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The Cameralists

Thames River, 18th Century

"Cameralism" is the term commonly used to describe the German brand of Mercantilism, that emerged in the 17th Century.

The ruinous destruction wrought upon Germany by the Thirty Years' War (1626-1648), had placed great demands on the liliputian treasuries and manpower of the patchwork of German principalities.  Princes had raised and maintained armies several times what their natural resources and budgets would allow.  For the princes of Germany, the transition to peace had not been smooth, the tasks of restoring treasuries, resuming administration and rebuilding their countries from the ravages of war were urgent but daunting.

The most immediate concern was systematizing and stabilizing princely revenues. This had already begun during wartime, when their own unpaid mercenaries could be just as much of a danger as enemy armies.  Traditionally, princes drew revenues from three sources: taxation, output of the princely estates ("demesnes") and whatever revenues they might extract from their princely privileges and monopolies ("regalian rights", e.g. mint fees, tolls, mines, forests, sale of fief titles, etc.)  Rather than farm these off to private contractors (like in France), the German princes sought to bring them under central control, establishing fiscal bureaus (Kammer), to supervise and systematize revenue-collection (usually two bureaus, one for taxation, another for demesnes and regalian rights.)  

The first problem was finding competent officials.  Although rudimentary economics - under the Aristotlean rubric of "practical philosophy" - had been on the curriculum of Medieval German universities, it was largely ignored by the Scholastics, disdained as a poor field for the exercise of their intellectual acrobatics.  This neglect had been partly rectified in the Protestant universities, as Lutheran reformers, such as Philipp Melancthon, had urged the revival of practical philosophy as an object of study in the 16th C.  But nonetheless expertise was largely lacking. Nonetheless, the princes turned to recruiting learned men from the law faculties to run the Kammer.    

The second problem was knowing what to do.  There was precious little guidance to go upon, and a lot of learning-by-doing.  In the aftermath of the war, there emerged a trickle of pamphlets, handbooks authored by successful Kammer officials.  These early pamphlets were rather straightforward instructions on record-keeping, staffing and running a bureau.  But they soon began going beyond that and recommending general principles of public finance and administration.  They gradually expanded their range to cover wider concerns, like the nature of wealth and society, from which taxation was to be drawn, and how expenditures impacted it.

It is common to partition Cameralismus or Cameralwissenschaften (the "cameral sciences") into three sub-disciplines: Cameralwissenschaft proper (public finance), Polizeiwissenschaft (administration of order) and Oeconomie (economic policy in a wider sense).  The translations are only rough definitions, the overlap between the disciplines ambiguous.  Another suggested way of putting it is to regard Cameral- as purely "for" the State (revenues, balancing accounts), Polizei- as the implementation of policy and social order, with the State as actor and people as passive, and Oeconomie as determining the optimal relationship between State and society, the broader objectives of policy in the social context (general welfare, happiness, etc.). [Or, to use an analogy with modern economic policy, oeconomie determines the objectives (e.g. full employment, inflation), polizei the tools (e.g. open-market operations, fiscal policy) and cameral the institutional details (e.g. how the Treasury or Central Bank actually go about doing it).  Not a perfect analogy, but might help give a rough idea of the partition.]

To complicate matters, there are other parallel and sometimes rival branches dealing with economics and policy in Germany.  Among the earliest is the the stream of Hausväterliteratur ("house-father"), in the line of household and estate management manuals.   Stemming from the 16th C. and continuing at least to the beginning of the 18th C., this can be seen as instructions manuals addressed to landowners and farmers, ranging from the narrow technicalities of how to improve the yield of crops and restructure an estate for profit, to more moralistic concerns of the proper way to treat peasants, ordering the relationships within the family and the social responsibilities of landowners.  Many of the Hausväter tracts addressed the ultimate pater familias of them all, the prince and his country.  This was a particularly Protestant line of literature, fitting in with the Lutheran conception of a paternalistic State.  Seckendorff (1655) can be regarded as exemplary of this tradition.  The literature of the Hausväter fed into Cameralism, although later Cameralists would eject much of the simplistic pater-familias tone and divert the focus away from the well-being of the prince, to the well-being of society. 

