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Ethical Assumptions in Economic Theory: Some Lessons from the History of Credit and Bankruptcy

Abstract

This paper evaluates the economic assumptions of economic theory via an examination of the capitalist transformation of creditor–debtor relations in the 18th century. This transformation enabled masses of people to obtain credit without moral opprobrium or social subordination. Classical 18th century economics had the ethical concepts to appreciate these facts. Ironically, contemporary economic theory cannot. I trace this fault to its abstract representations of freedom, efficiency, and markets. The virtues of capitalism lie in the concrete social relations and social meanings through which capital and commodities are exchanged. Contrary to laissez faire capitalism, the conditions for sustaining these concrete capitalist formations require limits on freedom of contract and the scope of private property rights.

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Correspondence to Elizabeth Anderson.

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Anderson, E. Ethical Assumptions in Economic Theory: Some Lessons from the History of Credit and Bankruptcy. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 7, 347–360 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-004-2202-7

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-004-2202-7

Key words

  • bankruptcy
  • capitalism
  • credit
  • economics
  • libertarianism
  • property rights