An Inquiry Into the Permanent Causes of the Decline and Fall of Powerful and Wealthy Nations. WILLIAM PLAYFAIR.
An Inquiry Into the Permanent Causes of the Decline and Fall of Powerful and Wealthy Nations
An Inquiry Into the Permanent Causes of the Decline and Fall of Powerful and Wealthy Nations
An Inquiry Into the Permanent Causes of the Decline and Fall of Powerful and Wealthy Nations
An Inquiry Into the Permanent Causes of the Decline and Fall of Powerful and Wealthy Nations
An Inquiry Into the Permanent Causes of the Decline and Fall of Powerful and Wealthy Nations
An Inquiry Into the Permanent Causes of the Decline and Fall of Powerful and Wealthy Nations
An Inquiry Into the Permanent Causes of the Decline and Fall of Powerful and Wealthy Nations
An Inquiry Into the Permanent Causes of the Decline and Fall of Powerful and Wealthy Nations

An Inquiry Into the Permanent Causes of the Decline and Fall of Powerful and Wealthy Nations

“Information, that is imperfectly acquired, is generally as imperfectly retained; and a man who has carefully investigated a printed table, finds, when done, that he has only a very faint and partial idea of what he has read; and that like a figure imprinted on sand, it is soon totally erased and defaced. The amount of mercantile transactions in money, and of profit or loss, are capable of being as easily represented in drawing, as any part of space, or as the face of a country; though, till now, it has not been attempted. Upon that principle these Charts were made …. On inspecting any one of these Charts attentively, a sufficiently distinct impression will be made, to remain unimpaired for a considerable time, and the idea which does remain will be simple and complete, at once including the duration and the amount.” –William Playfair, “The Commercial and Political Atlas” (1786)

“The general conclusion is, from taking the whole together, that wealth and power have never been long permanent in any place. That they never have been renewed when once destroyed, though they have had rises and falls, and that they travel over the face of the earth, something like a caravan of merchants. On their arrival, every thing is found green and fresh; while they remain all is bustle and abundance, and, when gone, all is left trampled down, barren, and bare.” –William Playfair, “An Inquiry Into the Permanent Causes of the Decline and Fall of Powerful and Wealthy Nations” (1805)


William Playfair (1759-1823) was a pioneer in the use of graphic techniques (such as time-series line plots, bar charts, and pie charts) to display statistical data; and in the work offered here, he used those techniques to explain and support his theories of the factors that lead to the downfall of nations and empires — theories that still resonate in current debates over national policy.

On Playfair’s Pioneering Work in Statistical Graphics:

“The two great inventors of modern graphical designs were J.H. Lambert (1728-1777) , a Swiss-German scientist and mathematician, and William Playfair (1759-1823), a Scottish political economist. The first known time-series using economic data was published in Playfair’s remarkable book, The Commercial and Political Atlas ….” (Edward Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.) “In 1786 and 1801, Playfair invented three fundamental forms of statistical graph—the time-series line graph, the bar chart, and the pie chart — and he did so without significant precursors. Hence he is the creator of all the basic styles of graph with the exception of the scatterplot, which did not appear until the end of the nineteenth century. A few examples of line graphs precede Playfair, but these are mostly representations of theoretical functions with data superimposed and are conspicuous by their isolation. His contributions to the development of statistical graphics remain his life’s signal accomplishment. Although this work was received with indifference, he rightly never faltered in his conviction that he had found the best way to display empirical data. In the two centuries since, there has been no appreciable improvement on his designs.” (Dictionary of National Biography).

On Playfair’s Life and Adventures:

“Playfair is an intriguing character who led a colorful life. … [H]is various enterprises included a bank, a newspaper, gun-carriage making, and a series of dubious efforts to supplement his income by blackmail, extortion, and one outright swindle that led to his conviction at the court of the King’s Bench in 1805 ….” (Jonathan Sachs, “William Playfair, Statistical Graphics, and the Meaning of an Event”.) “Philosopher, writer, inventor, secret agent: William Playfair was, in effect, the Forrest Gump of the Scottish Enlightenment—seemingly related to everyone by one or two links, turning up at a remarkable number of historic events, and enmeshed in an improbable number of adventures.” (Bruce Berkowitz, “Retroview: An Agent of Influence”, in The American Interest, September 1, 2009.) “In the mid-1790s, after war had been declared between England and revolutionary France, Playfair persuaded the London government to back his attempt to wreck the French economy by counterfeiting vast numbers of assignats, the paper currency France used to pay for its wars with England. At a time when paper was still handmade, one sheet at a time, from discarded cloth, 90 reams of paper a week were used to print counterfeit French bank notes in a remote castle in Northumberland, near the Scottish border. … Playfair’s memorandum proposing the scheme has only recently been found, after nearly 225 years.” (Richard Davenport-Hines, “Playfair Plotted for England”, in The Wall Street Journal, January 12, 2018.) Details concerning this counterfeiting plot, and other aspects of Playfair’s accomplishments and his sometimes questionable adventures, can be found in a recent study — Bruce Berkowitz’ “Playfair: The True Story of the British Secret Agent Who Changed How We See the World” (George Mason Univ. Press 2018).

