The Currency of Politics: The Political Theory of Money from Aristotle to Keynes by STEFAN EICH
NOBODY HAS EVER seen the economy. We can see specific markets, but my local farmers’ market looks very different from the Diamond District in Manhattan and even the street stalls I frequented in East London.
Markets are institutions with more or less physical infrastructures, but “the market” (like “the economy”) is an abstraction, no more fixed or certain than “the Left” or “nature.” If “the economy” and “the market” are often described as though they were things out there in the world to be measured and monitored while other abstractions (such as “beauty” and “joy”) are not, that tells us as much about ways of thinking as it does about the workings of the world.
Powered by this insight, the history of economic thought (and related “new histories of capitalism”) has grown over the past 20 years to become one of the most lively and popular historical subfields.
Free Market: The History of an Idea by JACOB SOLL
The recent controversy over Jacob Soll’s new book Free Market: The History of an Idea (2022) reveals just how attached some people are to their economic ideologies (no surprise there) and to their ideas about who gets to have “economic thoughts.”
In a sweeping text that ranges across 2,500 years in barely 250 pages, Soll argues that, for centuries, “free” markets were understood as existing only where strong, moral governments liberated trade from domination by selfish, moneyed merchants. Markets had to be set free—they were not born that way—and the danger has always lurked of commerce being recaptured to enrich the few rather than benefit the many.
This is a loosely “antitrust” way of describing market freedom, and it might have barely registered at all had Soll attributed it chiefly to Louis Brandeis, Frances Perkins (secretary of labor under FDR), or even Machiavelli. But by invoking the name “Adam Smith,” Soll seems to have violated the holy of holies.