On October 19th 2022 I presented a paper to the joint seminar series organised by the Waterloo Political Economy Group on behalf of the Balsillie School of International Affairs and the PAIS IPE Cluster on behalf of Warwick's Department of Politics and International Studies. The other presenters at the themed session, 'International Development in the Longue Durée', were Eric HelleinerLink opens in a new window from the University of Waterloo and Kate WeaverLink opens in a new window from the University of Texas at Austin. My paper was entitled, 'Ricardo's Free Market Models and the Pre-History of Development Economics'.
Abstract: My paper speaks to a time in the history of economic thought before economists wrote about development explicitly, but when the whole of their subject field was animated by concerns that relate very much to the modern idea of development. The concept in use in the early nineteenth century tended to be ‘improvement’ rather than ‘development’, and even then it typically had two meanings. One was a generic sense of the word, linked to poverty alleviation and improving the living conditions of the population. The other was much more specific, akin to commercialisation, especially of land, and focused primarily on the technical issue of how to use the private property rights enjoyed by landowners to try to increase the yields associated with agricultural production for the good of wider society. The content of my paper focuses more obviously on the latter of these two meanings. It is written specifically on David Ricardo and the political conditions under which he wrote his Principles of Political Economy in the 1810s. Ricardo is not conventionally seen as a development theorist, and it is certainly the case that he takes his place in the canon of economics for altogether different reasons. However, the Principles was definitely all about improvement in the latter, more technical sense; moreover, it was written at a time when it was politically risky to challenge the feudalist assumption still in circulation in Britain that a threat to the landowning interest was a threat to the social structure of authority as a whole. I argue in the paper that Ricardo consequently retreated into a mode of expression based on free market models, so that he could contract out his political opinions to the abstract entity of ‘the science of political economy’, rather than having to personalise his critique of government policy at the time. This had an important effect on how economic theory developed, as successive generations of economists appear to have been enamoured by Ricardo’s methodology of arguing through free market models, even if they quickly forgot why he had opted for that methodology in the first place. I am sure that it is not too much of a stretch to say that this has also been important for the way in which development theory has evolved historically, particularly how that theory has been put to use by development institutions. Free market models have played a crucial role in development practice, even though no discussion is ever had about the particular political conditions in which free market models first came to prominence in economics.