On the Inquiry and Playfair’s Theories of National Decline:

In the work offered here — whose title was intentionally chosen by Playfair to invoke those other two Enlightenment classics, Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations — Playfair sought to elucidate “by what means a nation may acquire wealth and power” and “by what means wealth and power, once acquired, may be preserved.” “In looking over the globe, if we fix our eyes on those places where wealth was formerly accumulated, and where commerce flourished, we see them, at the present day, peculiarly desolated and degraded.” (Inquiry, p. iii). “From this almost universal picture, we learn that the greatness of nations is but of short duration.” (Id., p. iv.) “Though the career of prosperity must necessarily have a termination amongst every people, yet there is some reason to think that the degradation, which naturally follows, and which has always followed hitherto, may be averted; whether it may be, or may not be so, is the subject of the following Inquiry; which, if it is of importance to any nation on earth, must be peculiarly so to England; a nation that has risen, both in commerce and power, so high above the natural level assigned to it by its population and extent.” (Id., pp. iv-v).

Playfair’s Inquiry contains “at least four big ideas that economists depend on today.” (Berkowitz). The first was his theory of national decline, and, more fundamentally, the idea that such a theory was even possible — that the causes of decline were not too numerous, complex, individually small, random, and diverse to allow simple general laws to be formulated. Opposing the more pessimistic views of Edmund Burke, Playfair argued that “[n]ations are exempt from those accidental vicissitudes which derange the wisest of human plans upon a smaller scale. Number and magnitude reduce chances to certainty. The single and unforeseen cause that overwhelms a man in the midst of prosperity, never ruins a nation: unless it be ripe for ruin, a nation never falls; and when it does fall, accident has only the appearance of doing what, in reality, was already nearly accomplished.”

“Playfair’s theory about national decline was straightforward: Some enduring factors, internal and external, promote growth; other enduring factors, internal and external, impede growth. When the latter factors outweigh the former, nations stop growing and decline. The main internal factor that causes nations to grow wealthier is individual entrepreneurship, combined with technology. The main internal factor that cause[s] decline is the accretion of self-serving special interests, combined with sloth. The main external factor that causes growth is international trade; the external factors that cause decline are conflicts over trade, the costs of war, and the costs of controlling foreign lands.”

“The second big idea in Playfair’s Inquiry is ‘comparative advantage’ … Adam Smith argued in Wealth of Nations that a nation should buy a good from abroad whenever another country can produce it for less — that is, whenever the other country enjoys an ‘absolute advantage.’” In this way, a nation can increase consumer welfare by obtaining goods at a lower price. “Comparative advantage takes the idea a step further and adds a twist. Economists say the world as a whole creates more wealth when every country concentrates on producing those things it does best ….” (Berkowitz). The enriching effects of comparative advantage could, Playfair felt, best be achieved through free trade among nations. Although the idea of comparative advantage is generally credited to the economist David Ricardo, Playfair preceded him, and there is some basis for believing that Ricardo was influenced by and borrowed from Playfair’s work.

“Playfair’s third big idea [was] the psychological dimension of economics — attitudes towards risk taking, investing, and buying things — and how they can change, and be changed, over time.” “Playfair observed how young nations were full of daring, energetic entrepreneurs. But, he said, as nations get older, their people tend to get soft. Businesses lobby for laws to protect their markets and cripple competitors. Just about everyone seeks favors — subsidies, pensions, or some other transfer payments. As time goes on, more people figure out how to get protection and benefits; fewer people take risks or work hard. Those who do are stymied.” (Berkowitz).

Playfair recognized the difficulties of controlling human nature, but felt that growth-friendly attitudes could be instilled through proper education. “To attempt to smother the passions is vain, to controul them difficult; besides, it is from energy, arising from passions or propensities, that all good, as well as all evil, arise. The business, then, will neither be to curb nor to crush, but to give a proper direction. This is to be done by good habits, when young, and a proper education ….” (Inquiry, p. 277) He also recommended a wide variety of policies that a nation could adopt in order to create minimally coercive incentives and nudges promoting individual conduct that supported national wealth.

Finally, Playfair’s fourth big idea was “the importance of the middle class in the rise of a nation. Playfair was one of the first writers to see the linkage between a big, hard-working middle class and economic growth.” (Berkowitz).

On the Four Charts in the Inquiry:

