the economic ideas of the past in the framework of the sources of the times that brought them to light. Luckily, as indeed is the case with many of the contributions to this volume, the two viewpoints tend to overlap; the economist succeeds, more or less, in entering into the historical realities of the sources, the historian in showing appreciation of the present theoretical developments. For example, as an economist Lilia Costabile (External imbalances and the money supply: two controversies in the English “Realme” and in the Kingdom of Naples) is able to offer a convincing historical comparison between the British and Neapolitan mercantilists of the 17th century, and is thus able to “clarify the polycentric origins of economic thought in the pre-Smithian period” (p. 167). Comparison is made between Malynes and de Santis in terms of the relation between international monetary exchanges and exchange rates, and between Misselden, Mun and Serra in relation to the question of how decisive competitiveness proves to be for internal production structures, while the “wise” Turbolo is reappraised by Costabile as the “only author who recognised the effects of depreciations on the trade balance” (p.181). At the same time, however, Costabile’s viewpoint as an economist emerges strong and clear in her final Keynesian defence of these 17th century economists from their present-day detractors. An economist, too, but also the author of a popular handbook on the history of economic ideas, Alessandro Roncaglia takes this new opportunity to reconsider Serra (The heritage of Antonio Serra). As a scholar specialised in the study of Serra, he reaffirms the central importance of his ideas in his innovative analysis of the balance of payments as it relates to international monetary flows. He rightly rejects the exaggerated interpretations that see in Serra’s ideas signs of a historically highly unlikely precursor of “meridionalismo”, the now long-established tradition of studies on the historical and economic problems of Southern Italy. He adds to his wealth of sources some that had been missing from his earlier writings on Serra, in particular Salfi’s Elogio. Unfortunately, however, we find here no more than a bare mention, lacking the support of the actual use of a source that is so very important for the reconstruction of the discovery and fortunes of Breve trattato. Roncaglia dwells much more on Custodi’s inclusion of it in the collection Scrittori classici italiani di economia politica in 1803, without, however, adding that this inclusion (at the beginning of the first volume of the collection) was prompted just by his friend Salfi (as Custodi himself pointed out in the same opening pages), and indeed by the fact that Salfi was in possession of the famous copy of Serra’s treatise which had previously been owned by Intieri and Galiani. The fact is that, here as elsewhere, the vice of taking history in terms of retrospective theory typical of economists leads the author astray from the royal road of historical reconstruction based on sources. Significantly enough, his vision of the civil economy of the Italian tradition is very different from that of the sources, beginning with Genovesi. For Roncaglia, it is simply a matter of reappraising the civil commitment of the economists (from Serra to Cattaneo, daringly coupled here) in the face of the rampant marginalist mainstream of homo oeconomicus. And, again significantly, the title of his contribution to the conference was rather different (Serra and ‘civic’ economic thought) than the title given here. Beyond his old propensity for retrospective history, Cosimo Perrotta, an expert on Italian mercantilism in general, including its 18th century versions, actually offers an excellent performance as a historian of economic thought (Serra and underdevelopment): his summary of the contents of Breve trattato (pp. 217–229) is the best in the volume. And yet his approach to the sources is not quite so thorough, due also to the fact that we lack a critical edition of Breve trattato, and have to make do with the text which Colapietra tampered with in 1973, and a recent English translation that has even reinvented the title which it gives all too imaginatively as A short treatise on the wealth and poverty of nations! Actually, Perrotta’s linguistic oscillations raise some concern: the “causes of the wealth” (p. 224) become “factors of development” (p. 228), while Serra speaks only of accidenti, or cause, of abundance of money, and certainly not of wealth in general, let alone development. Here, we touch on a sore spot in Perrotta’s valuable contribution, namely his implicit contradiction of the retrospective type of approach typical of the economists he had started from, which he explained thus: “I will focus on a comparison between Serra’s conception of underdevelopment, that of the historians of southern Italy, and that of modern development economics”. Such a comparison is so implausible that in practice the author himself never embarks upon it. Nowhere in his contribution, we find Serra as a source compared with any of the present-day underdevelopment economists—indeed he goes no further (except for a single reference to Myrdal) than listing them in the bibliography. In reality, the economists’ vice of reducing history to retrospective theory risks completely doing away with the history of economic thought as a history of the economic thinkers, of their ideas and their analyses as set out in the sources they left us, and which historiography brings under rigorous scrutiny. This risk emerges all too clearly in the two contributions by the Reinert family, father Erik S. (Antonio Serra and the problems of today) and son Sophus A. (Authority and expertise at the origins of macro-economics). Working on the basis of the increasing and decreasing returns dichotomy allegedly present in Serra’s treatise, the former views both the economists of the past and present-day economists as classifiable in two categories: “Serrians” and “anti-Serrians”, as he put it at the conference, or in other words optimists and pessimists, on the basis of their theory on returns. Among the latter, he curiously placed economists like the Physiocrats, Smith, Ricardo, etc. imputed with pursuing abstractions like the theory of value and the theory of the distribution of wealth. In reality, the Reinerts adopt a very peculiar version of history as retrospective theory, no longer viewing economists of the past like Serra through the lens of present theory alone, but also through that of business “expertise”. As early as the 16th and 17th centuries, Sophus Reinert affirms (p. 120), micro- and macro-formalisation was underway “as mercantile practices increasingly […] and older forms of political household management and the politics of international trade