Mercantilism and Cameralism – New Approaches and Reconfigurations

PD Dr. Philipp Robinson Rössner / Historisches Seminar, Universität Leipzig / Fritz-Thyssen-Stiftung
04.07.2014 - 06.07.2014
Philipp Rössner

Mercantilism used to have a rather bad press in the twentieth century. Eli F. Heckscher expressed a rather sceptical view of it. Keynes on the other hand was positive, but – apart from the late adherents to the German Historical School in economics (Friedrich List, Wilhelm Roscher, Gustav Schmoller et al.) represented a minority voice. Towards the mid-20th century writers stressed the rent seeking aspect of mercantilist political economy. They argued that this was, after all, a set of axioms designed to foster the interests of particular groups at the expense of the larger rest of society. They were in line with Adam Smith [An Inquiry into the Causes and Nature of the Wealth of Nations, 1776]. Whilst acknowledging the usefulness of the Navigation Acts in terms of fostering the development of a navy used for safeguarding Britain’s commercial interests on the high seas, Smith deeply disliked any interventionist intrusions into the market by the state. This paradigm would dominate the economic and social sciences for the next two centuries.

In recent years, however, some cornerstones of the neoclassical paradigm, going back essentially to the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers of the eighteenth century, have come under attack. Scholars have returned to studying the pre-classical pedigree of political economy, increasingly questioning the idea (implicit in modern or neoclassical theory) that certain economic recipes and strategies can be formulated in an axiomatic way which makes them ‘true’ in all circumstances, regardless of context, i.e. an economy’s or society’s idiosyncratic location point in time and space. This critique has come especially from scholars working on the German or land-locked version of Mercantilist economics (Cameralism). The Cameralist economists had a stronger focus on the fiscal aspects, as well as the allocative role of the State, impersonated by a ‘strong’ ruler and his (her) administrative structures, departments and institutions in terms of controlling and regulating the market, coordinating economic decision-making processes and in this way initiating economic development. Some have argued that Cameralist writers would have had a better understanding of economic development from the viewpoint of economic backwardness. Similar things have been said about Mercantilism, but only very recently by a rather limited number of scholars, working mostly on England’s early industrial period (after a rather long lacuna in the economic and historical sciences regarding the study of Mercantilist political economy during the twentieth century). The debate about Mercantilism as an economic discourse and political economy thus calls for re-evaluation and fresh re-contextualization.

In this way the workshop aims to bring together historians, economists as well as other social scientists who have contributed to recent re-configurations of Mercantilism and Cameralism and their impact on people’s lives, views and choices, especially policies of development. It seeks to do so from several angles:
(1) the intellectual history (Ideengeschichte) of political economy (history of Mercantilism/Cameralism as an economic discourse); (2) Economic history (data-based history of ‘real’ factors, such as prices, wages, income, productivity): What were the connections and interactions between economic development and political economy as an economic discourse?, as well as (3) modern possibilities of adaptation and application of older (pre-classical) ideas for growth and development studies/development economics today.


Friday 4th July 2014

6.00 – 8.00 p.m. Public Evening Lecture
University of Leipzig, Felix-Klein-Hörsaal (Augustinum / Neues Hörsaalgebäude)

Prof. Erik Reinert (Tallinn), Cameralism and Mercantilism as Development Economics and their Relevance for Today

Saturday 5th July 2014
University of Leipzig, Main Library, Fürstenzimmer (seminar room, 16th century), Ground Floor, left

9.00 a.m. – 11.00 a.m.
New Insights from the Cameralist Side (I)

Erik Reinert (Tallinn), German Language Economic Bestsellers before 1850

Lars Magnusson (Uppsala), Was Cameralism really the German Version of Mercantilism?

Marcus Sandl (Zurich), Development as Possibility. Risk and Chance in the Cameralist Discourse

11.00 a.m. – 11.30 a.m. coffee / tea break

11.30 am – 1.00 p.m.
New Insights from the Cameralist Side (II)

Bertram Schefold (Frankfurt-on-the-Main),The Economics of Goethe

Andre Wakefield (Pitzer College), Cameralism as the Science of Metals

1.00 p.m. – 2.00 p.m. lunch break

2.00 p.m. – 3.30 p.m.
Mercantilist Discourse (I): Natural Law and the Idea of Competition, 17th and 18th Centuries

Moritz Isenmann (Cologne), From Privilege to Economic Law. French Origins of Comparative Cost Theory

Sophus Reinert (Harvard), Achtung! Banditi! Mercantilism and State Territoriality

3.30 p.m. – 4 p.m. Coffee / tea break

4.00 p.m. – 5.30 p.m.
Mercantilist Discourse (II): England, France, Sweden, Spain Compared

Carl Wennerlind (Barnard / NYU) – Restoring Atlantis: The Swedish Improvement Culture during the Age of Greatness

Steve Pincus (Yale) – Competing Notions of State Intervention and the Myth of the Free Trade vs. Mercantilism Dichotomy: Lessons from English, Spanish and French Political Economy in the Eighteenth Century

7.00 pm dinner

Sunday 6th July 2014

9.00 a.m. – 10.30 a.m.
Mercantilism in Practice (I): Britain

William Ashworth (Liverpool) – Industry, Fiscal Pressure and the Collapse of Mercantilism in Britain 1763–1842

Philipp Robinson Rössner (Manchester & Leipzig): Mercantilism and Economic Development at the Periphery – the Scottish Case (c.1700-1800)

11.00 a.m. – 1.00 p.m.
Mercantilism in Practice (II): India, Poland, Württemberg

Prasannan Parthasarathi (Boston) – Mercantilism in Eighteenth-Century South Asia

Werner Scheltjens (Leipzig) – The Development of Russian Economic Thought in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century: Heinrich Friedrich von Storch (1766-1835) and Nikolay Semyonovich Mordvinov (1754-1845)

Jürgen Backhaus (Erfurt), Mercantilism and Cameralism. Two very different variations on the same theme

Georg Eckert (Wuppertal) - In the Heyday of Cameralism: The State of Württemberg, 1781-1819

2.00 p.m. – 3.00 p.m. Roundtable / concluding remarks / participants’ departure


PD Dr. Philipp Robinson Rössner

University of Manchester

Mercantilism and Cameralism – New Approaches and Reconfigurations, 04.07.2014 – 06.07.2014 Leipzig, in: H-Soz-Kult, 25.05.2014, <>.