Crusoe and the Economists: An Accounting

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Date: Winter 2021
From: Independent Review(Vol. 25, Issue 3)
Publisher: Independent Institute
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,538 words
Lexile Measure: 1480L

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For hundreds of years, authors of economic treatises and textbooks have begun their analysis with a discussion of the economics of the isolated individual. They often choose the protagonist of Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe (1719) as their metaphor or model to undertake this analysis. We are asked to imagine Robinson Crusoe stranded on his otherwise deserted island, having to decide how best to provision himself for the present and future. Especially in more modern versions, Crusoe's situation is framed as an allocation problem, in which he must figure out how to maximize the value of all the resources on the island given the various ends he wants to satisfy. The economics of the isolated individual is then contrasted with more realistic models in which exchange takes place. Those who continue to use the Crusoe example often go on to imagine the arrival of Friday and the consequent possibilities of cooperative production and/or trade.

The use of Crusoe examples and models was more common in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century than it is today. Although there are certainly uses of this figure in the twentieth century, direct references to Crusoe (as opposed to discussions of the economics of the isolated individual in general) are less common now than in the past. (1) The use of Crusoe models in every period has been subject to a variety of criticisms, beginning perhaps most thoroughly with Karl Marx in Capital (1867). In the twentieth century, critics have claimed that Crusoe models are problematic for reasons ranging from the way they justify the false picture of "economic man" that populates so much of modern economics to their blindness to the relationships of race and power that define the interactions between Crusoe and Friday in the novel.

There is an ongoing debate about the origins of Crusoe stories in political economy and philosophy. The use of what might be called "isolated individual" stories to illustrate political philosophy can be found in state-of-nature stories from writers as early as Hobbes and Locke. They are not explicit Crusoe stories because they predate the book. What seems to have happened is that once Defoe's novel became popular, later thinkers used Crusoe explicitly where earlier thinkers had used the "isolated individual." Even when Marx criticizes his predecessors' use of Crusoe stories in political economy, he uses the phrase "stories a la Robinson" rather than explicitly indicating Crusoe stories (Marx [1867] 1906, 88).

Some of the most extensive and explicit uses of Robinson Crusoe can be found in the work of the French liberal economist Frederic Bastiat, writing in the 1840s, in particular in Economic Harmonies. In the chapter "Exchange," Bastiat uses Crusoe in the way most economists have done, as an illustration of the limits of isolation and the benefits of exchange. Bastiat points out that even Defoe implicitly admits the importance of exchange and the division of labor through the plot device of stranding Crusoe with various objects from the shipwreck (which we discuss more fully later)....

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A652364010