The Rich Tradition of Political Economy


Moral Revolution and Economic Science, by Ellen Frankel Paul, New York: Greenwood Press, 1979, 309 pp., $25.00.

Ellen Paul concerns herself in this book with some of the most important British intellects of the 18th and 19th centuries. Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Jeremy Bentham, J.S. Mill and Henry Sidgwick: these are the men who synthesized, systematized, and ultimately destroyed classical liberalism.

While many of the classical liberals wrote essays and treatises dealing with pure political theory or political philosophy, the bulk of their influential work was in political economy. Political economy rests upon an understanding of fundamental economic principles, but it is not the same as the technological economics that arose in the Anglo-American world of the early 20th century. Political economy is essentially the study of practical political and economic organization. It is primarily concerned with what can be and what most likely will be, not with the investigation of what should be "absolutely" or regardless of circumstance. Even so, the political economist does make judgments of "better" or "worse," and these judgments, although often implicit, are just as often decisive in his conclusions.

In the last 50 years there have been numerous studies of the political economy of Karl Marx, Thorstein Veblen, and John Kenneth Galbraith, but there have been no significant, comprehensive, and coherent contributions to an assessment of the political economy of the late liberal classical economists. Historians of economics, in a misplaced concern with positivist research, have too frequently ignored the political economy of the classical. Alternatively, popularizers of intellectual history have rendered sweeping and uninformed verdicts on the classicals' political views—verdicts that they have derived mainly from our contemporary collectivist passions.

Ellen Paul's Moral Revolution and Economic Science provides an excellent tonic to the abusive and often trivialized treatment accorded the founders of classical political economy. Her prose is lucid, her selection of individuals is well informed, and her portrayal of the doctrines, methods, and intents of the classical and early neo-classical political economists is both thorough and accurate.

While these merits are sufficient to recommend this volume to anyone with a spark of intellectual curiosity, they are not the features that Paul intends as the strengths of her work. It is clear that her main inquiry is directed toward an exploration of the reasons for "the demise of laissez-faire in Nineteenth Century British political economy." In solution to this puzzle the author has a definite, if debatable, thesis. Laissez-faire died—or, more accurately, was gradually abandoned—because its main supporters (the post-Smithian British classicals) adopted utilitarian moral criteria in place of the natural rights or natural law ethic upheld by their immediate predecessors.

It is an interesting historical thesis, and, from the perspective of the particular events in 19th-century Britain, Paul seems to have much evidence on her side. From a purely logical perspective, however, and from the historical evidence of other times and places, it is clear that opposition to or support for laissez-faire has no necessary connection with the debate between naturalists and utilitarians. During the 19th century itself, for instance, most continental intellectuals were committed to absolutist notions of right and law, regardless of their disagreements concerning laissez-faire or collectivism.

Despite any deficiencies in her central argument, two of the author's more minor themes fare better. It is probably true that the attempt, during the mid-19th century, to transform political economy into a value-free economics was both premature and destructive of what remained of the ability of political economists to combat creeping collectivism. Similarly, it is quite true that the antinaturalism of Bentham became, in the hands of J.S. Mill and the later utilitarians, a convenient excuse for introducing social experiments in support of their own preconceived, if implicit, notions of moral virtue.

Neither of these propositions, however, justifies any belief in the inability of convinced collectivists to neutralize, subvert, or overthrow a laissez-faire order without the aid of utilitarian ethics. It is notable that many prominent collectivist figures and movements of the same period—for example, Thomas Carlyle, the English followers of French phalangists or Comtists, and the Christian Socialists of Cambridge—were at the same time strong believers in ethical absolutism and rabid opponents of political economy and laissez-faire. As Professor Paul herself maintains, the major determinant of political policy is the content of ethical ideas about what should be done socially. Whether these ideas are derived from "utility," "the will of God," or "intuitive insight" is never very important in the ultimate formulation of public policy.

Despite these quibbles with some of Paul's themes, one cannot help but appreciate the significance of her overall achievement. Her volume is mandatory reading for those who wish to understand more fully the origins of present-day reasoning about practical social organization. Moreover, it is a major contribution to our understanding of the recent history of freedom and of the path that we have traveled away from its ultimate achievement.

Craig J. Bolton is chairman of the Department of Economics at the University of Dallas.