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Sakızlı Ohannes and the birth of Ottoman economic liberalism

The pioneer of Ottoman economic liberalism was an Armenian economist, Sakızlı Ohannes (1830–1912).(1) After his studies in Paris, he returned to Istanbul in 1852, and was assigned to the Translation Bureau. He assumed important governmental positions, many of which were in economy-related institutions, such as the Ottoman Bank, the Ministry of Finance, and the Ministry of Commerce. In 1877 he was appointed to the Mekteb-i Mülkiye (The Imperial School of Administration) as the Professor of Economics and the Professor of Public Administration, and held this position until 1897 when he became the Minister of the Imperial Treasury (Hazine-i Hassa Nazırı).

Ohannes’ early contributions to Ottoman economic literature were introductory articles about economics that came out in the early 1860s, when he was a clerk at the Translation Bureau. In these articles, such as “İlm-i Servet-i Milel” (“Science of the Wealth of Nations,” 1863),(2) he presented a succinct summary of the Smithian view of human society, and introduced the Smithian principles of economics to the readers of the journal. These may not seem particularly novel, considering earlier Ottoman translations of (Smithian) economics. However, the importance of Ohannes’ articles lies in the fact that they were published in popular periodicals, taking their place among the first works aiding in the popularization of economics in the empire. Moreover, Ohannes was not only a translator, but he was a trained economist. Therefore, Ohannes’ article was the harbinger of the birth of a proper Ottoman economic literature, to which he made one of the most important contributions in 1880 with his book, Mebadi-i İlm-i Servet-i Milel (Principles of the Science of the Wealth of Nations).

Ohannes penned Mebadi-i İlm-i Servet-i Milel as the textbook of economics for the Mekteb-i Mülkiye. In the following decades, the book not only remained to be the textbook, from which the Ottoman elite learned economics, but also became a main reference and a source of inspiration for younger generation of economists. Almost all Ottoman intellectuals who wrote on economics and economic issues, whom we discuss below, were the graduates of this prestigious school and the students of Ohannes. Therefore, he was the towering figure of late Ottoman economic thought, especially for the liberals.

Mebadi-i İlm-i Servet-i Milel is an Ottoman example to numerous Wealth of Nations compendia of the age, as its title (Principles of the Science of the Wealth of Nations) also insinuates.(3) Yet it is not a translation or an adaptation of The Wealth of Nations. Ohannes notes in his introduction that he benefitted from the works of [Henri] Baudrillart (1821–92) and [Joseph] Garnier (1813–81), and that he also consulted some other prominent studies in the field without specifying any further names.13 He explains why he preferred to write a book instead of translating a European best-seller by stating that every book published in European countries was written according to the conditions and needs of those countries, and most of them are either too short and simple, or too long and complicated. As a result, he notes, he decided to write a book for the Ottomans according to the conditions and the needs of their society.(4)

Throughout the book, Ohannes emphasizes the importance of encouraging individual entrepreneurship and supporting it with institutionalized property rights and economic freedom. He echoes Adam Smith in suggesting that there are two keys to wealth and economic modernization: labor and saving. He believes that since these and other modern economic principles must be followed by the members of all social strata, the science of economics should be read, understood, and used by every citizen of modern and modernizing societies.(5) Meanwhile, the state must refrain from interfering in market processes, especially with protectionist concerns aiming at protecting local manufacturers and “national interests.” Ohannes states that this economic law is valid for developing as well as developed countries.16 His reasons are as follows: First, industrially backward countries(6) need capital, and capital formation and inflow can only be promoted through providing (economic and political) safety and freedom of action to entrepreneurs. Second, the panacea for all economic problems is dynamism and hard work. Protectionism, however, encourages laziness and lethargy in national industries by impeding the provocative impact of foreign competition. (7) He gives the examples of Spain and Portugal, whose protectionist policies prevented success in industrialization despite their abundance of natural resources.(8) Ohannes mentions also that some protectionist economists argue that free trade brings about economic and political dependence for backward countries. He responds to such ideas by stating that interdependence among different countries is not a sign of backwardness for any party, but it is a sign of membership in an advanced civilization that is based on an international division of labor and cooperation. Thus, importing necessary goods from abroad is as beneficial as exporting national products. Accordingly, Ohannes concludes, every trade barrier, including restrictions and tariffs, constitutes an obstacle to economic development and modernization.(9)

In short, Ohannes’ liberalism was an adaptation of Adam Smith’s allegedly universal principles of economics to the Ottoman economy, something that would constitute the basis for Ottoman protectionists’ criticisms against him and the liberal tradition he launched. As we shall see below, Ahmed Midhat, who was the standard-bearer of Hamidian-era Ottoman protectionism, criticized Ohannes and his followers for merely translating European knowledge and for suggesting nothing original. Regardless of such criticism, Ohannes’ ideas made a strong impact in Ottoman economic thought principally due to the fact that several generations of Ottoman statesmen and intellectuals learned economics from him and his book at the Mekteb-i Mülkiye until the end of the empire. When his influence was at its peak, however, protectionism was on the rise in the Ottoman Empire, and it was intellectually pioneered by one of the most popular and influential Ottoman intellectuals of the late nineteenth century, Ahmed Midhat Efendi.

Source: Deniz T. Kılınçoğlu, Economics and Capitalism in the Ottoman Empire, Routledge:London, 2015, pp. 45-46.

Notes: 

1) A prominent Ottoman intellectual Ali Kemal, who studied economics at the Mekteb-i Mülkiye and also in Paris, notes in his memoirs that Ohannes was as good as the best political economy professors in Paris. (Ali Kemal, Ömrüm, ed. Zeki Kuneralp (İstanbul: İsis Yayımcılık, 1985), 67.) It is impossible to verify Ali Kemal’s statement, but it at least testifies to Ohannes’ influence on his students. For a short biography of Ohannes, and his students’ descriptions of him, see Ali Ã⁄ankaya, Yeni Mülkiye Târihi ve Mülkiyeliler (Ankara: Ankara Üniversitesi Siyasal Bilgiler Fakültesi, 1968), vol.2: 1058–60.

2) The article was published in two installments in 1863, in Mecmua-i Fünûn issues 2 (pp.86–92) and 6 (pp.243–9).

3) The title of Ohannes’ book is obviously inspired by the title of Adam Smith’s magnum opus, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Economics was first named as the “science of the wealth of nations” or “science of wealth” in the Ottoman Empire, as a result of Smithian dominance in this field.

4) Sakızlı Ohannes, Mebadi-i İlm-i Servet-i Milel, 12. Both of these economists have been almost totally forgotten today. Since Ohannes does not give exact references but only last names, we can only guess that the former work is Henri Baudrillart’s Manuel d’économie politique (1857), and the latter must be one of many introductory books by the prominent liberal economist and later the editor of Journal des Économistes, Joseph Garnier. As Sayar notes, throughout the book Ohannes mentions the names of many economists such as A. Smith, J.B. Say, F. Bastiat, Took, and A. Young. (Ahmed Güner Sayar, Osmanlı İktisat Düşüncesinin Çağdaşlaşması: (Klasik Dönem’den II. Abdülhamid’e), Second Edition (İstanbul: Ötüken Neşriyat, 2000), 357.) Nevertheless, contrary to what Sayar implies, this does not prove that Ohannes actually referred to the works of these economists. They were prominent economists of the era, and these names were mentioned in many introductory books on economics.

5) Sakızlı Ohannes, Mebadi-i İlm-i Servet-i Milel, 11.

6) Ibid., 4–5.

7) Ibid., 297.

8) “Sanayice geri kalmış memâlik”.

9) Ibid., 298.

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