More rivalrous was the parallel development of Staatswissenschaft ('science of State') in the 17th and especially 18th C.  Staatswissenschaft was founded on two pillars: Statistik (political arithmetic, that is the comparative accumulation of descriptive empirical facts, pioneered by Hermann Corning and Johan Andreas Bose) and Statsrecht (positive state law, that is modern law as actually practiced merged with the natural law philosophy of Samuel Pufendorf and Christian Thomasius).  Unlike cameral sciences,  Staatswissenschaft had an enormous historical element - in good part because the actual organization of the Holy Roman Empire was too complicated to be dealt with in any ideal sense.  Its bizarre collection of territories, institutions, laws, etc. could not be understood without  reference to history,  how they came about.

Cameralwissenschaft and Staatswissenschaft competed with each other.  Comparatively, the former was practical, the latter academic; the former geared to policy, the latter to politics; "how it should be" versus "how it is", etc.  Although there were areas of overlap, one did not really feed into the other, held separate academic chairs, and remained rivals through to the 19th C.

The actual development of Cameralism as a school of thought, and not merely a discipline, emerged over time.  The early Cameralistic tracts rarely went beyond restating tired old instruction manuals of oekonomie ("household management"), applied to royal property. Those that attempted to articulate principles of polizeiwissenschaft (state & policy administration) tended to be confined to just a few abstract, moralistic rules-of-thumb - keep track of your budget, don't tax too much, etc. - with the assurance that everything would be fine.  But in all these old formulas of good conduct, very little mention was made of the actual economy.  Reconstruction, as a result, languished. 

The first real attempt to break with old formulas was the handbook of Veit Ludwig von Seckendorff (1655), chancellor of the tiny state of Saxe-Gotha.  While the bulk of it was written in the mould of the old manuals, Seckendorff moved beyond outlining principles of royal property management and administration to address the interface of state and economy, and the kind of economic policies that might assist the reconstruction and prosperity of the principality.

The Hapsburgs of Austria, the notional Holy Roman Emperors of Germany, faced probably the greatest challenge in the reconstruction period.  Their treasury had been exhausted by the Thirty Years' War, and their crown lands - Austria, Bohemia and Hungary - were ravaged to the root by the war and continued unrest.  Their Hapsburg cousins in Spain, once the great bankrollers of Austria, were too enveloped by problems of their own to help out.  In the meantime, France, the Hapsburgs' perennial enemy, had  shaken off nearly a century of civil strife, and in the hands of the young King Louis XIV and his capable ministers, were reorganizing the French State finances and putting its economy on a vigorous Mercantile footing, harnessing the resources of France into weapons of ambition.  By the early 1680s through his "chambers of reunion", Louis XIV was confident enough to lay claim and begin seizing traditionally German lands, while Austria lay helpless.  From the other side, the emboldened Ottoman Turks had surged forth, laying siege to Vienna itself in 1683. 

It is no surprise, then, that the question of reconstruction, administration and solvency rose to the fore in the court of the embattled Hapsburg Emperor.  Three men arrived in Vienna, the brilliant but strange J.J. Becher came first, in 1666, succeeded by Wilhelm von Schroder in 1682 and supported by Philipp von Hornick in 1684.  They laid the groundwork of Cameralismus, or the "science of the royal chamber", bringing the lessons of rational administration and Mercantilist economic policy to the Viennese court of Emperor Leopold I.



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Resources on Cameralism

  • The Cameralists: The Pioneers of German Social Policy, by A.W. Small, 1909 [bk] [McM]
  • Kameralistische Encyclopädie by Edward Baumstark, 1835 [bk]
  • Geschichte der National-oekonomik in Deutschland by W. Roscher, 1874 [bk]
  • "The German School of Political Economy"  in R.H. Inglis Palgrave, editor, 1894-1901 Dictionary of Political Economy [1901 ed.]
  • Governing Economy: The Reformation of German Economic Discourse, 1750-1840, by Ken Tribe, 1998 - excerpts
  • Strategies of Economic Order: German Economic Discourse, 1750-1950, by Ken Tribe, 1994 - excerpts.
  • Mercantilism: The Shaping of an Economic Language by Lars Magnusson, 1994 - excerpts
  • The Practical Imagination: The German Sciences of State in the Nineteenth Century, by David F. Lindenfeld, 1997 - excerpts
  • The Spirit of Capitalism: Nationalism and Economic Growth, by Liah Greenfeld, 2001 - excerpts
  • The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-century Political Thought by Mark Goldie, Robert Wokler, 2006 - excerpts 
  • "Cameralism: fertile sources of a new science of public finance" by Richard Wagner [pdf]
  • Wikipedia


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