By Tim Rogan
The Moral Economists presents a fresh look at how three important twentieth-century British thinkers viewed capitalism through a moral rather than material lens
What’s wrong with capitalism? Answers to that question today focus on material inequality. Led by economists and conducted in utilitarian terms, the critique of capitalism in the twenty-first century is primarily concerned with disparities in income and wealth. It was not always so. The Moral Economists reconstructs another critical tradition, developed across the twentieth century in Britain, in which material deprivation was less important than moral or spiritual desolation.
Tim Rogan focuses on three of the twentieth century’s most influential critics of capitalism—R. H. Tawney, Karl Polanyi, and E. P. Thompson. Making arguments about the relationships between economics and ethics in modernity, their works commanded wide readerships, shaped research agendas, and influenced public opinion. Rejecting the social philosophy of laissez-faire but fearing authoritarianism, these writers sought out forms of social solidarity closer than individualism admitted but freer than collectivism allowed. They discovered such solidarities while teaching economics, history, and literature to workers in the north of England and elsewhere. They wrote histories of capitalism to make these solidarities articulate. They used makeshift languages of “tradition” and “custom” to describe them until Thompson patented the idea of the “moral economy.” Their program began as a way of theorizing everything economics left out, but in challenging utilitarian orthodoxy in economics from the outside, they anticipated the work of later innovators inside economics.
Examining the moral cornerstones of a twentieth-century critique of capitalism, The Moral Economists explains why this critique fell into disuse, and how it might be reformulated for the twenty-first century.
Fred Inglis on Times Higher Education wrote:
"Focused on three British thinkers, Rogan begins with the Christian socialist R.H. Tawney in the early 1900s, particularly his book Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, and ends in the late twentieth century with the New Left historian E.P. Thompson and his celebrated tome, The Making of the English Working Class. Along the way, Rogan introduces Karl Polanyi, the Hungarian economic historian, and shows how his book The Great Transformation was a kind of intermediary between the work of Tawney and Thompson. The moral critique is a twofold project. Despite their differences, all three men were deeply committed to writing histories of capitalism that showed the transition to a capitalist economy and specifically how this attenuated the structures of social solidarity in the English context. [...] Their critique of capitalism relied on a normative understanding of human personality that was originally robustly Christian and that countered the conventional economists' view of what it meant to be human."
Paul Crook on Australian Journal of Politics & History wrote:
"Rogan’s emblematic trio – R.H. Tawney, Karl Polanyi and E.P. Thompson – are backed up by two mightier subalterns, Amartya Sen and Kenneth Arrow. Together they are enlisted as earnest opponents of sanctimonious capitalism and advocates of a separate intellectual profession headed 'moral economy'. It insisted that the capitalism which emerged victorious from the Cold War was circumscribed by the theoretical exclusion of all that made production, circulation and profit amenable to whole societies and relevant to the common good. [...] this is a timely, vivid and attractive book, vindicating on every page Rogan’s choice of three musketeers, handing on their flame to their noble heirs."
Paul Mason on News Statesman wrote:
"I would commend you to read this knowledgeable and challenging book, with its hope of restoring the 'moral economy' that was the dream of Tawney, with his Christian socialism, Polanyi and Thompson, with their more secular ethical socialism. [...] Rogan reconstructs the phenomenon of 'the moral economy': its origins, history, personalities, contexts, networks of dense intellectual connections and influences. After its decline and fall, are there any signs of hope for us? Rogan thinks we can navigate the obstacles that wrecked the old structure, such as the pervasive secularisation of modern life that sabotaged Tawney’s Christian foundations, and post-modernism that scorned any concept of unique human dignity. Rogan finds a possible remedy in the social choice theory of people like Kenneth Arrow and Amartya Sen."
David A. Zalewski on Journal of Cultural Economy wrote:
"as Tim Rogan points out in The Moral Economists, it is remarkable how unmoral the left’s critique of capitalism has become. Across the developed world the dysfunctions of free-market economics are seen as negative material outcomes [...] Surveying the work of Tawney, Polanyi and Thompson, Rogan shows how the 20th-century moral critique of capitalism was rooted in humanism, in part derived from the Judeo-Christian religions, and in part from their last prophet – the early Marx. [...] Each of the theorists Rogan surveys studied the transition from late feudalism to early capitalism, observing the death of a pre-capitalist moral universe as industrialisation and commerce introduced utilitarian ethics to the masses. Each also observed among the 20th-century working class a surviving moral critique of capitalism and an alternative moral practice: Tawney found it in the everyday solidarity of his contemporaries in the Potteries; Thompson in the literate and cultured lives of the 19th-century pioneers of labour he studied [...] Each, in turn, tried to ground this plebeian moral alternative in something theoretical: for Tawney it was Christian socialism, for Polanyi a rereading of Adam Smith and for Thompson the early Marx. Ultimately, Rogan shows, they were all unsuccessful, leaving the ethical framework for 21st-century capitalism open to the forces Collier derides [in The Future of Capitalism]: utilitarianism and Rawlsian justice theory."
