University of Cambridge > > History and Economics Seminar > The economics of perfectionism, 1750-1800: Three models

The economics of perfectionism, 1750-1800: Three models

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Among German Enlightenment and early Idealist thinkers, ethical systems of perfectionism are not merely expressions of a re-sacralisation of politics or symptoms of political retardation in comparison with Western Europe, but have concrete economic content, both directing and limiting state intervention in the economy, and proposing distinctive models of economic growth. Three such models will be examined: those of Christian Wolff (1679-1754), Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), and JG Fichte (1762-1814). Wolff advocates a strongly interventionist state acting to develop the local productive forces, in the absence of colonies and external markets, and in conjunction with then-current cameralist approaches to political economy which are increasingly attracting scholarly attention. Perfection here means the full development of material and intellectual resources and of the capacities of economic agents, under the aegis of a paternalistic state. Humboldt and Fichte, in contrast, are representatives of distinct strands of post-Kantian perfectionism, which aims, unlike Wolff, not to maximise happiness, but freedom. Humboldt interprets Kant as voicing an injunction against any state intervention in the economy beyond the strict minimum needed for security and stability. Fichte instead reads Kant as authorising a highly interventionist state in order to promote and maintain the necessary conditions for free agency among all subjects. If Fichte’s state seems to replicate features of the Wolffian system, this appearance is misleading, as Fichte’s animating principles are fundamentally different, and much closer to Humboldt’s own. The dialectic of freedom and perfection will be traced through these three models and their political and economic consequences.

This talk is part of the History and Economics Seminar series.

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