Book review: The Reckoning by Jacob Soll

April 23, 2014
If Prospect held a competition for the most improbable conjunction of author and quotation, my entry would pair Goethe with the observation that “the system of book-keeping by double entry is among the finest inventions of the human mind.”

Historian Jacob Soll develops the case that double entry ranks with gravitation, calculus and relativity, as he uses the history of accounting to provide insight into business and political history. Accounting has Sumerian origins, but only the emergence of tractable numbering systems—imagine financial statements with Roman numerals and no zero—made effective book-keeping possible. The invention of double-entry accounting by Genoese merchants allowed the evolution of modern finance.

Soll sees accounting as the key to accountability. Louis XIV discontinued Colbert’s elaborate book-keeping system because the monarch could not bear the evidence of his own extravagance. Soll draws an analogy with the fictitious accounts provided by modern Sun Kings in the first decade of the new millennium. Public accounting is a powerful antidote to autocracy, Soll argues—Hitler dismissed most of the accounting staff of the Reichsbahn.

Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister protests that “you begin by the form as if it were the matter; traders commonly, in their additions and borrowings, forget what is the net result of life.” To which his interlocutor responds that “form and matter are in this case one.” We cannot live without finance and accountability: but nor can we live only for them.

Allen Lane, £20