Sonnenfels, Joseph von

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Sonnenfels, Joseph von (1733-1817): Austrian Political Economist.

Baron Joseph von Sonnenfels was a major figure of the Austro-Hungarian cameralist school of economics, an influential author and professor, and advisor to Empress Maria-Teresa and to some extent to her son Emperor Joseph II. A thorough-going child of the rationalist Enlightenment, he is known for taking progressive measures such as advancing journalism, promoting scholarship in the German vernacular, holding free public lectures, liberalizing Vienna’s business life, supporting the theater and other arts, and -- as is often noted -- for persuading the Empress to abolish torture in ordinary criminal procedures.

The son of a baptized Jew from Moravia, Sonnenfels was occasionally slighted for his Jewish background, but in general he benefited from the spirit of enlightened toleration, at least for assimilated Jews, promoted by Emperor Josef II. Sonnenfels was appointed the first professor of “Police and Cameral Sciences” at the University of Vienna in 1763, and his first major work, published a few years later, was used as a standard textbook until 1848. Although he is generally classified as an economist, his book, like most cameralist treatises, covered a wide range of other administrative, political, and social topics.

As a cameralist, Sonnenfels belonged to a paternalistic, nationalist German-Austrian tradition founded by Johann J. Becher, his brother-in-law Philipp von Hörnigk, and Wilhelm von Schröder. Their policies contributed greatly to the economic revival and reconstruction following the devastation of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) in the German-speaking lands. Another major member of the school was Justi, Johann Heinrich Gottlob von, an expert on taxes, public finances, and manufacturing. Like the other cameralists, Sonnenfels was not directly involved in either government or commerce. Cameralists were typically close to the centers of power, but functioning indirectly as expert consultants to their rulers. Although their ostensible role was to raise tax revenue for their princes and support their absolute power, most cameralists believed that the well-being of the subjects was also of supreme importance. They were interested in domestic policy and internal unification and strength, not international issues or territorial expansion.

Sonnenfels believed that the highest ethical principle of the state was to aid the common welfare and to protect its citizens. One of his basic beliefs was that the state should promote the maximum population that it could employ. Consequently he favored the elimination of labor dues by peasants to their lords and the division of large estates into small peasant holdings. He also believed in market competition, striving for an equilibrium between money and goods, and government encouragement of exports and restrictions on imports. He opposed monopolies and guilds because they restricted employment opportunities.

Although progressive in many ways for his day, Sonnenfels contributed to the separate development of economic thought in Germany and Austria, where cameralist theories continued to be influential throughout the nineteenth century, but prevented the more liberal free-market ideas prevalent in France and England from taking hold.

His works included: Briefe über wienerische Schaubüne and Grundsätze der Polizei-Handlung und Finanz.

Further Reading:

Terence Hutchison, Before Adam Smith: The Emergence of Political Economy, 1662-1776, 1988.

Pamela S. Saur

Lamar University