Shakespeare’s Inner Economist

One of the best and most common arguments for studying literature, history, and philosophy is their lasting relevance. Great productions of the human mind are always pertinent, say those of us who study them, because they record eternal truths about the human condition. No matter how far we are from Aristotle, Augustine, or Shakespeare in time, their questions are our questions, and their quests for answers are our quests. The world around us changes greatly, but our human concerns remain the same. For me, this has always been more than sufficient justification to frolic merrily across the centuries and apply the compelling insights of public choice theory—a 20th century phenomenon—to the literature of the 16th and 17th centuries, and even to the Bible.

I was surprised, then, to realize recently that Gordon Tullock himself, one of the founders of public choice theory, would have been highly skeptical of using pre-Enlightenment literature as a source for examples of and observations about public choice theory. Tullock has argued that, while history provides useful examples of public choice problems, pre-Enlightenment people lacked what I will call a “public choice sensibility” that would have allowed them to really understand those problems and write about them compellingly. We hear this claim in Government Failure when Tullock wrote with Selden and Brady that:

Until the days of Adam Smith most social discussion was essentially moral. Individuals—whether they were businessmen, civil servants, politicians, or hereditary monarchs—were told what was the morally correct thing to do and urged to do it. All these people were implicitly assumed to be, and perhaps were, engaged in maximizing the public interest. Machiavelli and Hobbes were major exceptions to this rule; nevertheless, in both cases their influence was much less than their readership might suggest.[1]

And again, a little later in the same work, “Until the time of Hume and his friend, Adam Smith, the prevailing view of human nature and government was that the moral or public interest approach was dominant.”[2] And in The Politics of Bureaucracy that moral difference was used to describe a world of medieval merchants who we are told, “did exist in the Middle ages, [and they] lived in small enclaves in which the moral system was not enforced or else owed their wealth, not to economic, but to political reasons.”[3] In other words, the moral underpinnings of the pre-Smithian world were so different from the post-Smithian world that one may as well be talking about different universes.

Those of us who work on pre-Enlightenment thought find this whole argument strange. Pre-Enlightenment thinkers were not fools, nor were they lacking in a healthy skepticism about the abilities of politics and politicians. They had better reason than almost any citizen of the modern West to look askance at the promises of sovereigns, and they had plenty of daily examples of people who claimed to serve the public interest while grabbing their private interests with both hands.

Tullock doesn’t specify which thinkers he has read that lead him to this idea about pre-Enlightenment political thought, so I can only guess where he got it. It seems possible that he’s picking it up from Karl Polanyi’s argument in The Great Transformation, which situates a similar change in morality and mentality during the Enlightenment. Unlike Tullock, Polanyi attributes that change to state intervention. Tullock obviously must reject that causal part of Polanyi’s theory because of his own observations about public choice, but he does still accept the larger part of the theory – the transformation itself. It’s also possible that Tullock derives this idea about pre-Enlightenment thought from reading within the period. A church inclined to excommunicate or execute those who resisted and sovereigns who were equally inclined to step heavily upon dissenters meant that political and religious survival required mouthing a certain number of pieties. These circumstances may well have kept some of the political theorists of the time from being as blunt about the state of politics as they desired – this is why Machiavelli and Hobbes were so shocking and, contra Tullock, so influential.

As scholars like Gordon Schochet and Eric Nelson[4] have noted, however, new methods and approaches to scriptural study in the early modern period opened up new possibilities for a skepticism about human political systems that, because it was biblically based, could maintain both its skepticism about divine right monarchy and also its assertions of piety and virtue. No early modern treatise on politics is complete without some discussion of I Samuel 8, where the Israelites ask God to give them a king. Because Saul’s speech in response to this request can be read either as a list of the rights of a monarch or a list of the dire things that a monarch will do, each writer’s interpretation of this piece of scripture reveals much about his political preferences. And the rise of early modern interpretations that emphasized the dangers of kings and the ways in which the kings of the Davidic line brought those dangers to life is one indication that the skepticism about politics that is such a notable part of the public choice sensibility was alive and well among the early moderns.

