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Week 5: Economy

Tutor: Dr Michael Bycroft

The first three decades of the nineteenth century were a turbulent time in the economic and political history of Britain. Industrial change, war, class struggle, and financial crisis were the norm. The same period saw the emergence of Political Economy, a new discipline that sought to explain society in economic terms, ie. in terms of the production and distribution of wealth. What was the relationship between the discipline and the wider events of the age? We will answer this question by exploring the relationship between two key thinkers (Thomas Robert Malthus and David Ricardo) and three of the crucial policy debates of the age (over poverty, free trade, and the mechanisation of work).

Seminar Questions

  • What did the following mean to political economists: the invisible hand, comparative advantage, the principle of population, and the differential theory of rent?
  • What was at stake in the debates about the poor laws, free trade, and the mechanisation of work?
  • What was the relationship between theories of political economy and practical politics?

Essential Readings

Please do all three of the readings listed. I recommend that you read them in the order they are listed. Heilbroner is an accessible popular introduction; Langer goes into more detail about policy debates; and the Berg chapter goes into more detail still.

Heilbroner, Robert L. The Worldly Philosophers: the Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers (Penguin, 2000). Chap. 4, The Gloomy Presentiments of Parson Malthus and David Ricardo.

Langer, Gary F. The Coming of Age of Political Economy, 1815-1825. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987. Chap. 7, Free Trade.

Berg, Maxine. The Machinery Question and the Making of Political Economy, 1815-1848. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980. Chap. 9, The Export of Machinery.

Further Readings

Berg, Maxine. The Machinery Question and the Making of Political Economy, 1815-1848. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980. See especially the chapter 'The Advent of Political Economy.'

Cowherd, Raymond G. Political Economists and the English Poor Laws: A Historical Study of the Influence of Classical Economics on the Formation of Social Welfare Policy. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1977.

Hilton, Boyd. Corn, Cash, Commerce: The Economic Policies of the Tory Governments, 1815-1830. Oxford University Press, 1977.

Langer, Gary F. The Coming of Age of Political Economy, 1815-1825. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.

Tribe, Keith. 'Continental Political Economy From the Physiocrats to the Marginal Revolution.' In Porter and Ross, eds, The Cambridge History of Science, vol. 4: Modern Social Science.