Great Economists Since Petty and Boisguilbert
Edited by Gilbert Faccarello and Heinz D. Kurz
Chapter 2: William Petty (1623–1687)
William Petty was born 26 May 1623 into modest family circumstances in Romsey, Hampshire. A precocious child, with a colourful personality which remained firmly with him in adulthood, Petty made his way in the world with both great ambition and great success. As a result of various happy accidents, he gained a progressive education in France and the Netherlands between 1638 and 1645, and acquired influential patrons, including Thomas Hobbes. After returning to England he studied medicine at Oxford University, acquiring the degree of Doctor of Physic in 1650. Benefiting from the Cromwellian purge of loyalist dons from the university, he was appointed Professor of Anatomy there in 1651. Petty’s ambitions led him to accept the position of physician-general to the English army in Ireland from 1652. More than two decades of his remaining 35 years were spent in that country. He went on to undertake the massive “Down” survey of Ireland which formed the basis for the transfer of Irish lands to the English “adventurers” who had undertaken the military subjugation of Ireland in the 1640s (Larcom 1851; Petty’s own long account of the survey). Putting aside any moral judgements about this episode or Petty’s involvement in it, the survey provided him with the opportunity to examine in great empirical detail the social and economic condition of an entire people – important material for his later “political arithmetic”. His Irish involvements also made Petty a very rich landowner in Ireland. Petty was an enthusiastic and committed devotee of the English...
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