Inquiry is illustrated with four large fold-out charts. The first attempts to present in parallel, along a single horizontal time access, the rise and fall of nations and empires, running from the great empires of antiquity to Britain and the other powerful nations of the late eighteenth century. Each nation’s rise and eventual fall is depicted by a long horizontal bar of varying thickness, resembling the silhouette of a mountain range, whose height, at any particular point in time, represents the magnitude of the nation’s power and influence. Playfair notes that this “is the first [chart] of the sort that was ever engraved.” (Inquiry, p. xv). He recognized that any attempt to quantitatively represent trends in national “greatness” is necessarily hindered by the difficulty of developing a single metric of national influence and by the paucity of comparable data covering empires over the course of some twenty centuries. He nevertheless felt that the exercise was a useful one. “This plan would be unexceptionably correct, if the materials for it could be procured; but if they were, it would not lead to any very different conclusion from what it does in its present state. The times, when the elevation began, and its duration are exact. The rises and falls are, as nearly as I am able, estimated from existing documents.” (Inquiry, p. 78). “I first drew the Chart in order to clear up my own ideas on the subject, finding it very troublesome to retain a distinct notion of the changes that had taken place. I found it answered the purpose beyond my expectation, by bringing into one view the result of details that are dispersed over a very wide and intricate field of universal history; facts sometimes connected with each other, sometimes not, and always requiring reflection each time they were referred to. I found the first rough draft gave me a better comprehension of the subject, than all that I had learnt from occasional reading, for half of my lifetime; and on the supposition that what was of so much use to me, might be of some to others, I have given it with a tolerable degree of accuracy.” (Id., p. xv).

The second chart shows the areas, populations, and national revenues for a number of nations as of the beginning of the nineteenth century. Each nation is represented by a circle whose size is proportional to the country’s area, and which for some countries is broken down into concentric circles or into sectors representing different portions of the nation. Also, the shading of the circle indicates the nature of the nation’s power; “[t]he nations stained green, are maritime powers; those stained pale red, are only powerful by land.” (Inquiry, p.190). Each circle has a vertical tangent on the left and one on the right, with lengths proportional to population and national revenue respectively, and with a line connecting the tops of the two tangents, whose slope provides an indication of the tax (i.e., national revenue) burden per citizen. The chart powerfully supports Playfair’s ideas about the heuristic value of displaying such data in graphical form. For example, it is apparent at a glance that England has far higher revenues, and a far higher tax burden per citizen, than was the case for any other national power of the day. Also, as Playfair observed, “it is impossible not to see by what means Sweden and Denmark are of little importance, as to wealth or power; for, though population and territory are the original foundation of power, finances are the means of exerting it.” And, finally, “[w]hat must the consequences be if the Russian empire [with its huge population and area] should one day become like other nations? If that should happen, it either will be divided, or it will crush all Europe.” (Inquiry, p. 190).

The third and fourth graphs are time series of the sort pioneered by Playfair in his earlier work, the Commercial and Political Atlas. The third shows the value of England’s imports and exports, and thus (by the vertical gap between the two lines) its balance of trade. The fourth shows England’s revenue from the time of Queen Elizabeth I through Playfair’s own time. Also shown on the chart are the costs of national debit service and “the free revenue, or what is over, after paying the interest on our debt.” (Inquiry, p. 214).

This first edition of Playfair’s Inquiry is offered here with another work of Playfair’s: The Commercial and Political Atlas, Representing, by Means of Stained Copper-Plate Charts, the Progress of the Commerce, Revenues, Expenditure, and Debts of England, During the Whole of the Eighteenth Century (3rd edition 1801). This copy contains 25 attractively colored graphs and charts (two of which are folding). (Twenty-six charts are called for by the Table of Contents; however, there is no apparent physical evidence that the missing plate — on the price of flour from 1791 to 1801 — was ever included in this copy.)

This work, originally published in 1786, “was the first publication to contain statistical charts. The Atlas was devoted to an examination of English trade during the eighteenth century. Though modeled on the familiar geographical atlas, it contained no maps. It was unusual in format: the layout was landscape and the charts were mostly foldouts, two to three times larger than the volume itself. In the charts, Playfair plotted pounds sterling against time in forty-four time-series line graphs. The book also contained a solitary bar chart, an oddity made necessary because he did not have sufficient data to construct a line graph. Ironically, this was the only graph not to include time as a dimension …. Playfair sought forgiveness for the shortcoming: ‘This Chart … does not comprehend any portion of time, and it is much inferior in utility to those that do.’” (Dictionary of National Biography). Edward Tufte, discussing this work in his book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information shares Playfair’s skepticism about the value of the bar chart in this particular case, and Playfair evidently decided to omit it from the third edition of the Atlas (the one offered here).

London: W. Marchant for Greenland and Norris, 1805. Quarto (282x220 mm); original boards rebacked to style; uncut. Mild dampstain to front board, corners bumped and worn. Residue of bookplate removal on rear pastedown. Some browning to extreme edges of text; plates with a few tiny closed tears at inner folds. Provenance: Ex-libris Ambassador College Library, Pasadena, CA (with discreet stamp on title page and p.101); Ambassador College closed in 1997.

WITH: The Commercial and Political Atlas, Representing, by Means of Stained Copper-Plate Charts, the Progress of the Commerce, Revenues, Expenditure, and Debts of England, During the Whole of the Eighteenth Century. The third edition. London: T. Burton for J. Wallis, 1801. Octavo, contemporary full calf, elaborately gilt-decorated spine, marbled endpapers. Spine with rubbing and leather loss at ends; repairs to joints; some flaking and general wear to boards. Text with occasional mild foxing. With dated (1869) ownership signature of Alfred J. Hill, a Swedish historian who wrote extensively on the history and geography of Minnesota; with handsome leather bookplate on front pastedown of (Baron) Charles Rugge Price.


Price: $7,600 .

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