This is at least as true in the playhouse as it was in the political arena. As long as they avoided actual treasonous content, pre-Enlightenment playwrights were able to get away with an impressive amount of political commentary, often disguised as historical drama. Tullock misjudged this material severely when he dismissed pre-Enlightenment political thought. Though one could turn to any of a number of pre-Enlightenment sources to support this claim, Shakespeare’s work will, as ever, be a good place to start. His plays—particularly his histories and tragedies – provide a useful sampling of the sort of public choice sensibility that I see as manifestly present in the pre-Enlightenment and that Tullock did not.

The Shakespearean play that most strongly supports the idea of an early modern public choice sensibility is Henry V, the opening scene of which provides the single best rendition of rent-seeking I have ever read. The Bishops of Canterbury and Ely are discovered discussing a bill proposing that the Crown seize lands that had been donated to the church. The land would then go to support:

Full fifteen earls and fifteen hundred knights,

Six thousand and two hundred good esquires

…A hundred almshouses right well supplied;

And to the coffers of the king beside

A thousand pounds by th’year. (H5, 1.1.12-19)

Henry V and Parliament stand to profit enormously. The churchmen are understandably worried, noting that “This would drink deep” (1.1.20) but they believe that the king’s recent turn to a more moral life is making him lean in their favor and against parliament. We learn almost immediately, however, that Henry’s tendency to support the church in this matter is not simply the result of some newfound holiness of purpose. The Bishop of Canterbury has:

… made an offer to his majesty

… As touching France, to give a greater sum

Than ever at one time the clergy yet

Did to his predecessors part withal. (1.1.75-81)

In other words, the clergy has persuaded Henry V to take their side by offering him a large sum of cash to help him invade France. I doubt you could ask for a better classroom example of rent seeking, or for stronger evidence that the early moderns didn’t inhabit such a different moral universe from us. To go by this example, they most certainly could see the many public choice problems happening around them. 

One of the central observations of public choice theory is that we are the same people, with the same controlling interests, when we are in voting booth or in positions of political power as we are when we go to the grocery store. Shakespeare’s Richard III provides further strong evidence that Shakespeare knew things as well as Tullock. As a result of his many murders, and in spite of widespread suspicion of his crimes, Richard of Gloucester has maneuvered his way into being offered the crown of England by the Lord Mayor and the citizens of London. Aware that the Mayor, Aldermen, and a group of citizens are about to arrive to press the crown upon him, Richard carefully constructs the circumstances under which this “high request” will be made of him. He arranges to be discovered at prayer, standing between two bishops, and holding a Bible. He and his closest advisor, Buckingham, assert throughout the scene that Richard’s modesty and piety prevent him from even dreaming of taking the throne. With great show of reluctance, however, he finally does.

The audience for Shakespeare’s Richard III is, of course, composed of the very same kinds of citizens who are so gulled by the murderous king in the play. Shakespeare is not mocking them, however. He and his audience are both aware of the grisly comedy that comes from the vast difference between the personal character of a politician and the appearance presented by the public self. They are also aware of the danger of those who – like the Lord Mayor in the play – are unable to see that difference and guard against it.

Macbeth and King Lear provide further examples of this particular insight. As Macbeth’s murderous tyranny becomes revealed to the people around him in the course of the play, they observe the way in which their former understanding of his public persona has changed as they have come to see the truth about his character.

Now does he feel

His secret murders sticking on his hands;

Now minutely revolts upbraid his faith-breach;

Those he commands move only in command,

Nothing in love: now does he feel his title    

Hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe

Upon a dwarfish thief. (5.2.19-25)

Similarly, one could argue that nearly the entirety of the plot of King Lear is the rapid and complete degradation of Lear’s appearance of command and mastery in the opening scene to the truthful representation of him as a broken wreck in the play’s final moments.

Coriolanus provides us with trenchant observations of the necessity of wooing the populace in order to gain power. Julius Caesar shows why appealing to them is so dangerous and destructive. Measure for Measure is a powerful reminder of how the enforcement of laws is driven by political whims and provides us – in the person of Angelo – with another example of the dangers of a politician who pretends to be one person in office and is another in private.

