Paper presented to the Political Economy Research Group, University of Cambridge
On January 26th 2022 I presented a paper called 'Seeking Refuge in Mathematised Free Market Models? The Febrile Political Backdrop to Ricardo's Principles' to the Political Economy Research Group of the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge.
Abstract: 'Out of all possible institutional arrangements for organising economic life, how did orthodox economic theory come to reflect in its models only free market institutions to the exclusion of all others? Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy usually takes centre stage in historical scholarship that seeks to answer this question. However, almost no attention has thus far been paid to the broader background conditions that shaped the way in which he presented his text. Further exploration of these conditions makes it possible to ask whether orthodox economic theory’s continued conflation of ‘the economy’ and ‘the market’ results from treating as if they were universal what were actually only the specific features of a strictly limited period of early nineteenth-century British political history. Ricardo wrote the Principles during a time of severe curtailment of civil liberties in the realm of free speech. This culminated in the introduction of the so-called Six Acts, legislative instruments that made criticism of the King and his ministers into an offence with serious consequences. They were backed by suspensions of habeas corpus that allowed religious dissenters and political radicals to be imprisoned without trial. Ricardo was shielded by parliamentary privilege when speaking out in the House of Commons against the broader political climate that had produced this legislation, but not when committing his economic theory to the page. I ask whether he sought refuge from such pressures in abstract models that were at one stage removed from an expressly articulated opinion, models that imposed a rigid separation between ‘state’ and ‘market’. He thus might be seen to have circumvented what proved to be time-limited sedition laws through escape into a free-floating realm called ‘the market’, but that realm has persisted in orthodox economic theory long after the original need for it was exhausted.'