John Graunt’s Natural and Political Observations on the Bills of Mortality (1662) is acknowledged as the inaugural text of “political arithmetick.” Graunt is ranked along with William Petty, Charles Davenant and Gregory King as a major pioneer of “the art of reasoning by figures, upon things relating to government.”
In their Outline of the History of Economic Thought, Screpanti and Zamagni, however, describe Graunt as a “follower” of Petty. In books and articles on history of economic thought, Petty is mentioned ten times as often as Graunt (JSTOR, Google Scholar). Graunt is more frequently thought of as a pioneer of population studies and vital statistics. Regarding that latter capacity, Philip Kreager has written extensively and wonderfully on Graunt’s truly innovative methodology.
It is convenient at this point to recall that to produce, to consume and to trade are actions first, as are supply, demand, value and price – before they can be treated as things and aggregated. People perform those actions and they do them in proportion to their numbers, abilities and appetites.
Proportion, by the way, is central to Graunt’s methodology. Did I mention the word appears no fewer than 68 times in Graunt’s Observations? Kreager’s article, “New Light on Graunt” contains 48 occurrences of the word. The methodological significance of this word for Graunt cannot be overstated. I am therefore quoting in full Kreager’s explanation of the analytical role of proportional checks in bookkeeping and Graunt’s Observations:
A population, like a commercial enterprise, must achieve at least an equilibrium of income and expenditure over time, if it is to survive. Graunt noticed that the bills, like a merchant’s day-book, provided a continuous record of additions and subtractions in a constantly changing numerical whole. The diversity of transactions in people and trade, however, make such a simple running account difficult to interpret. The ‘method of double-entry’ bookkeeping, widely promoted in Graunt’s time, claimed to provide a solution to this problem by revealing the inherent order and regularity of trade. The procedure may be summarized as follows. On the basis of his daily journal of transactions, a merchant was supposed to classify and tabulate every entry according to a few major types of account. Successive transactions pertaining to an account were then entered twice in a ledger, in parallel columns, one entry showing the changing balance of debt, and the other of credit. The comparison or proportion of the two columns relative to starting and subsequent balances provided the merchant with an immediate evaluation of the current and past status of the account, relative to others. This made it possible to spot accounting errors, to isolate losses, and to distinguish real profits from diverse fluctuations in income.
Therefore, when Graunt wrote, “…if there be but a certain proportion of work to be done; and that the same be already done by the not-Beggars; then to employ the Beggars about it, will but transfer the want from one hand to another…” it is virtually certain that he was not referring to a “fixed amount” of work. Instead he was referring to a regularity. Change happens but disproportionate change may be cause for concern.
It is difficult to think of a economically-significant fact that doesn’t involve “a certain proportion” of something to something else. GDP per capita gauges a certain proportion between economic output and population. Productivity measures a certain proportion between economic output and hours of work. Economic growth reflects a certain proportion between one year’s output and the next’s. The unemployment rate considers a certain proportion between the labor force and the number of people who are looking for work. It is certain proportions all the way down.
Compare, though, Dorning Rasbotham’s lament, 118 years after Graunt, about people who say there is a “certain quantity” of labor to be performed: