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Plus-or-Minus: David Hume, Richard Price, and the Problem with Fiscal Numbers

Thursday Lecture Series

dateOctober 3, 2013 timeThursday, 12:15pm EDT location The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room, Columbia University
The National Parachute by James Gillray, 1802 political cartoon depicting two men in a hot air balloon labeled "Sinking Fund"

In this talk, Deringer looked at the the long eighteenth century's fundamental transformation in how the British state raised and spent its money. He examined how the state saw an equally significant transformation in political cognition—in how Britons thought through political problems. In short, political discourse in the eighteenth century became newly denominated in numerical terms. The emergence of a new calculating culture in Britain was not simply a consequence of the military-fiscal state’s need to raise money. In the fifty years that followed the Revolution of 1688, new practices of quantitative economic analysis developed out of the needs of partisan politicking more than fiscal administration, as numbers proved essential in interrogating the probity of ministers and critiquing (or justifying) policies in the public press. Like the development of Britain’s military-fiscal state, the development of political quantification was not without its problems. Notably, the first “prime minister” Robert Walpole (1721-42), along with a team of calculating hired-guns, had proved so skilled at dictating the public’s numerical conversations that, by mid-century, calculation seemed no longer to be doing its job of holding the state to account.