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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: September 2012

4 - Political Economy: Commerce, Civic Tradition and the Luxury Debate in Isabella and Lamia


Another of the more pressing socio-political issues debated by Keats and his contemporaries was the question of whether commerce was beneficial to society and the majority of its members. Encompassing the discourses of moral philosophy, political economy and political science, the early nineteenth-century debate over the moral and social implications of economic exchange was essentially a reaction to Enlightenment conceptions of wealth-creation: the traditionally ‘benign’ view of economic endeavour as a civilising activity had been rejected by enlightened thinkers in the mid-eighteenth century in favour of a more systematic and scientific analysis of individual rights, free trade and the satisfaction of wants. The shift from an old ‘moral economy’ to a new ‘political economy’ necessarily challenged a number of civic humanist prescriptions, and economists became increasingly aware that the profit motive of commercial societies could undermine older qualities of independence and communal responsibility. Adam Smith argued as early as 1776 in his Wealth of Nations that while commerce encouraged liberty because each man was governed by self-interest, the division of labour could prove harmful to community and citizenship. As the nineteenth century progressed and the human cost of ‘letting the marketplace decide’ became more manifest, economists and reformers alike began to question whether the new commercial system would prove compatible with individual happiness and socio-political stability. Apart from growing apprehensions regarding wages and working conditions, a primary concern was whether modernisation and the privatisation of interests that accompanied an advanced commercial society would undermine civic virtue and corrupt the state.