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Title: Calculated Values: The Politics and Epistemology of Economic Numbers in Britain, 1688-1738
Authors: Deringer, William Peter
Advisors: Gordin, Michael
Colley, Linda J
Contributors: History of Science Department
Keywords: Britain
Subjects: History of science
Economic history
Issue Date: 2012
Publisher: Princeton, NJ : Princeton University
Abstract: This dissertation chronicles the emergence of economic calculation as an analytical, argumentative, and moral tool in British politics in the half-century after the 1688 Revolution. During Britain's "financial revolution," novel questions about the nation's "Trade & Revenue" were contested in the halls of Parliament and the pamphlet press. Accountants, government employees, journalists, and Parliamentary representatives built creative economic calculations to make sense of imperfect data, interrogate political secrets, and critique factional opponents. Through seemingly endless political fights over economic numbers, nourished by Britain's intensely partisan political culture, a novel practice of quantitative political economy coalesced. Those skilled in economic calculation found new opportunities for public advancement. Such practitioners forged inventive techniques of numerical estimation, modeling, and valuation, and pitched ambitious ideas about how numbers could make for better policy and a better nation. Consequently, epistemological questions about data sufficiency, probability, and prediction became problems of immediate political concern. While Britain's computational combatants came to few cohesive answers about the questions they confronted, their disagreements laid the groundwork for a more pervasive trust in numbers as a privileged medium of political knowledge. The first half of the dissertation traces the career of economic calculation through three major political transformations that shaped the modern British nation. Chapter 1 considers the problems of public accounting--the challenge of "finding the money"--that arose for MPs and political commentators in the aftermath of 1688. Chapter 2 looks at the calculation of the "Equivalent" and the debates over the Anglo-Scottish Union in 1706-1707. Chapter 3 recounts the heated debates over the Anglo-French "balance of trade" in 1713-1714, prompted by the Peace of Utrecht. The second half of the dissertation begins with the 1720 South Sea Bubble, which, perhaps more than any other event, demonstrated to contemporaries why accurate calculation was so necessary for a commercial polity. Chapter 4 recaptures the diversity of plausible methods Britons developed for computing the value of the South Sea stock before the 1720 crash. Chapter 5 explains how one particular method of valuation, that of the MP Archibald Hutcheson, gained special authority as a true representation of that stock's "intrinsick value," in large part because it proved so useful in establishing the ethical wrongdoings behind the Bubble. The final chapter examines how, just as financial calculations had become so valuable for proving the failures of the past after 1720, thereafter they also began to assume new powers for predicting and controlling the political future.
Alternate format: The Mudd Manuscript Library retains one bound copy of each dissertation. Search for these copies in the library's main catalog
Type of Material: Academic dissertations (Ph.D.)
Language: en
Appears in Collections:History of Science

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