Marks54's Reviews > The Information Master: Jean-Baptiste Colbert's Secret State Intelligence System

The Information Master by Jacob Soll
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's review
Dec 24, 2011

really liked it
Read in December, 2011

This was the second book by Soll that I read to follow up on his MacArthur Genius Award. The book is a professional biography on Colbert, who was Louis XIV's finance minister - and his principal overall minister, although not really a Prime Minister. The premise of the book was that Colbert's impact is best understood as getting Louis XIV to institute a modern "information state" under Colbert's guidance. This makes Colbert a predecessor of modern state ministers as well as modern senior managers. Colbert did this by drawing was had been semi independent scholars and nobles into the service of the state and then to focus there work on enhancing state power in its conflicts with the parlements inside France and in diplomacy with other European states. Soll generally makes the case, although I am not sure what this adds to what we already knew about Colbert. The picture that Soll paints is filled with tensions and contradictions, most glaringly between the independent scholar and the state employee. Granting the argument, Soll shows that Colbert's achievement was unsustainable and when he died suddenly in 1683, Louis did not want to replicate Colbert's power in a single replacement. A very interesting line of thought would be to show how the collapse of the Colbert system set the state for the conflicts behind the Revolution -- which Soll starts to do. The book also has some interesting asides, such as how he tried to teach his son his system so he could take his place - which provides a model for managerial education. His discussions of the origins and adoption of double entry accounting are also very engaging.

Warning - this is an academic monograph that is thick going with lots of footnotes. It is worth the effort and was very rewarding.
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