Money, Power and Print VI: The Leuven meeting

For June 2014 we broke with tradition of alternating between the United Kingdom and Canada and headed for Belgium. For the former Catholic College in the city known to those who work in the early part of the C18th more commonly as “Louvain”. The Leuven Institute for Ireland in Europe was an excellent venue—redolent of the period we study, cloistered, almost, and so protected from the intrusions of the modern world but equipped with all the amenities we needed and an excellent meeting room. And just down the road was the 't Vervolg bar, which made a suitable staging point for expeditions into the city.

But we had come to Leuven to work, as usual, and the discussions began with readings of works by Benjamin Franklin and William Douglass. The discussion ranged from consideration of the merits of the economic argument to discussion of who might, or might not, have been reading the pamphlets and what events might have inspired them, through to a consideration of just what someone such as, say, Franklin, might have had to gain from encouraging a livelier print debate on the topics of the day. We spent time too on questions of authorial motive and our tendency to judge events by what we know now rather than what might have been assumed at the time. This session served well to set the tone for the remainder of the colloquium, which followed its five predecessors in being, by and large, enthusiastically receptive of insight and comments from all those present.

This was a characteristic perhaps best appreciated in the second session when the paper on “Why Cato?” was best summed up by the observation that it might as well have been entitled “Why not Seneca?”[1] Nonetheless, a paper that ended up suggesting that the answer to its question was, in essence, “why not?” did perhaps help remind those of us gathered that what now seems significant and inevitable, thanks, in this particular case, to the influence of Cato’s Letters, might have come about largely accidentally: a historical corollary to the statistician’s mantra that correlation does not imply causation. The session’s other paper, entitled “Financial necessity is the mother of fiscal invention: innovation, imitation and ‘banking against the grain’ in Ireland, 1660-1783”, was, as its author informed us, a long-winded way of saying something did not happen. Much discussion ensued about what a national or central bank was - or is – though the answer remained allusive. Anyway, Ireland did not get to have either version until 1783, in large part because before then the private bankers were having too much fun without one. Despite this, we were assured that all bankers are nice people.

The Dutch were on our minds not only after the five-goal thrashing of Spain in the World Cup (which gave us some of reason to hope for an end to the Orange drought at the quadrennial event) but also because all of us in the room are regularly puzzled by the nature of Anglo-Dutch relations throughout the seventeenth and most of the eighteenth century. A paper that considered the tail end of this relationship, “Trust and dependency: the Dutch discourse on British public credit, ca. 1760-80,” enlightened all of us as to the extent of Dutch investment in British public credit—the title did not mislead—but left us collectively wondering why these investments were made. Was it a lack of opportunity at home, a need to diversify risk, a collective idea that such investments were productive, perhaps without real insight? These are exactly the things that MPP is all about: food for thought and a reason to re-think what we think we know.

While Dutch money was heading to Britain, British (or, at least, English) readers had encountered a new genre of writing, the “it” narrative. Many of us were introduced to this trope by discussion of “ ‘A tale of two currencies”: narrating money in the wake of the financial revolution.” This was the point in the meeting where we at least plunged into a question that we might have done well to have been asking from our very first meeting in Regina: What is money? We had, of course, been touching on this all along, but it was now that we realized that, err, yes, the largely unspoken secret of economists is that they haven’t yet agreed on one of those ideas the rest of us don’t really understand but assume we grasp well enough. The question that was not raised, but that lurked and made its way into one or two of the dinner and lunch conversations was why an “it narrative” should be so peculiar a device when, as we know, “money talks.”

After lunch, we got to ponder the questions how those involved in shaping the financial revolution wished to be perceived, and how much their interest in controlling perception actually affected the formative years of the market. So, we were introduced to the papers of the remarkable James Brydges, duke of Chandos, paymaster-general of the forces abroad during the War of the Spanish Succession. He used this position to secure an enormous personal wealth in a way that might have been acceptable then, within reason, but today would be frowned upon. We investigated too whether Brydges’ mantra – “I invest, you speculate, they gamble” – was fair commentary upon his financial practices. With a paper entitled “Danger to the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street? The Bank of England, Warfare and the State in Britain, 1694-1819” the discussion came round to the proposition that British government spending, financed by bank credit, was a source of economic strength rather than of weakness.

In previous meetings we have been introduced to pre-1688 matters that helped inform what happened once William III had secure the English throne. This time, with a paper on “The rise of the fiscal central bank: contemporary lessons in central banking for economic historians”, we also got to think about modern equivalents to the post-Revolutionary responses to fiscal crisis. Just what were central bankers thinking in 2009 -2010? What were the formal and informal relations between the periphery and the centre? How did the narrative being developed in contemporary press accounts differ from the story those charged with addressing the unfolding crises thought they were telling? That discussion was paired with a consideration of the time “Before the financial revolution: economic thought and the West Country during the Exclusion Crisis”, The latter essay reminded us that issues of economic policy germane to Cornwall and Devon could generate regional tensions as deep as anything Greece or Ireland had to offer us in 2010.

In Leuven, old friends and colleagues benefited as new friends and colleagues added to the richness and complexity of the discussions. Still, after ten years and six meetings, the event is in need of some fresh ideas. Ivar, Rick and Chris have decided to step away from an organizing role. Consequently plans for an MPP VII are still somewhat tentative and will depend upon some new leaders emerging. The goodwill and interest of all those involved suggest there will be a seventh meeting, presumably in 2016. Details, or news of an ultimate demise, will be posted and shared with the MPP email list just as soon as there is something to share.

[1]. This, by the way, can perhaps be answered by James Romm’s recent book, Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero, which makes the point, inter alia, that Seneca was a tyrannodidaskalos, a tyrant-teacher. He might have shared the fate of suicide with Cato, but in one case it was voluntary, in the other compelled.