Paper delivered to the Virtual Paris Workshop on Reading Economics as Political Theory
On September 24th 2021 I presented a paper called 'The Political Context for Ricardo's Free Market Models' at the virtual Paris workshop on Reading Economics as Political Theory. The workshop was organised by Sam Knafo, Oliver Kessler and Matthias Thiemann.
Abstract: When attention turns to the need to read economics as political theory, one question tends to dominate. 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? The search for the origins of this way of thinking usually alights on Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy. However, precious little scholarship has thus far been conducted on the broader background conditions that shaped the way in which Ricardo 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 the time at which civil liberties in the realm of free speech were severely curtailed in Britain by repeated repressive legislation that culminated in the so-called Six Acts. These acts made criticism of the King and his ministers into an offence with serious consequences, not least because 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 in this paper 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.