The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 20 No. 3 (Fall 2018)

Beyond the Market

The Moral Economists: R.H. Tawney, Karl Polanyi, E.P. Thompson, and the Critique of Capitalism

Tim Rogan

Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2018

(Volume 20 | Issue 3)

R.H. Tawney, Karl Polanyi, and E.P. Thompson confronted the dislocations of industrial capitalism with a conviction that economics was essentially a moral discipline that must integrate ethics and a sense of community. Each opposed utilitarianism, and despite their differing backgrounds, each looked to the moral tradition of John Ruskin and William Morris to address contemporary problems. In his latest book, Tim Rogan, a fellow of St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge, groups the three thinkers under the rubric “moral economists”—social critics who were opposed to “the tendency of Victorian political economy to put the pursuit of pecuniary gain over all other human motivations in envisaging social order, reducing society to a matrix of economic transactions.” This vision of human society is explicitly non-moral. It proposes that economic laws govern activity regardless of historical or social context. Now labeled neoliberalism, it remains as powerful today as it was in the Victorian era.

But what if—as Rogan’s moral economists claimed—happiness has no price, and social order cannot be reduced to economic transactions? From Thomas Piketty’s 2013 tome Capital in the Twenty-First Century to Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, much has been written on the conceptual weaknesses of a utility-maximizing model of the person. Rogan’s book is a welcome step toward uncovering and building up a tradition of alternative economics, one in which economics is not a value-free discipline, but, rather, is shaped by social customs, expectations, and values.

Rogan focuses on three books: Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), Polanyi’s The Great Transformation (1944), and Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963). Each of these writers addressed the dislocations brought about by industrial capitalism and, later, the technological society. All three flirted with the left—Thompson explicitly became a Communist—before rejecting extreme collectivism as they had rejected extreme market individualism.

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Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 20.3 (Fall 2018). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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