Antonio Serra was an Italian economist born around the middle of the sixteenth century in Cosenza, a city of Calabria then belonging to the Kingdom of Naples. Nothing is known about his life except that he spent some time in a Neapolitan prison, charged—according to different sources—either with forging money or with participating in a conspiracy, headed by his fellow citizen Tommaso Campanella, to overthrow the Spanish government; it was in prison that he wrote his Breve trattato delle cause che possono far abbondare II regni d.’oro e d.’argento, dove non sono miniere, con applicazione al regno di Napoli (1613; “A Brief Treatise on the Causes That Can Make Gold and Silver Plentiful in Kingdoms Where There Are No Mines, With Application to the Kingdom of Naples”). Serra may have written Breve trattato and dedicated it to the Spanish viceroy in the hope of regaining his freedom. In 1617, while still in prison, he obtained permission to submit to the court his ideas for economic reform; but his plan was not accepted and he was sent back to prison. Serra’s work remained practically unknown until Ferdinando Galiani extolled it in one of the footnotes to the 1780 edition of his Delia moneta ( 1915, pp. 344–345).
Serra refuted the view expressed by Marc.’Antonio de Santis, author of Discorso intorno alli effetti che fa il cambio in regno (1605; “Discourse on the Effects of the Rate of Exchange in the Kingdom”), that the scarcity of money in the Kingdom of Naples was attributable to the high rate of exchange. He used arguments which made him the first to elaborate the view that the rate of exchange is a consequence of the balance of international payments, which alone regulates the international flow of money (Tagliacozzo 1937, p. xxx; Schumpeter 1954, p. 354).
Serra had a clear understanding of the balance-of-trade concept as an analytic tool in economic reasoning and was the first to use that tool fully and, on the whole, correctly. [SeeInternational monetary economics, article on balance of payments.] In analyzing the component items of the balance of payments, he paid due attention to the invisible items; in this respect he anticipated and surpassed all other seventeenth-century writers, including the overrated Thomas Mun, whose England’s Treasure by Forraign Trade was written about fifty years after the Breve trattato and may have been influenced by it (Mazzei 1924, p. 396; Schumpeter 1954, pp. 353–354; Tagliacozzo 1937, pp. xxx-xxxiii).
Serra’s book went beyond the immediate implications of its title, explaining the outflow of gold and silver from the Kingdom of Naples and the balance of trade as consequences of the economic conditions of the country.
Essentially, the treatise is about the factors on which depend the abundance not of money but of commodities–natural resources, quality of the people, the development of industry and trade, the efficiency of government–the implication being that if the economic process as a whole functions properly, the monetary element will take care of itself and not require any specific therapy. And this argument contains several contributions to the nascent stock of theoretical tools. (Schumpeter 1954, p. 195)
Hence, Schumpeter credits Serra “with having been the first to compose a scientific treatise, though an unsystematic one, on Economic Principles and Policy” (ibid.).
One of the theoretical tools contained in the Breve trattato (part 1, chapter 3) is the first clear formulation of the law of diminishing returns in agriculture and increasing returns in manufacturing industries [See Tagliacozzo 1937, p. xxxi; see also Production].
Serra’s realistic, active approach to economic policy—exemplified by his plea for the introduction of new industries in the Kingdom of Naples (see Breve trattato, part 3, chapter 8)–probably struck Galiani ( 1915, pp. 344–345) as an anticipation of his own relativistic, undogmatic, pragmatic, liberal (as opposed to laissez-faire) approach. [See the biography of Galiani; on Galiani’s approach to economic policy, see Tagliacozzo 1937, pp. lii-lv.] This is what caused Friedrich List—the founder of the “infant-industry” argument and a forerunner of the historical school of economics—to say, in a chapter devoted almost entirely to Serra (1841, book 3, chapter 1 in 1856 edition), “Antonio Serra sees the nature of things as it actually exists and not through the spectacles of previous systems or of some one principle which he is determined to advocate and carry out.”
Arias, Gino 1923 II pensiero economico di Antonio
Serra. Politica 16:129–146.Benini, Rodolfo 1892 Sulle dottrine economiche di A.
Serra: Appunti critic!. Giornale degli economisti
Second Series 5:222–248.Fornahi, Tommaso 1880 Studi sopra Antonio Serra e
Marc.’Antonio De Santis. Milan: Hoepli.Fornahi, Tommaso 1882 Delle teorie economiche nelle
provincie napoletane. Milan: Hoepli.Galiani, Ferdinando (1750) 1915 Delia moneta. Edited by Fausto Nicolini. New ed. Bari: Laterza. → Serra’s work was first mentioned in a footnote to the 1780 edition.
Gobbi, Ulisse 1884 La concorrenza estera e gli antichi economisti italiani. Milan: Hoepli.
Gobbi, Ulisse 1889 L.’economia politica negli scrittori italiani del sec. Xvi-Xvii: Studio. Milan: Hoepli.
Gkaziani, Augusto (editor) 1913 Economisti del cinque e seicento. Bari: Laterza.
List, Friedrich (1841) 1928 The National System of Political Economy. London: Longmans. → First published in German.
Mazzei, Jacopo 1924 Politica economica internazionale inglese prima di Adamo Smith. Milan: Vita e Pensiero.
Santis, Marc.’Antonio de 1605 Discorso intorno alli effetti che fa il cambio in regno. Naples: Vitale.
Schumpeter, Joseph A. (1954) 1960 History of Economic Analysis. Edited by E. B. Schumpeter. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Serra, Antonio (1613) 1913 Breve trattato delle cause che possono far abbondare li regni d.’oro e d.’argento, dove non sono miniere, con applicazione al regno di Napoli. Pages 141–235 in A. Graziani (editor), Economisti del cinque e seicento. Bari: Laterza. → Translated extracts appear on pages 145–167 in Arthur E. Monroe (editor), Early Economic Thought, published in 1924 by Harvard University Press. A full translation, with an introduction by Klaus-Peter Heiss, is projected for publication by the Princeton University Press.
Tagliacozzo, Giorgio (editor) 1937 Economisti napoletani dei sec. Xvii e Xviii. Bologna: Cappelli.
Viti DE Marco, Antonio DE (1891) 1898 Le teorie economiche di Antonio Serra. In Antonio De Viti de Marco, Saggi di economic e finanza. Rome: Giornale degli Economisti.
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