Moral Accounting

In recent years, behavioral economists have increasingly challenged two of the central assumptions of economic theory, the autonomous and rational individual, by proposing so-called "nudge" programs to modify individual choice behavior.

Such programs of behavioral control are not new, as Michel Foucault has already shown. Our research project takes up the thread of genealogical reasoning to investigate not only the institutional tools and methods developed to manage and control individual behavior, but also the devices put in place by individuals themselves. These individuals were notably women who organized themselves to control the family household in an economic context increasingly defined according to the logic of markets and by systems of moral accounting common to the spheres of production internal and external to the home, as illustrated in the original frontispiece of Charles Dickens' Dombey and Son (1846).

In this context, we are interested in the public and private documents and devices that, by aiming at the management of individual moral accounting, helped define the idea of an autonomous and rational agent that nowadays dominates the discourses of economists and analytical philosophers. To get grip on this gradual evolution of moral accounting, we look at three distinct and specific historical episodes: Geneva at the turn of the 18th century, where elite social reformers introduced innovative programs to educate individuals from all ranks to become rational and responsible members of the polity; the Victorian era, where a growing part of the middle class self-educated through the use of accounting devices that helped it to fit into a society increasingly governed by the laws of the market; and the United States from the long Progressive Era to the Second World War, where women were taught how to become rational consumers who would improve the health of the Nation.

The project integrates sources, methods, and analyses related to social, political, and economic history, and to the circulation of ideas and practices. It also questions the social actors, more specifically the role of women within a society in constant change. It thus contributes to a transversal and multidisciplinary history that helps us understand why the expression "libertarian paternalism" must be seen as an oxymoron - and this, against the opinion of its inventors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.

The project is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation and directed by Professor Harro Maas, at the Walras-Pareto Center for the History of Economic and Political Ideas at the Institute of Political Studies of the UNIL. A first doctoral student, Virgil Wibaut-Le Pallac, is developing a thesis provisionally entitled "Moral accounting in the age of industrial enlightenment: Geneva 1800-1845", Harro Maas is working on moral accounting in the Victorian era. A second FNS doctoral student, Gabrielle Soudan, is working on a thesis entitled "The household and the home economy movement in the progressive era: the creation of the rational consumer". This website aims to publicize the progress of the project and archival materials on the subject.

Dombey & son frontispiece
Original cover design for the feuilleton version of Dombey and Son. Arch. AA d105T/P (no. 7 April). Bodleian Library, Oxford