"As Rogan (p. 7) points out, these ‘moral economists’ were not economists in a technical sense, but ‘They were theorists of everything economics left out.’ [...] Rogan sets out to describe the evolution of the moral critique of capitalism in twentieth century Britain by comparing and synthesizing the work of these three intellectuals, and also argues that the current debate over how to address income and wealth inequality could be enriched by refocusing on the ethical and spiritual consequences of capitalism. The Moral Economists is organized around the major work of each [...] emphasizing how the personal experiences of each writer shaped his thinking. Rogan's significant contribution is his uncovering of the connections and synergies that bind together these works [...] the moral economists were concerned about the effects of unbridled capitalism on community stability. Thus, to appropriately gauge the welfare impact of these outcomes, it is necessary to develop a meaningful concept of personhood. For this reason, Rogan places significant emphasis on the process undertaken by each author to develop a theory of personality. All of them settle on a form of personalism that centers on the uniqueness and dignity of each person. [...] Next, Rogan provides detailed accounts of how each of the authors formulated their notions of civil society that structurally lies between the individual and an authoritarian state. What is fascinating is the experiences and research strategies they shared, and how these influenced their works [...] Overall, Rogan’s research is first-rate [...] What I find most valuable is his account of the evolution of ideas, and how they are influenced by advances in philosophy and political theory, social movements such as fascism, changes in economic conditions [...] and the process by which they may or may not be translated into action through public policy. An important lesson is that scholarly work on the economy should differ from what Albert O. Hirschman (1998, p. 110) calls ‘monoeconomics,’ which is the tendency to generalize economic theory to all places and times. [...] Rogan describes several scholars whose work on social choice bridges neoclassical theory and moral economics: E.F. Schumacher, Kenneth Arrow, and Amartya Sen. [...] the inclusion of Schumacher is puzzling since few would associate him with mainstream economics. In fact, this raises the question of why Rogan did not discuss two related, longstanding heterodox schools of thought – social and original institutional economics (OIE) – that both emphasize the moral dimensions of economic life in their theories of value and choice. [...] Thus, I conclude that Rogan’s observation that moral economics has fallen out of favor and should be revived to address some of today’s economic issues and problems is based on a limited perception of what constitutes moral economics. Moreover, he also fails to recognize recent growth in the popularity of heterodox economics"
- Interview with the author on publisher's website
- Why Amartya Sen remains the century’s great critic of capitalism (article by the author on Aeon, 27 February 2018)
Table of Contents of The Moral Economists
- 1 - R.H. Tawney (The North / Idealism / Pluralism / Guild Socialism / Christian Socialism / Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926) / The History of the Present)
- 2 - Karl Polanyi (Hungary / Red Vienna / Facism / "Beyond Jesus" / The Great Transformation (1944) / The History of Political Economy)
- 3 - Capitalism in Transition? (The Politics of Democratic Socialism / Welfare Economics / The Future of Socialism? / Planning for Freedom / The Education Act of 1944 / Definitions of Culture)
- 4 - E.P. Thompson (Romantics an Revolutionaries / Stalinism / The Scrutiny Movement / Socialist Humanism / The Making of the English Working Class (1963) / New Lefts / After Marx)
- Conclusion (Small is Beautiful? / Individual Values and Social Choice / Amartya Sen / Histories of the Future)
About Tim Rogan
After taking undergraduate degrees in law and arts at the University of Melbourne, Tim Rogan completed his MPhil and PhD in history at Peterhouse, Cambridge, before joining St. Catharine’s College as fellow and college lecturer in history in 2013. He also holds the title of affiliated lecturer in the faculty of history in the University of Cambridge. He is broadly interested in the relationship between moral economies and market economies in Britain, Europe, the United States and the broader Anglo-world. His current interest is the history of equity, an aspect of English (and thus of Anglo-world) law which has enabled courts to restrain conduct against conscience in commerce and limit government power, notwithstanding the excesses of economic rationality and administrative authority through the late twentieth century. He is also interested in interactions between historians of capitalism and innovators in economic theory after 1950. He gives a course of lectures for undergraduate historians on crises of democracy in twentieth-century Britain.