Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Graunt Work

"To understand the idea of inherent quantitative regularity which informs Graunt's text, and how he was able to devise a method which demonstrates this regularity in vital phenomena, it has been necessary to consider his synthesis of four period concepts: the method of observation prescribed by Bacon's natural history; the method of keeping accompts, with its several proportional checks and informal attitude to population totals; a mercantile system of natural and intrinsic balances, embracing people and trade; and a general model of society as a set of correspondences uniting man, God and nature." -- Philip Kreager, "New Light on Graunt," Population Studies 42, 1988, pp. 129-140.
What Graunt accomplished with his essay is astonishing. Kreager did a magnificent job of reconstructing the foundations of Graunt's method, rather than anachronistically identifying "aspects of Graunt's essay which anticipate later demographic measures and statistical inferences." But there is another story yet to be told -- of the unconscious survivals in subsequent political economy and economics of Graunt's innovative synthesis of natural history, bookkeeping and theology.

The clue here is that there is indeed at least one conspicuous survival, that it is unconscious and that it is significant resides in the incessant reiteration and unanimous misattribution of the highlighted phrase:
"…if there be but a certain proportion of work to be done; and that the same be already done by the not-Beggars; then to employ the Beggars about it, will but transfer the want from one hand to another…" -- John Graunt, Natural and political observations mentioned in a following index, and made upon the bills of mortality (1662).
So it turns out that the supposition of a fixed amount of work to be done* originates in the "ur-text" of political economy rather than in the half-baked ruminations of fearful Luddites and clueless trade unionists. What are the implications?

William Petty's pioneering estimate of national income relied crucially on his friend Graunt's calculations of population. These were essentially the "number, weight or measure" upon which Petty based his analysis. Alfred Chalk, in "Natural law and the rise of economic individualism in England," (1951) implied a causal link between Newton's Principia and Petty's Political Arithmetick:
"It was not mere chance that Petty chose to call one of his important works Political Arithmetick
"From the point of view of the development of economic theory, the emergence of a scientific philosophy of determinism was possibly the most significant fact of the seventeenth century. The great creative minds in mathematics, biology, physics, etc., gradually came to view the world as an intricate machine in which each part played a role that was rigidly predetermined by inexorable laws. Newton's Principia, published in 1687, provided the basis for a mechanistic outlook which would encompass the universe. In such a climate of opinion, social scientists began to search for a body of laws which would reveal a harmonious social order similar to that which physical scientists had discovered in their researches."
Except Newton's Principia was published in 1687. Graunt's Natural and political observations, on which Petty relied for his empirical information had been published 25 years earlier. The anachronism of seeking out "anticipations" of later thought in earlier texts obscures and misrepresents actual contributions, motives and methods. This leads, it would appear, to endemic confusion about the status and significance of economic "laws," related to the ambiguity of natural law doctrine and laws of nature. (It may be noted that John Locke delivered his Oxford lectures, subsequently published as Essays on the Law of Naturein 1664. Locke owned a copy of Graunt's Observations. According to Ashcraft, "The influence of Graunt is particularly reflected in Locke's recording in his journals the weekly or monthly mortality rates for various cities while he was living on the continent.")

Citing Heckscher, Chalk claimed that "In mercantilist literature the law of nature was simply divested of almost all its religious, and even ethical, overtones." Kreager, however, presented a very different and more compelling argument:
The 'mix' in Graunt’s mixed mathematics owed, as has been said, to his application of an apparently humdrum practical art, bookkeeping. But beneath his 'shop-Arithmetic' lay a more fundamental and familiar set of associations: number, reckoning and death as the idiom of the Last Judgement. Graunt's simple similitude was that each death represents a subtraction from the living, an entry in God's or nature's 'accompts'. And just as death displaces a person or soul to some specific immortal 'population', so each christening incorporates a new person or soul into a mortal one. Graunt's chosen point of entry into this old theme was Bacon's Natural History of Life and Death. Bacon had argued that men should observe nature in order to discern possible reflections of God's laws; whilst such knowledge was bound to be a pale record of these laws, it nonetheless offered possible guidance on improving individual and collective life. Such a phrasing inevitably suggested that longevity was a kind of measure of man's success in this attempt.... Graunt, expressly taking up Bacon's inquiry, likewise adopted Classical images of the symmetry of divine, natural and political order.
It is a far cry from, say, the law of gravity to a "harmonious social order." But not quite so far if one assumes, a priori, the "symmetry of divine, natural and political order." Furthermore, the technology of double-entry bookkeeping superimposed a merchant's perspective on the social order, one implemented, according to Aho, largely to provide evidence for an alibi against suspicions of usury and unscrupulous business practices.

* I am aware of one instance of similar phrasing that occurs between Graunt's "certain proportion of work to be done" in 1662 and Dorning Rasbotham's "certain quantity of labour to be performed" in 1780: the definition of the verb, "task" in Dyche and Pardon's New General English Dictionary (1735) is "to appoint a person a certain quantity of work to be done in a certain time." Update: the distinction between Graunt's "certain proportion" and Rasbotham's "certain quantity" is an important one on which I will have more to say later.

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