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PLAYFAIR, William.

An Inquiry into the permanent Causes of the Decline and Fall of Powerful and Wealthy Nations, illustrated by four engraved Charts...

Designed to shew how the prosperity of the British Empire may be prolonged.

W. Marchant for Greenland and Norris, London , 1805 Stock Code: 93567
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First edition of this important work and a remarkable attempt to present a general and comparative theory of the rise and fall of nations, and thus extract lessons from the downfall of the great empires of history and in so doing "find the means by which prosperity may be lengthened out, and the period of humiliation procrastinated to a distant day" (p. iv). As its title indicates, the Inquiry combines aspects of Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776) and Gibbon's Decline and Fall (1776-1788). Playfair surveys historical empires and argues that decline can be measured and thus prevented and forestalled; in particular, he insists that commerce, not conquest, sustains national power and that nations, particularly England, can maintain commercial prosperity if they direct their attention to preservation rather than extension. Particular attention must be paid to managing the national debt and maintaining a trade balance in favour of export. In addition to citing the work of Smith and Gibbons, his method draws upon the work of Hume, Ferguson and others, and draws from many disciplines. The causes of decline that Playfair adduces sound surprisingly modern. He saw over-mature economies as having certain common characteristics: high taxation, high prices, a very unequal distribution of property, strong special interest groups, monopolies, failures of motivation, and a high tendency to import. He thought that these burdens tended to result in a flight of capital to nations who could employ it more profitably, and in a natural and irreversible decline. He concludes that a proactive government-driven approach to the problem of decline can prolong national wealth and power. "It is, then, wealth arising from industry, that is the object to be aimed at, and that cannot be obtained by war or conquest" (p. 293). As early as 1786, Playfair is credited with the introduction of presenting economic information in simple chart form - line, circle, bar and pie graphs - and this celebrated work includes four fine examples. The striking frontispiece chart spans three millennia and shows the comparative progress and decline of all known empires, from ancient empires in Egypt and Assyria through modern empires in Europe and emergent empires in the Americas. The brother of the great physicist John Playfair, William was an adventurous character. He lived for some time in France, and is reported to have been a prisoner in the Bastille in 1789 when it was stormed at the beginning of the French Revolution. He published about forty works, and was also a notable editor of Smith's Wealth of Nations. His work was much admired by Dugald Stewart, Adam Smith's biographer and friend.

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Quarto (263 x 207 mm). Contemporary marbled boards, recently rebacked and recornered in sprinkled calf, spine ruled gilt, red leather label.


Ex-libris the University of Detroit, with bookplate on front pastedown, and presentation bookplate to the library from Major William Butler. Discreet library blind stamp of the University of Detroit on title-page, and on pp. 17 and 70, and with ink accession number on title-page; short tears to fold of both the frontispiece and the third chart, occasional light foxing and some slight offsetting from charts. A very attractive copy.


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