- Purchase/rental options available:
History of Political Economy 32.2 (2000) 408-410
[Access article in PDF]
Morality and the Market in Victorian Britain
Morality and the Market in Victorian Britain. By G. R. Searle. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998. xi; 300 pp.
This study is impressive in its scope and fascinating in its subject matter. Professor Searle has read prodigiously in the primary and secondary sources, including works of fiction, and is asking a provocative question: In what situations were defenders of the market obliged to retreat in the face of "moral anxieties" about the consequences of unrestrained capitalism (6)? There is much to admire in this dense, rich book. There are detailed and nuanced analyses of somewhat arcane debates on subjects like the adulteration of food, wife selling, and Sabbatarianism. A number of better-known topics are skillfully surveyed, such as the rise and fall of Christian political economy, the rise and further rise of professionalization, and the ambivalences of mid-Victorian feminism.
Unfortunately, however, key terms like "capitalism," "free trade," and "political economist" are never defined. When the high, black-market price that medical schools paid for illegal corpses resulted in several murders, Professor Searle concludes, "As far as corpses were concerned, the logical end-product of free trade, it seemed, was murder" (72), when, in fact, the killings were clearly a consequence of there not being a free trade in bodies. After quoting a Lancashire businessman's claim that "'labour must be considered as a mere purchasable article, like all other commodities . . . ,'" Professor Searle asks, "How, then, did the operation of the [End Page 408] labour market differ from the transactions of the slave trade, if indeed it differed at all?" ignoring the obvious distinctions between the purchase of labor and involuntary servitude (64). Instances in which the author's animus toward economic liberalism results in some theoretical confusion--as in his discussion of cooperation (43-47)--could be multiplied.
No less problematic is the indiscriminate use of the label "political economist." Greg, Cobden, Smiles, Spencer, and Roebuck are among those enrolled; no one checks IDs. (In one instance a Dr. Tait joins the ranks solely by virtue of his opinion about the sources of prostitutes' earnings .) Among the consequences is a tendency to overstate the dominance of Ricardian political economy, while undervaluing the impact of Mill's transformation of it when he resurrected it in 1848. (It would have been worth engaging Biagini's argument  that Millian political economy was of great use to working-class Radicals.) If Searle fails to distinguish among thinkers, it is because he is concerned chiefly with encapsulating a "school of thought" rather than assessing the intellectual development of particular individuals. Thus he relies on a wide array of short quotations from diverse sources, with tag-line identifications. Nonetheless, the book would have profited from a consideration of the extensive secondary literature on the policy prescriptions of actual political economists (Robbins 1952, Samuels 1966, Stigler 1982, etc.), as well as the debate over scope and method initiated by Senior and Mill. The concepts of externalities and public goods postdate the period Professor Searle focuses on, but they were anticipated by earlier writers and might have been usefully applied.
Though he handles the controversies fairly judiciously, the verdict in each chapter's conclusion invariably goes against the "political economists." If their arguments are not ipso facto untenable, then certain broadly construed economic or political trends discredit their assumptions. The latter line enables Professor Searle to dismiss the free traders' opposition to war on the grounds that the century saw increased support for imperialism. (The historical determinism of Cobden and Spencer has to be exaggerated to sustain this point; neither denied the possibility of retrograde policies.) But even when their arguments are superior and their cause successful, that is, endorsed by public opinion (i.e., regarding Sunday trading or prohibition), Professor Searle still awards no laurels.
In a sense, the big question Professor Searle poses at the outset is misleading. Serious political economists were sometimes guilty of underestimating the myriad frictions that distorted the operation of economic...