The Political Economy of the British Idealists: Introduction

James Connelly and I have begun serious work on our book, The Political Economy of the British Idealists. That means, as usual, my faithful blog readers get to see snippets of it in progress. Here is the start of the introduction:

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There has been a revival of interest in the ideas of the group of thinkers known as "British Idealists" of late, with a stream of books emerging discussing one aspect or another of their broad ranging thought. But this attention has focused chiefly on the metaphysical, ethical, and political philosophy of these figures.

Nevertheless, many British Idealists paid a fair amount of attention to political economy. What is more, while they certainly did not think as a monolithic unit, when one views this body of work as a whole, a characteristic approach to political economy comes to light, featuring a rejection of one-sided abstractions and an attempt to see an issue holistically. And it is an approach that, in out troubled economic times, featuring the clash of seemingly irreconcilable economic dogmas, is worthy of our consideration.

All of the figures included in this volume were aware of the main results of 18th and 19th century political economy. They understood the arguments for the economic efficiency of markets, for the increased productivity brought about by the division of labor, and for the importance of secure property rights. But, as is typical of idealist thought in general, they were also aware of the danger that a one-sided emphasis on the market as the supreme social institution presents, in reducing all human interactions to mere calculations of profit and loss. The market, as they saw it, had an important place in a flourishing community, but if it was allowed to overwhelm all other aspects of social life, it transformed from a vital organ to a cancer. A proper understanding of the role of the market would place it within the context of the political and ethical life that it depends upon for its very existence.

Paul Franco was specifically describing Oakeshott, but he could have been characterizing British Idealist thought in general when he wrote:

"The question of economic organization is not considered by itself [by Oakeshott], apart from politics and social organization; the economic is set in the wider context of an entire concrete manner of living." -- The Political Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott, p. 147

Yet today this balanced approach to political economy is widely unknown. By bringing it to the attention of modern students of the history of economic thought, this volume may serve to introduce a much-needed voice of moderation into our present, contentious economic debates.

In compiling this volume, we have sought to create a collection of works that both demonstrates the characteristic approach of British idealists as well as the wide range of topics they addressed. What follows in this introduction is a list of every author included here, ordered by date of birth, along with some discussion of the author’s life and the particular works of his that we have chosen.

2 comments:

  1. "The question of economic organization is not considered by itself [by Oakeshott], apart from politics and social organization; the economic is set in the wider context of an entire concrete manner of living." -- The Political Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott, p. 147

    Why do so many people not realize this? You'd think this would be obvious.

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  2. They understood the arguments for the economic efficiency of markets, for the increased productivity brought about by the division of labor, and for the importance of secure property rights.

    Is it strange to think that government can make the trains run on time, but that efficiency isn't an important justification for freedom of commerce? Or that property rights are actually tangential to markets?

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