Money, Banks and Finance in Economic Thought

How the Economists Gained (and Lost) Consensus. The Popularisation of Economics and the Social Construction of Reality, 19th-20th Century

Guidi Marco Enrico Luigi, Università di Pisa

The paper aims to analyse some of the strategies that the experts and specialists of the economic science adopted in the past two centuries to popularise what they believed to be scientific truths, and to refute the “false ideas” that found an audience especially among the poorest and less educated layers of society. Soon after the formalisation of the science of political economy in the age of Adam Smith, economists became aware of the fact that, in order for a market society to generate ever-increasing levels of wealth, well-being and civilisation, people should be educated to understand the benefits and opportunities that market rules offered and the constraints they put on individual and public choice, and to adopt codes of behaviour that could allow their smooth functioning. For this reason, they engaged their networks in the institutionalisation of economics, and devoted themselves to the popularisation of economics through the largest possible array of media that was available at their times: elementary textbooks, dictionaries and encyclopedias, public lectures and conferences, pamphlets, courses organised by philanthropic and mutualistic organisations, popular journals and newspapers, and, later on, radio and TV programmes and nonfiction bestsellers. In parallel, the media hosted reactions to their ideas based on a variety of formats: comments and columns, science magazines and shows, poems, satirical texts, novels and biographies, caricatures, films, etc. Moving from a definition of the economic discourse as an articulation of four levels or functions (whose proportions and hierarchy vary over time), respectively called "theory", "whispering in the ear of the prince", "public opinion formation" and "social pedagogy", the paper explores in contrastive terms the linguistic and rhetorical strategies through which, at different times, theoretical analysis was translated into popularising formats aiming at educating the public opinion and shaping the cognitive structure of the layman’s mind. The focus is on the ways in which these strategies attempted to create Gramscian hegemony, translating the interests and expectations of different social groups into a single set of coherent goals, consistent with the basic assumptions of economic theory. The main lesson is that the success of works of this kind was a consequence of the coordinated effort of networks of scientists, intellectuals and activists, inside national communities and across borders, an effort that made room for the use of these works in different contexts and were aware of the potentialities of different media and different languages.


Keywords: Popularisation; institutionalisation; economic discourse

Paper file