came together to form a new field of expertise regarding the economic affairs of political communities.” That this new approach adopted by the Reinerts seriously jeopardises the role of the historian who studies the sources can be seen in the difficulties they evidently have in their command of the sources themselves. Significantly, it glaringly escapes Sophus, as it did Stapelbroek, that the book by Diodati Dello stato presente della moneta contains, only a few pages after the one he quotes (p.135), the third major 18th century treatment of Serra known to us. Now, we come to the contributions by the historians represented in the book. The contribution by Giovanni Zanalda (The cost of empires: Antonio Serra and the debate on the causes and solutions of economic crises in the Viceroyalty of Naples in the 17th century) covers not only the background, but also the contents of Breve trattato, approached also in relation to the work of that other major Italian mercantilist, Botero; appropriately enough—given the Imperial Spanish background and the contents—the author makes enlightening use of the recently introduced contraposition between inclusive and extractive institutions to “explain differences in wealth between nations” (p. 59). By contrast, the contribution by the well-known economic historian Gaetano Sabatini (The influence of Portuguese economic thought on the “Breve trattato”: Antonio Serra and Miguel Vaaz in Spanish Naples) betrays an evident distance between the aim conveyed in the title and the reality of the sources. Whatever connection there might have been between Serra and the circle of the Portuguese merchant Vaaz (recently the subject of a study by Sabatini), or for that matter whatever influence the Portuguese economists may have had on the treatise remain in the present state of research—which, the author assures us, he will continue pursuing—mere hypotheses, lacking the least support in the sources. One of the editors of the volume, Rosario Patalano, endeavours to open out the historiographic perspective on Serra (Serra’s “Brief Treatise” in a world-system perspective: the Dutch miracle and Italian decline in the early 17th century). He approaches the task not only accounting for the debate in 18th century Naples as a clash between “opposing models of development” (that of Serra and that of de Santis, but also of many others, like Campanella, Tapia, etc. all in favour of “a different model of development”), but also extending its scope to the general historical-economic developments of the time, that saw the impetuous rise of the Dutch and the British in Europe alongside Italy’s crisis and decline. Serra (for whom Patalano dusts off Benini’s old conjecture of being of a Genoese merchant descent) is depicted as failing to move on from an old ‘model’, provincial and Italian, centred on the role of the city-state like Genoa and Venice, thus on keeping southern Italy in a quasi-anthropologically subordinate condition. This ‘model’—moreover favouring laissez-faire in trade and finance, and so in essence remote from the mercantilist paradigm (p. 80)—is deemed to have been incapable of perceiving the fundamental changes underway in the international historical-economic scene. In contrast with Patalano’s probably ungenerous appraisal of Serra is the sharp focus on the figure of Serra characterising the contribution by Luca Addante (The Republic of wealth and liberty: the politics of Antonio Serra), who has also some time ago edited Salfi’s Elogio with commendable care. He sees Serra as one of the most advanced exponents of the political culture of the time—that baroque age previously studied by Rosario Villari (Addante being a former pupil of his). Serra’s culture is seen as libertarian, republican and against absolutism, Venice coming to represent for him a myth of stability, good government, sharing of interests between the élites and the common people, and predominance of the “public good” over personal advantages—a conservative myth, but one that could co-exist with reformism. In fact, we find Serra associated “with the southern Italian movement of reformers”, as early as the first half of the 17th century, seeking “to sap the power of the feudal nobility in response to the claims of a composite middle class” (p.156). Clearly, here we have an account of political history that raises no few problems for the traditional and by now firmly established positioning of Serra as a mercantilist in the context of the history of economic ideas. We conclude with two contributions that bring us back to the distinctly history of economic thought approach. Focussing on the sources, the editor of the critical edition of the works of Jean-Baptiste Say, André Tiran (Real and monetary factors in the de Santis-Serra controversy) starts from the background of Spanish Naples and from here enters into the nature of our two economists’ positions. Their works (the two 1605 discourses by de Santis, and Serra’s treatise of 1613) are analysed in depth, particularly from the point of view of monetary economics. Here, we cannot simply take for granted the superiority of Serra who, for example, disregards the effects of the exchange rate. Where it does clearly emerge is in the examination of the real causes of the monetary crisis which, he deemed, could be overcome only “through policies to encourage domestic manufacturing, import substitution, and the mandatory reinvestment of profits in the country, as well as above all by reorganising the administration of the State.” (p.211) Although Tiran has no liking for labels, this conclusion of his clearly confirms the mercantilist positioning of Serra. Actually, if we take a long-term historical perspective, observing the series of Serra’s fortunes—or rather misfortunes—over the centuries, we can only endorse Tiran’s conclusion. This is what the present writer sets out to accomplish in his paper (Serra’s discovery and ill fate in the liberal 19th century). After practically two centuries of oblivion, excepting the only three authors who mentioned Serra in the 18th century (Doria, Galiani, and Diodati), the Genovesian late-mercantilist tradition discovered the Breve trattato in 1802 (Salfi) but, ironically enough, it did so precisely when it was about to give way to the free trade liberalism which was bursting on the scene. Since then, throughout the 19th century, from Ferrara to De Viti De Marco and onwards, probably to the present day, the fate of the most significant Italian mercantilist, Antonio Serra, was to be inescapably sealed. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Cambridge Political Economy Society. All rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Contributions to Political Economy – Oxford University Press
Published: May 11, 2018
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