Cameralism in Practice. State Administration and Economy in Early Modern Europe

On Marten Seppel, Keith Tribe (eds.) Cameralism in Practice. State Administration and Economy in Early Modern Europe, Boydell and Brewer, Woodbridge 2017 (ISBN 978 1 78327 212 9)


There has been a growing interest in cameralism over the last five to ten years, but it has been claimed that the only scholarly book-length treatment of cameralism in English was a 1909 work by Albion Small.

Fortunately, things are changing: the annual conferences of the European Society for the History of Economic Thought are dominated by young French and Italian scholars; the developing field of intellectual history has upgraded the quality of work done in the history of economics; and from the later 1970s onwards the history of eighteenth century political thought has emerged as a very sophisticated field, within which the study of cameralism no longer seems such a minority interest. If there is a “logic” it could be described as a literature of economic management. Thought about this way, it then becomes more obvious quite why it is so hard to define, since there is no strictly equivalent body of writing in contemporary languages such as English and French. It has become more and more clear (as argued also our collection) that besides Germany and Austria, cameralist literature on state and economy also had great influence in Sweden, Russia, Denmark and even Portugal.

The present collection focuses on the practices of cameralism. In the 1930s August Wolfgang Gerloff argued that eighteenth-century cameral science was “die Lehre von der Staatspraxis, die Lehre von der praktischen Politik” (a doctrine directed to state practice, to practical politics). However, Andre Wakefield writes that cameralism was a kind of fantasy fiction or even a utopian theory, rather than any particular plan that could be followed by administration. He believes that cameralist authors did realise that their teaching was too theoretical.

One of the main goals of our book was to bring out the innovative tendencies associated with cameralist discourse in the eighteenth century. This objective raised intriguing questions such as: did cameralism change the world? Or was there a “cameralist revolution”?

However, it may be too easy to assimilate ideas of “progress” to a present-centred history lacking an understanding of past historical commentary and argument. While it would be wrong to suggest that cameralism in some way changed the world, what we can say is that it changed the language with which the world was conceived. Whatever the outcome of cameralist “practice”, by the later part of the eighteenth century there was a new language of state administration that became transformed into the financial sciences of the nineteenth century, and thence became part of the language of public administration. It gave “practitioners” a way of talking to each other about the way in which they conducted their affairs.

What the study of cameralist literature has brought to light is the extent of our ignorance about early modern Europe, its politics and administration, its economy and society. The sheer volume of material that recent work has revealed compels us to think about new ways of exploring networks of activity and argument. Rosenberg’s work on Prussia remains important, but today it would not be appropriate to write a history of bureaucratic rule without examining the language of administration. The key to that lies in the study of cameralist literature and its language, and in a new approach to the work of administration in the European states of the eighteenth century. As I suggest above, my problem with “mercantilism” is that it presents a grid that obscures from us both diversity and convergence in early modern economic literature. Insofar as our book on cameralism and administration shows the sheer diversity of this material, I hope that it provides encouragement to others to explore this literature more systematically than has ever before been attempted.

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Legacies of inequality: the case of Brazil

by Evan Wigton-Jones (University of California, Riverside)

The Rio Team. In Kidder, D.P., Brazil and the Brazilians : portrayed in historical and descriptive sketches, Philadelphia 1857. Available at


 Recent years have witnessed a renewed interest in issues of economic inequality. This research offers a contribution to this discussion by analysing the effects of inequality within Brazil.

Firstly, it shows that the climate is a key determinant of long-run inequality in Brazilian context. It uses data from a national census conducted in 1920 to show that warmer regions with high rainfall were characterised by plantation economies, with a wealthy agricultural elite and a large underclass of poor labourers. In contrast, cooler and drier areas were conducive to smaller family farms, and hence resulted in a more equitable society.

The study then uses information from the 2000 census to show that this local inequality has persisted for generations: areas that were historically unequal in 1920 are generally unequal today as well.

Finally, the research shows that greater long-term inequality inhibits regional development. It also shows evidence that inequality affects local governance, as municipal spending on health, education and welfare is significantly lower in more economically unequal areas.

To show the climate’s influence on local inequality, the study created an index that quantifies the relative suitability of land for plantation agricultural production. The metric is based on the temperature and precipitation requirements of different crops that are uniquely plantation or smallholder in their method of production. For example, sugarcane has historically been produced on large plantations, while wheat was often cultivated on small farms.

The research then shows that localities with a favourable climate for plantation agriculture contained a more unequal distribution of land. To measure the concentration of land ownership, it calculates a Gini index – a standard measure of inequality that ranges from 0 (perfect equality) to 100 (one individual holds all land).

As Brazil’s economy was predominantly agrarian in 1920, this distribution of land is a good proxy for that of income and wealth. The research combines this with data on municipal spending in the 1920s to show that local governments with higher land inequality spent less on education, health, public goods and public electricity. For example, a one unit increase in the Gini index is associated with a .76 percentage point decline in such spending.

The effects of this inequality have ramifications for contemporary socio-economic welfare in Brazil. Not only has local inequality persisted throughout the twentieth century, but it has also hindered present-day municipal development. Here it measures local development using the municipal-level human development index (HDI) – a metric that accounts for education, public health and income – for the year 2000.

It shows that historically unequal areas score much lower on the HDI: a one unit increase in 1920 land inequality is associated with a reduction of .38 points in this index (which, like the Gini index, is measured on a scale from 0 to 100, with a higher score indicating greater development).

