In reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and restlessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people come simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, til their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.
David Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds ( 1853)
Something called political economy came of age in Britain in the first third of the n ineteenth century, particularly during the decade following the end of the Napoleonic Wars. It captured public attention like a fad, acquired media, spokespeople, and classics that it did not have before, and was conspicuously brought to bear on a wide assortment of urgent economic problems in the spectacle of public life. To describe and explain how and why this occurred is the objective of this book.
My answers as to why political economy caught on as it did are several. The most basic, I propose, is that a number of very talented people with extraordinary powers of persuasion and analysis and with very close connections to influential and active political leaders offered, under the banner of science and the weight of a scientific tradition, solutions to problems of urgent political and moral importance. These problems were chiefly those created by the economic crisis