Political Skepticism’s Long History

Sarah Skwire asks whether the Victorian era literature is any more of a highpoint of the romantic view of politics than the post-World War II era. I would maintain that we can find plenty of examples of skepticism with regard to the political sphere in both eras. Michael Watts points this out in his magnificent literary anthology for economics, especially in his chapter on “Government Failure and Public Choice.”[1] This chapter is comprised of two excerpts, one from Democracy: An American Novel by Henry Adams (1880) and the other from Good as Gold by James Heller (1979). Watts tells us that “Initially published anonymously, Adam’s novel was one of the first major literary works to suggest that the American political experiment was not always or uniquely blessed with a consistently public-spirited sense of democracy. Instead, the political process is shown to be dispiritingly similar to how business is conducted in other walks of life” (p. 178). That, of course, is the founding assumption of public choice theory. Watts goes on to explain “Heller’s novel shows a Washington not fundamentally changed from the place depicted one hundred years earlier by Henry Adams, although the scale of the bureaucracy has expanded at a mind-boggling rate” (p. 183). Watts makes an even more interesting point that can be applied to current issues being debated within the academy today such as climate change and freedom of speech. Watts asserts that since Adams’ time, “[a]cademics have also become a larger part of the scene, but they prove not to be so different from ordinary businesspeople and politicians – except that they are perhaps more naïve” (p. 183).

Watts’ anthology also includes selections that criticize the ability of government to fix market failures. Government attempts to solve income inequality were ridiculed in the short story “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut in 1961. We see in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Cancer Ward, published in 1968, the terrible effects of the nationalization of health care. Finally, an excerpt from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is included to illustrate the consequences of trying to organize society on anything other than the basis of self-interest. The parallels between Atlas Shrugged and public choice theory have also been well documented by Bryan Caplan.[2]

I would conclude that yes, there are many examples of a romantic view of politics in both Victorian era and post-WWII literature as Ross Emmett has pointed out in his essay. However, if we look hard enough, there exists a healthy dose of skepticism throughout history as well.


[1] Watts, M. (ed.) 2003. The Literary Book of Economics Wilmington, DE: ISI Books.

[2] Caplan, B. 2007. “Atlas Shrugged and public choice: the obvious parallels.” In Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged:” a Philosophical and Literary Companion. E. Younkins (ed.) Ashgate.


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.