Again and again in the pre-Enlightenment world and in the plays that presented that world to cultural consumers we see these moments of public choice sensibility presented and assumed to be thoroughly understood by both author and audience. An old regime is overthrown. A new regime rises and is corrupt and self-serving in precisely the same ways. The brave young Bolingbroke who overthrows the vacillating and ineffective Richard II? He becomes the paranoid and reclusive Henry IV whose memory is eclipsed by the bold young Henry V…who dies young and whose kingdom is decimated by mishandling during the minority of Henry VI, which takes us to the Wars of the Roses…I think you take my point. What’s important here is not that the force of history confirms public choice theory. No one is arguing that isn’t true. What’s important here is that, when turning history and politics into art, early modern playwrights did not choose to edit them down to make them morally palatable in the way that they would if Tullock’s assertions of moral difference between their time and ours were correct. Whenever or wherever the “romantic and illusory thinking” about politics that Buchanan and Tullock were rightly concerned about took hold, it was not in the pre-Enlightenment playhouses. The early moderns who were writing and consuming staged representations of politics were at least as suspicious of political leaders and their motivations as were Tullock and Buchanan. And they had at least as much cause to be. They would have, I expect, been insightful commentators on our own political times. If we dismiss them as pre-Smithian moral strangers, we deny ourselves the possibility of accessing their wisdom and applying it to our own times.

We can increase our understanding of these plays if we apply public choice thinking to our work on them. And we can make a strong case for public choice thinking as a description of the condition of humans in politics – regardless of time and place – when we are willing to take the early moderns on their own terms and see that they, too, were capable of viewing politics without even a shred of romance.



[1] Tullock, Gordon, Arthur Seldon, and Gordon L. Brady. Government Failure: A Primer in Public Choice. Cato Institute, Washington DC, 2002. 3-4.

[2] Ibid, 4.

[3] Tullock, Gordon. “The Politics of Bureaucracy” (1965) in The Selected Works of Gordon Tullock, Vol. 6: Bureaucracy. Ed. Charles K Rowley. Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, 2005, 34.

[4] See, for example Political Hebraism: Judaic Sources in Early Modern Political Thought, eds. Gordon Schochet, Fania Oz-Salzberger, and Meirav Jones. Shalem Press, Jerusalem and New York, 2008 and Eric Nelson, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2010. Eran Shalev provides a useful continuation of the discussion into the later American context in American Zion: The Old Testament as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2013.



Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Sarah Skwire looks at the implicit economics of Shakespeare’s plays, in which self-interested politicians vie with one other for advantage. These plays, particularly the histories, reflect a keen awareness of the uses of politics for personal advantage, and of the incentives that work on state agents just like they work on the rest of us. Skwire argues that Shakespeare falsifies the notion that the economic way of thinking was an 18th-century construction, and that premodern people did not think about costs and benefits in the same ways that we now do.

Response Essays

  • Ross Emmett agrees with Sarah Skwire that literature can be informative about public choice, and that pre- and early modern authors often showed more understanding of the problems of political economy than later critics might suppose. He proposes some origins for Gordon Tullock’s curious assertion that premodern authors had a romantic view of politics. These include a change in historical ideas about political economy that was first described by Frank Knight, as well as a litany of 19th- and early 20th-century English-language authors including Arnold Toynbee, William Wordsworth, John Ruskin, and George Bernard Shaw, all of whom did much to romanticize our ideas about politics.

  • Maria Pia Paganelli examines the theme of rent seeking in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Why was it, Smith asked, that businessmen were the most likely to ask for government favors, and why had they demanded – and received – an expensive and dangerous empire? The reason was simple self-interest, he concluded, combined with the unequal distribution of costs and benefits these measures entailed. Although hints of public choice can be found earlier, it’s with good reason that Smith is seen as an important figure.

  • Michelle Vachris argues that Gordon Tullock did make a good point when he characterized premodern political economists’ thinking as romantic. The paradigm of the bad legislator in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, for example, was not a self-interested or venal official, but rather the “man of system” who wished to achieve a particular plan of society. Literature, though, may have been more sophisticated; Vachris looks to Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner for several examples of public choice-like thinking in the nineteenth century.