Economic Thought and Social Institutions in Eighteenth Century England

Cosma Emilio Orsi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


From 1782 to 1834, the English social legislation shifted from a safety net devised to deal with emergencies to a social security system implemented to cope with the threat of unemployment and poverty. In the attempt to explain this shift, this chapter concentrates on the changed attitudes toward poverty and power relationships in eighteenth-century British society. Especially, it looks at the role played by eighteenth-century British economic thinkers in elaborating arguments in favor of reducing the most evident asymmetries of power characterizing the period of transition from Mercantilism to the Classical era. To what extent did economic thinkers contribute to creating an environment within which a social legislation aimed at improving the living conditions of the poor as the one established in 1795 could be not only envisaged but also implemented? In doing so, this chapter deals with an aspect often undervalued and/or overlooked by historians of economic thought: namely, the relationship between economic theory and social legislation. If the latter is the institutional framework by which both individual and collective well-being can be achieved the former cannot but assume a fundamental role as a useful abstraction which sheds light on the multifaceted reality in which social policies are proposed, forged, and eventually implemented.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)147-172
Number of pages26
JournalResearch in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • English social legislation
  • Poor Law
  • speenhamland system
  • workhouse system


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