Furthermore, the legacies of historical inequality are still manifest in contemporary local governance: a one unit increase in historical inequality is associated with a .49 percentage point decrease in municipal-level welfare spending for the year 2000.

These findings suggest several important conclusions:

  • First, the environment may play an important role in determining inequality and long-term development, even within countries.
  • Second, economic disparities can persist for generations.
  • Lastly, inequality can have a corrosive effect on welfare and governance, even at a local level.

It should be noted, however, that this study has focused on inequality within Brazil. The extent to which these findings can be generalised to other settings requires further study.

France’s Nineteenth Century Wine Crisis: the impact on crime rates

Street Wine Merchant, France 19th century. From Wikimedia Commons


The phylloxera crisis in nineteenth century France destroyed 40% of the country’s vineyards, devastating local economies. According to research by Vincent Bignon, Eve Caroli, and Roberto Galbiati, the negative shock to wine production led to a substantial increase in property crime in the affected regions. But their study, published in the February 2017 issue of the Economic Journal, also finds that there was a significant fall in violent crimes because of the reduction in alcohol consumption.

It has long been debated whether crime responds to economic conditions. In particular, do crime rates increase because of financial crises or major downsizing events in regions heavily specialised in some industries?

Casual observation and statistical evidence suggest that property crimes are more frequent during economic crises. For example, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has claimed that in a sample of 15 countries, theft has sharply increased during the last economic crisis.[1]

These issues are important because crime is also known to have a damaging impact on economic growth by discouraging business and talented workers from settling in regions with high rates of crime. If an economic downturn triggers an increase in the crime rate, it could have long-lasting effects by discouraging recovery.

But since multiple factors can simultaneously affect economic conditions and the propensity to commit crime, identifying a causal effect of economic conditions on crime rates is challenging.

The new research addresses the issue by examining how crime rates were affected by a major economic crisis that massively hit wine production, France’s most iconic industry, in the nineteenth century.

The crisis was triggered by the near microscopic insect named phylloxera vastatrix. It originally lived in North America and did not reach Europe in the era of sailing ships since the transatlantic journey took so long that it had died on arrival.

Steam power provided the greater speed needed for phylloxera to survive the trip and it arrived in France in 1863 on imported US vines. Innocuous in its original ecology, phylloxera proved very destructive for French vineyards by sucking the sap of the vines. Between 1863 and 1890, it destroyed about 40% of them, thus causing a significant loss of GDP.

Because phylloxera took time to spread, not all districts started being hit at the same moment, and because districts differed widely in their ability to grow wines, not all districts were hit equally. The phylloxera crisis is therefore an ideal natural experiment to identify the impact of an economic crisis on crime because it generated exogenous variation in economic activity in 75 French districts.

To show the effect quantitatively, the researchers have collected local administrative data on the evolution of property and violent crime rates, as well as minor offences. They use these data to study whether crime increased significantly after the arrival of phylloxera and the ensuing destruction of the vineyards that it entailed.

The results suggest that the phylloxera crisis caused a substantial increase in property crime rates and a significant decrease in violent crimes. The effect on property crime was driven by the negative income shock induced by the crisis. People coped with the negative income shock by engaging in property crimes. At the same time, the reduction in alcohol consumption induced by the phylloxera crisis had a positive effect on the reduction of violent crimes.

From a policy point of view, these results suggest that crises and downsizing events can have long lasting effects. By showing that the near-disappearance of an industry (in this case only a temporary phenomenon) can trigger long-run negative consequences on local districts through an increasing crime rate, this study underlines that this issue must be high on the policy agenda at times of crises.


Summary of the article ‘Stealing to Survive? Crime and Income Shocks in Nineteenth Century France’ by Vincent Bignon, Eve Caroli and Roberto Galbiati. Published in Economic Journal on February 2017

[1] ‘Monitoring the impact of economic crisis on crime’, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2012. This effect was also noted by the French ‘Observatoire national de la délinquance et des réponses pénales’, when it underlines that burglaries sharply increased in France in the period 2007 to 2012.

From convergence to divergence: Portuguese demography and economic growth, 1500-1850

by Nuno Palma (University of Groningen) and Jaime Reis (ICS, Universidade de Lisboa)

When did Portugal’s economy diverge from the European core? This paper constructs the first time-series for Portugal’s per capita GDP for 1500-1850, drawing on a new and extensive database. Starting around 1550 there was a highly persistent upward trend on per capita income, which accelerated after 1700 and peaked 50 years later. At that point, per capita incomes were high by European standards. Portuguese per capita GDP was about as high as that of Britain, Italy and the Netherlands, and higher than that of France, Spain, Germany and Sweden. But as the second half of the eighteenth century unfolded, a phase of economic decline was initiated.


Throughout 1550-1750, the population did not catch up with the growth that resulted from increasing opportunities in the colonies and in exports, and from the introduction of highly productive crops resulting from the Columbian exchange, notably maize. The colonial empire also offered opportunities to migrate. But as the second half of the eighteenth century advanced, these sources of growth were becoming increasingly depleted and the decline of Brazilian gold remittances coincided with the beginning of a phase of economic decline. By the late eighteenth century almost all recent per capita GDP and real wage gains had been lost, and their level had become considerably lower than those of Britain and the Netherlands, although still not low by continental standards. As the right conditions were not in place for Portugal to industrialize in the nineteenth century, the country was left behind relatively to the continental European economies that did. Portugal would not experience modern economic growth until mid-twentieth century.

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