The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics

2018 Edition
| Editors: Macmillan Publishers Ltd

Political Arithmetic

  • Phyllis Deane
Reference work entry


The term ‘political arithmetic’ predates the term ‘political economy’. It was coined by Sir William Petty, a founder member of the Royal Society, who – being a scientist by education and a government economic adviser by career choice – deliberately set out to apply the new scientific methodology of the 17th century to the practical economic problems of the modern nation state. For the leading spirits of the scientific revolution which reached a climax in the second half of the 17th century, the common article of faith was a belief in the unity of theory and practice, combined with a conviction that the first step in the advancement of human understanding in any sphere of knowledge – whether in astronomy or in chemistry or in industrial or social technology – was to lay a foundation of direct, empirical observations. To quote Bacon’s Novum Organum:

The roads to human power and to human knowledge lie close together, and are nearly the same; nevertheless, on account of the pernicious and inveterate habit of dwelling on abstractions, it is safer to begin and raise the sciences from those foundations which have relation to practice and let the active part be as the seal which prints and determines the contemplative counterpart.

That was the inspiration which underlay the foundation of the Royal Society and allowed men like Graunt and Petty, Newton and Boyle, Flamsteed and Hooke, to feel themselves part of the same intellectual community. That was also the inspiration for the first exercises in political arithmetic.


Chalmers, G. Colquhoun, P. Davenant, C. Demography Graunt, J. King, G. Massie, J. National income Petty, W. Political arithmetic Political economy Young, A. 

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© Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Phyllis Deane
    • 1
  1. 1.