Academic journal article Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics

Ricardo's Discursive Demarcations: A Foucauldian Study of the Formation of the Economy as an Object of Knowledge

Academic journal article Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics

Ricardo's Discursive Demarcations: A Foucauldian Study of the Formation of the Economy as an Object of Knowledge

Article excerpt

The idea that all 'economic phenomena' are part of a distinct domain governed by its own laws and regularities only began to take shape in the second half of the 18th century. Before that time, there were numerous treatises devoted to phenomena we now consider to be economic-e.g., consumption and commerce, wages and wealth, and so on-yet, none of these were "grounded in the assumption of an autonomous social order" (Firth 2002, 40). In many economic discourses, the government's role is integral to maintaining order in economic life. For instance, the famous Italian penal reformer, Cesar Beccaria, proposed that a legislator ought to keep interest rates, as well as the price of labour and transportation costs, down. In a lecture on public economics delivered at the Palatine school in Milan in 1771, he predicted that chaos would ensue if such economic policies were not enforced by an enlightened despot (see Harcourt 2011, 65-68).

Although it is futile to look for the origin of economics in the text of a single author, we can trace the emergence of an overarching conception of the 'economy' in the work of 18th century French physiocrats, and subsequently, in that of Scottish moral philosophers. The physiocratic movement began as a writing workshop with François Quesnay and a small number of disciples at the Court of Louis XV in Versailles, and was later displaced to Paris where the new institution of the Salon provided the économistes with ample room for discussion (see Charles and Théré 2011). Both theoretical and applied works of the physiocratic movement were predicated on idea that a 'natural order' ruled the economic activity of a country. However, such a natural order still required government involvement in order to secure a nation's wealth and power-but not of the interventionist kind proposed by Beccaria. Quesnay claimed that an 'economic government' should provide the institutional structures to enable each individual to pursue his own interests, while at the same time protect agriculture as the eternal source of economic growth (see Steiner 2002, 100).1 Amidst the intrigues of French court society, physiocratic doctrines began to spread to a wider audience. As a tutor to the Duke of Buccleuch, Adam Smith visited France in the mid-1760s where he became acquainted with members of the writing workshop. More than a decade later Smith published his misgivings with the teachings of the physiocrats in The wealth of nations; and subsequently this gave impetus to the British tradition of political economy (see Harcourt 2011, 79-85).

To provide a chronological account of the concept of the 'economy' as an autonomous entity would be beyond the scope of a single article. Therefore, this article ventures an alternative approach by commencing with the provisional end point of its development, which is to be found in David Ricardo's Principles of political economy and taxation (1817). In the history of economics, David Ricardo is regarded as one of the 'founding fathers' of the discipline. At a time when economics was still in its infancy as a science, Ricardo's Principles was instrumental in giving political economy a distinctive profile, which led to fierce intellectual and political debates in the 1820s (see Blaug 1958, 44-45; Thompson 2002). By carefully examining Ricardo's 19th century classic in political economy, I will articulate a number of 'discursive demarcations' that are also found-to a greater or lesser extent-in 18th century physiocracy and political economy. I will show then how these elements together contributed to the formation of the 'economy' as an object of knowledge.

My epistemological focus on discursive demarcations is inspired by the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault. The formation of objects of knowledge was central to Foucault's work in the history and philosophy of the human sciences. In The archaeology of knowledge, for instance, he said that "it is not enough for us to open our eyes, to pay attention, or to be aware, for new objects suddenly to light up and emerge out of the ground" (Foucault 1972, 44-45). …

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