The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics

2018 Edition
| Editors: Macmillan Publishers Ltd

Oncken, August (1844–1911)

  • Jürg Niehans
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-349-95189-5_10

Abstract

Oncken was born in Heidelberg on 10 April 1844 and died in Schwerin (Mecklenburg) on 10 July 1911. After studies in Munich, Heidelberg and Berlin, Oncken first became a landowner in Oldenburg. Behind his scholarly interest in physiocracy was a life-long interest in agriculture. He began his academic career as university lecturer in economics and statistics at the Vienna School of Agriculture. In 1878, after a brief interlude at the Aachen Institute of Technology he accepted an appointment as professor of economics at the University of Bern, where he taught a wide range of courses until his retirement (because of failing eyesight) at the end of 1909.

Oncken was born in Heidelberg on 10 April 1844 and died in Schwerin (Mecklenburg) on 10 July 1911. After studies in Munich, Heidelberg and Berlin, Oncken first became a landowner in Oldenburg. Behind his scholarly interest in physiocracy was a life-long interest in agriculture. He began his academic career as university lecturer in economics and statistics at the Vienna School of Agriculture. In 1878, after a brief interlude at the Aachen Institute of Technology he accepted an appointment as professor of economics at the University of Bern, where he taught a wide range of courses until his retirement (because of failing eyesight) at the end of 1909.

As a general economist, Oncken has little claim to our attention. He never had a correct understanding of things like, say, diminishing returns, and he remained an unsophisticated advocate of protection, particularly for agriculture (1901a), applauding Henry Carey as the greatest living economist (1874). As an historian of economic thought, however, he was one of the leading lights between 1870 and 1920.

In his earliest historical paper (1874) Oncken criticized Adam Smith, in the spirit of German economics of that time, for his ‘materialism’ and his radical ‘laissez faire’ doctrines. In Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant (1877) he confessed that these criticisms did not survive a careful reading of the original sources. Instead he now stressed the similarities between those two giants of moral philosophy.

In Bern, Oncken’s interests shifted to the Physiocrats. The result was a series of masterpieces of archival detective work and historical interpretation. It begins with a paper on the relationship between the Physiocrats and their disciples in Bern (1886a). In the following monograph (1886b), Oncken traces the maxim ‘laissez faire’ to d’Argenson (and not to Boisguillebert, as Stephan Bauer states in the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences) and further back to the time of Colbert, while ‘laissez passer’ was later added by de Gournay in a conversation with Mirabeau. In this context, Oncken puts forth the startling conjecture (not reiterated in (1902)) that the Tableau Economique was originally printed in support of a bid by Quesnay for the premier ministership.

Oncken’s edition of Quesnay’s writings (1888) became fundamental for all further work in this field. The sought-for completeness, however, eluded Oncken, because his very publication set off a renewed search of archives, culminating in Bauer’s discovery of an early (but still not the first) version of the Tableau Economique (published by the British Economic Association) and of the article ‘Hommes’ in 1890. A further article, ‘Impôts’, was later published by Schelle. On the other hand, Oncken’s collection includes non-economic writings not available in the 1958 edition, as well as the basic biographical sources. A first, hand-written draft of the Tableau was later reproduced in Oncken’s History of Political Economy (1902).

Oncken himself made use of much of the newly discovered material in a succession of essays on Quesnay’s life (1894–6) and the history of physiocracy (1893a, b, 1897a). He was well aware that the time was not ripe for a definitive biography, but for brilliance of historical scholarship Oncken’s essays are unsurpassed. It is regrettable that, being available only in German and in inaccessible journals, they are usually not given the credit they deserve.

With respect to the circumstances under which the Tableau Economique was first printed, we do not seem to have progressed much beyond Oncken. The story that the most famous single page in the history of economics was typeset and printed by a bored Louis XV with his own hands, Oncken regarded as a fable, mainly because of its incompatibility with the known facts about the King’s character. Schelle, however, chose to treat the story, despite its implausibility, as historical fact and his view was still accepted by Jacqueline Hecht in 1958.

Of the History of Political Economy (1902), only the first volume appeared, dealing with the time before Adam Smith. The first half, reaching from antiquity to mercantilism, is today of little interest. The second half, treating the Physiocrats and their predecessors, is still a valuable source of historical information about men, books and ideas, making an effective case for Quesnay as the ‘founder’ of economic science.

Oncken later returned to Adam Smith by defending him, not without some polemics, against his detractors of the Schmoller School (1897b, 1898). In another paper (1909), he also pointed out that Smith did not borrow from Ferguson, but had valid reasons for feeling that Ferguson had borrowed from his lecture notes.

Selected Works

  • 1870. Untersuchung über den Begriff der Statistik. Leipzig.

  • 1874. Adam Smith in der Kulturgeschichte. Ein Vortrag. Vienna.

  • 1877. Adam Smith und Immanuel Kant. Der Einklang und das Wechselverhältniss ihrer Lehren über Sitte, Staat und Wirthschaft. Vol. 1: Ethik und Politik. Leipzig.

  • 1886a. Der ältere Mirabeau und die ökonomische Gesellschaft in Bern. Berner Beiträge zur Geschichte der Nationalökonomie No. 1. Bern.

  • 1886b. Die Maxime Laissez faire et Laissez passer, ihr Ursprung, ihr Werden. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Freihandelslehre. Berner Beiträge zur Geschichte der Nationalökonomie No. 2. Bern.

  • 1888. ed. Oeuvres économiques et philosophiques de François Quesnay, fondateur du système physiocratique. Berner Beiträge zur Geschichte der Nationalökonomie No. 3. Frankfurt/Paris.

  • 1893a. Zur Geschichte der Physiokratie. Jahrbuch für Gesetzgebung, Verwaltung und Volkswirtschaft im Deutschen Reich 17. Leipzig.

  • 1893b. Ludwig XVI und das physiokratische System. Zeitschrift für Litteratur und Geschichte der Staatswissenschaften 1. Leipzig.

  • 1894–6. Zur Biographie des Stifters der Physiokratie, François Quesnay. Zeitschrift für Litteratur und Geschichte der Staatswissenschaften (from 1896: Vierteljahrsschrift für Staats- und Volkswirtschaft, für Litteratur und Geschichte der Staatswissenschaften aller Länder), vols 2, 3, 4. Leipzig.

  • 1895. Political economy in Switzerland. Economic Journal 5: 133–137.

  • 1896–8. Letter from Switzerland. Economic Journal 6: 308–314 (1896); 7: 228–293 (1897); 8: 269–273 (1898).

  • 1897a. Entstehen und Werden der physiokratischen Theorie. In Vierteljahrsschrift für Staats- und Volkswirtschaft, für Litteratur und Geschichte der Staatswissenschaften aller Länder, vol. 5. Leipzig.

  • 1897b. The consistency of Adam Smith. Economic Journal 7: 443–450.

  • 1898. Das Adam Smith-Problem. Zeitschrift für Socialwissenschaft 1. Berlin.

  • 1901a. Was sagt die Nationalökonomie als Wissenschaft über die Bedeutung hoher und niedriger Getreidepreise? Offprint from Monatliche Nachrichten zur Regulierung der Getreidepreise. Berlin.

  • 1901b. Quesnay, François. In Handwörterbuch der Staatswissenschaften, 2nd ed, vol. VI. Jena.

  • 1902. Geschichte der Nationalökonomie. Erster Teil: Die Zeit vor Adam Smith. Leipzig.

  • 1909. Adam Smith und Adam Ferguson. Zeitschrift für Socialwissenschaft 12. Leipzig.

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© Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jürg Niehans
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