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.
On February 13th and 14th 2019 I went on a mini-tour of London universities delivering papers related to my project. I presented one paper called 'David Hilbert and the Mathematisation of the Market Model' to the Political Economy Research Centre's General Seminar Series at Goldsmiths College, University of London. I presented another paper called 'Crusoe, Friday and the Homo Economicus of Econ 101 Courses' to the Department of Politics at Goldsmiths College, University of London. And I delivered a third paper called 'The Postcolonial Writing Back to the Robinson Crusoe Economy' to a Masterclass Lecture and Question and Answer Session delivered to the Department of European and International Studies at King's College London. The abstracts for the talks are to be found below.
'David Hilbert and the Mathematisation of the Market Model': "In general, there is a unified – albeit still deep contested – political language of ‘the market’. This revolves around the process of buying and selling under conditions of free exchange backed, if necessary, by contract. But when we turn from the political language to economic images of ‘the market’, the sense of unity rapidly dissipates. Those economic images are themselves, at heart, mathematical images, and it would be fair to say that ‘the market’ has been thoroughly mathematised in economic theory. It is the assumption that mathematics provides a universal means of exploring all scientific problems – Leibniz’s so-called mathesis universalis – that also underpins the encroachment of economists’ market model into all sorts of realms of social experience. The ‘imperialism’ of the economics imperialism phenomenon is keenly felt and often resisted by social scientists. However, some excellent work by Fine and Milonakis aside, the ‘economics’ of economics imperialism currently remains largely unexplored. My research-in-progress paper will try to shed light on the relationship between economics imperialism and the mathematisation of economists’ basic market model. Yet it will be shown that this is no straightforward matter. Ask many non-economists what is wrong with economics and they will say that it has allowed a mathematical logic to crowd out concerns for real-world experiences; push them further and they will say that it has simply become too mathematical. Looking at the history of economic thought, however, reveals that there have been over time many articulations of the market model, each of which has a mathematical essence, but that it is to mischaracterise what is important about them to think of older variants being less mathematical and newer variants being more mathematical. They are more usefully thought of as being differently mathematical, where the key difference is that they manifest entirely opposed images of the economic relations that they are designed to represent. The two most important attempts to strike out in new directions in mathematical economics – one I associate with the work of Jevons, the other with Arrow and Debreu – were enacted to solve problems that enable the political language of ‘the market’ to continue to resonate but which are largely superfluous to the way in which economists construct their market models today. Jevons used the mathematics of number to overcome the nineteenth-century free will problem, and thus to defend the notion of free exchange. Arrow and Debreu used the mathematics of signs to overcome the twentieth-century coordination problem, and thus to defend the notion that buying and selling at given prices represents coherent economic activity. However, a deeper look at the mathematics of the market models developed both by Jevons and by Arrow and Debreu implies limitations to how far ‘the market’ should be embedded in practice, the very opposite of the general political orientation of studies cast in the economics imperialism mould. Emphasising the colonisation of the market model by mathematics therefore provides an invitation to rethink the putative success of economists in colonising the other social sciences."
'Crusoe, Friday and the Homo Economicus of Econ 101 Courses' and 'The Postcolonial Writing Back to the Robinson Crusoe Economy': "Why should a political economist like me be interested in the technical details of debates presented within literary theory? In particular, why might I have persuaded myself that it is a good use of my time to find out as much as I can about what literary critics think of Daniel Defoe? The answer is relatively straightforward. Much of the discussion of Defoe’s literary characterisations focuses on the extent to which he was able, in the early eighteenth century, to distil the essence of an abstract homo economicus with whom we are still familiar today. However, that same answer also reveals other puzzles. Defoe’s characters in Robinson Crusoe continue to find their way into many economics textbooks, and they are used as pedagogical tools to enable students on Econ 101 courses to begin to ‘think like an economist’. They might remain fundamental abstractions, but they retain a rhetorical power derived from their familiarity which unlocks for students the essential relationships which economic theory attempts to describe. In the absence of appeals to Crusoe and to Friday, the homo economicus of the economics textbooks would usually remain entirely unnamed. But the economics textbooks themselves are almost the last place in which Defoe’s original characterisations remain pretty much exactly as they were in his 1719 novel. Robinson Crusoe is almost certainly the most rewritten story in the English language, with each generation of novelists since the early twentieth century providing multiple rewritings of the basic plot. Postcolonial and feminist authors in particular have engaged in a conspicuous ‘writing back’ to the original novel, in an effort to expose Defoe’s racist and sexist story lines through a mixture of caricature, satire and carefully constructed plot reversals. The absence of any similar attention to rewriting Defoe’s original novel in economics should give us pause for thought about the typical content of Econ 101 courses. Are we happy with a pedagogical approach to economic theory which tells us that we are all approximations in our economic behaviour of either the active white colonial settler Crusoe, or the passive enslaved person of colour Friday?"