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The Moral Economy of Eighteenth-Century England

March 24, 2010

England experienced a significant shift in its economy during the eighteenth-century. This shift was from a primarily paternalist style of economics to the laissez faire style advocated by Adam Smith and others. This lead to two conflicting views of how the economy works. The people of England believed in a moral economy. This is a set of beliefs which treat economics as part of the moral sphere, were one has obligations and duties to the community and was not necessarily anti-capitalist.
Study into this issue was first done by E.P. Thompson who argued that the people who acted in food riots due so because of what they see as moral abuses. This is because the people viewed the members of their community as having certain obligations under the law. For example, the attendance of farmers at the markets was “a material part of his duty; he should not be suffered to secret or dispose of his goods elsewhere.”(1) The people believed that by exporting the grain or other product to another part of the country that they would starve. It is likely by blocking the transfer of products that they contributed to food shortages in other areas.
John Bohstedt, who writes twenty years after Thompson offers us a much clearer picture of what the people saw as a moral economy. Bohstedt agrees with Thompson on many issues, but wants to be more specific. Bohstedt agrees that rioters justified their actions in moral terms but thinks there is more to it than that. Bohstedt says the “moral bases of the rioters’ actions  were threefold: their righteous indignation at market cheating or extortionate prices; their assertion of their right to survive; and the immanence of riot repertoires in popular mores.”(2) The three statements can be taken as the building blocks of the moral economy similar to how Adam Smith writes about the free market being guided by the invisible hand of the market.
It is important to remember as well that these riots were not necessarily anti-capitalist in nature. Bohstedt says “what rioters seemed to object to was cheating, false weights and measures, extortionate prices, not just high prices.”(3) Thompson notes that the riots which normally occurred in September or October was “often precipitated by the failure of prices to fall after a seemingly plentiful harvest.”# One way to look at this further is in the way the rioters themselves acted. One of the things that took place was the seizure of grain which would then be sold off for less then the market price. One rioter notes that “if she had put it in her purse it should have been stolen.”(4)
The rioters believed that their rights to life outweighed the right to profit. This can be seen by the way the peasants  were angered when prices did not fall following a good harvest. The reaction against the creation of national markets also has to do with how the people viewed their communities. They felt that they had moral obligations to one another, so that in bad times people help one another out, not try and profit from it. Thompson argues that the riots can be seen to indicate a type of anti-capitalist sentiment, but Bohstedt, argues that the riots were responses to a more predatory system of capitalism, where the people are exploited and forced to pay extremely high prices to live while someone can buy and sell grain, making a fortune.
What the moral economy meant to the people of eighteenth-century England, was that everyone had not only a right to eat, but at a reasonable price, and if that failed to be provided then the seizure of food to be sold off at reasonable prices would be justified under the paternalist system. The poor can pay some money for food but only what they saw as a reasonable price would suffice.

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1) Thompson, E.P. “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” Past and Present 50 (1971): pp 87

2) Bohstedt, John. “The Moral Economy and the Discipline of Historical Context.” Journal of Social History 26, no. 4 (1992): pp. 2673)Bohstedt, John. “The Moral Economy and the Discipline of Historical Context.” Journal of Social History 26, no. 4 (1992): pp. 267

3)Thompson, E.P. “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” Past and Present 50 (1971): pp 94
4) Bohstedt, John. “The Moral Economy and the Discipline of Historical Context.” Journal of Social History 26, no. 4 (1992): pp. 272

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