Money, Banks and Finance in Economic Thought

Joseph Harris and James Steuart on debasement and money

Coutinho Mauricio, State University of Campinas UNICAMP

In Principles of Political Economy (1767), Book III, James Steuart more than once refers to Joseph Harris' An Essay into Money and Coins (1757-58), criticizing Harris' proposals for circumventing the scarcity of silver coin in England. Steuart's criticism is part of an ample analysis of debasement, a crucial issue in 17th and 18th century monetary debates, and central to the exposition of the (diverse) conceptions of money hold by Harris and by Steuart. Despite admitting that a debasement was out of sight in their times, both authors effectively delved into debasement, many times recurring to the epochal 1695/96 controversy that opposed Lowndes and Locke. It seems that, irrespective of the possibilities of a monetary reform, debasement was taken by Harris and by Steuart as an analytical instrument, useful for testing the accuracy of their conceptions of money and monetary system. The purpose of this paper is to establish a contrast between Harris' and Steuart's approaches to money, by means of a review of Steuart's criticism of Harris, and of an assessment of each author's arguments on debasement. It will be argued that it is possible, by means of a step by step assessment of Harris' and Steuart's arguments on debasement, to review, and to contrast, the nuclei of their conceptions of money. Apart from the strict references of Steuart to Harris, and from examining the concerned passages, the paper will take on account some major steps in the building up of an ample vision of money, in the Principles and in Money and Coins. The paper will also examine to what extent Harris' general concept of money, exposed in Part I of Money and Coins, is coherent with his exercises in analyses of monetary policies, in Part II.

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Keywords: Joseph Harris, James Steuart, money, debasement

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