Jane Austen as an economist

By September 7, 2013Books

Yes, it is polling day, and the future of the nation is being decided. But surely this is the one day when we don’t need to read anything more about politics, unless it is to read a how-to-vote card for the Senate. Instead I offer a new insight into my favourite chicklit author Jane Austen. I’ve taken it from a light-hearted piece by Sarah Skwire, in a journal called  The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education, founded in 1946, which says it is the oldest free-market organisation in the US.

Apparently economists have discovered Ms Austen, and one of them has described her novels as models of economic behaviour. Ms Skwire says: ‘The bluntness with which Austen’s characters discuss matters of finance, Austen’s detailed consideration of her characters’ decision-making processes, and the tightly focused world of her novels, makes them ideal literary models of an economic world.’

And she goes on to discuss Emma in this context. Now although Lizzie Bennet is my favourite female character in all her novels (indeed, I think that she is very likely men’s most desired woman in all literature), it is Emma that is my favourite of the novels. When I first read it I felt almost that I’d been had by the author: the discovery of the secret attachment of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax came without any suspicion on my part, and I stopped reading the novel to go back and see where and why I had missed the clues. They were all there, but usually interpreted by Emma herself, which had misled me.

In Oxford I once went to an evening talk given by John Bayley, the husband of Iris Murdoch, and it was about the impossibility of reading anything again for the first time. It was a most engaging evening, with insights for music as well as literature. Bayley’s message was to English Lit. teachers, who comprised most of the small audience. They needed to realise that while their students might be reading a text for the first time, the teachers would be unable to recapture that sense of discovery. I forgot what he thought their Plan B ought to be.

Back to Emma. I re-read the novel every few years, and I am now alert to the clues about Churchill/Fairfax from the very beginning of my new read. The TV versions I have seen have a hard job in giving you the clues without laying them on too thickly. Emma Woodhouse herself is the only Austen heroine who isn’t in need of money. She will have loads of it when her valetudinarian father dies (and I learned what that word meant when I first read the novel).

Skwire again: ‘She is so well off, in fact, that she often says she plans never to marry, as she has no need. Even the prospect of permanent spinsterhood doesn’t frighten her. As she notes:

I shall not be a poor old maid; and it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman with a very narrow income, cannot but be a ridiculous disagreeable old maid! …but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else. And the distinction is not quite so much against the candour and common sense of the world as appears at first; for a very narrow income has a tendency to contract the mind, and sour the temper. Those who can barely live, and who live perforce in a very small, and generally very inferior, society, may well be illiberal and cross.’

What Emma does, several times, is to plan other people’s romantic attachments, and each time with a comically disastrous outcome, until finally she realises that she is likely to be the principal sufferer of the last one. Fortunately, true love has its way, and the reader is spared an emotional tragedy. I wondered where in this richly funny romantic novel Ms Skwire thought economics showed its rationally maximising head.

Ah. She thinks that Jane Austen has taught her readers an important lesson ‘about the dangers and the egotism of planning for other people’, and she wheels in F. A. Hayek to remind us  of  ‘an order which we cannot improve upon but only disturb by attempting to change by deliberate arrangement any one part of it.’ Hayek argued that people are perfectly capable of acting sensibly for themselves as long as they have proper knowledge of the alternatives and their consequences. Not for him the planning regimen of modern governments.

I enjoyed the essay, but felt that Ms Skwire had drawn the long bow. This is her conclusion: ‘Emma’s egotism and meddling remind us of nothing so much of Hayek’s comment that such planning “involves not only a colossal presumption concerning our intellectual powers, but also a complete misconception of the kind of world in which we live.”’

I guess so, maybe, perhaps. I would have to say that when I read Emma the thoughts of Hayek don’t immediately spring into my mind! Maybe that’s because I am not an economist.


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