Rogan, “The Moral Economists”

9780691173009_0I don’t know too much about the subject, but the description of this new book on the history of economics from Princeton University Press caught my attention. The Moral Economists: R.H. Tawney, Karl Polanyi, E.P. Thompson, and the Critique of Capitalism, by Cambridge historian Tim Rogan, recounts the criticisms of a set of twentieth-century British scholars who argued that capitalism is morally and spiritually lacking. These scholars sought a middle ground between an empty individualism and an authoritarian socialism and looked to tradition and custom — the book description puts those words in scare quote — as guides.

It looks to be an interesting intellectual history. This isn’t meant as a criticism of the book, which I haven’t read, but an even older body of thought, one that long predates the 20th Century, also seeks to apply moral values to economics and to chart a middle path between individualism and authoritarianism, and values tradition and custom to boot: Christian teaching on law and society. It’s odd that economists continue to ignore that source of insights and try to reinvent the wheel with each new generation. But maybe we’ll come up with something better. [UPDATE: Reader Samuel Moyn writes that Rogan does indeed address Christianity in the book. I was going by the description, which doesn’t mention Christianity at all. Now the book looks even more interesting!]

Here’s the description of the book from the Princeton website:

A fresh look at how three important twentieth-century British thinkers viewed capitalism through a moral rather than material lens

What’s wrong with capitalism? Answers to that question today focus on material inequality. Led by economists and conducted in utilitarian terms, the critique of capitalism in the twenty-first century is primarily concerned with disparities in income and wealth. It was not always so. The Moral Economists reconstructs another critical tradition, developed across the twentieth century in Britain, in which material deprivation was less important than moral or spiritual desolation.

Tim Rogan focuses on three of the twentieth century’s most influential critics of capitalism—R. H. Tawney, Karl Polanyi, and E. P. Thompson. Making arguments about the relationships between economics and ethics in modernity, their works commanded wide readerships, shaped research agendas, and influenced public opinion. Rejecting the social philosophy of laissez-faire but fearing authoritarianism, these writers sought out forms of social solidarity closer than individualism admitted but freer than collectivism allowed. They discovered such solidarities while teaching economics, history, and literature to workers in the north of England and elsewhere. They wrote histories of capitalism to make these solidarities articulate. They used makeshift languages of “tradition” and “custom” to describe them until Thompson patented the idea of the “moral economy.” Their program began as a way of theorizing everything economics left out, but in challenging utilitarian orthodoxy in economics from the outside, they anticipated the work of later innovators inside economics.

Examining the moral cornerstones of a twentieth-century critique of capitalism, The Moral Economists explains why this critique fell into disuse, and how it might be reformulated for the twenty-first century.


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