Pie charts and Prejudice: Jane Austen the economist should grace our banknotes

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a central banker in possession of a printing press must be in want of a Jane Austen tenner. Sir Mervyn King’s parting suggestion that the author of Emma may soon grace our currency was a cheering piece of news this week, especially in Pride and Prejudice’s bicentennial year. Her fans must now keep a sharp eye on King’s Canadian replacement, in case Mark Carney tries to cast Austen aside and smuggle in Celine Dion or Avril Lavigne instead.

Austen’s status as one of Britain’s greatest creative talents should need no defending, but there is still a tendency to dismiss her work as little more than early nineteenth century chick-lit. The 1995 TV adaptation, featuring a damp and doe-eyed Colin Firth as Fitzwilliam Darcy, has a lot to answer for.

In truth, Austen is so much more than a romance writer: she was, for instance, an inventive stylist, the first English writer to make consistent use of free indirect style. This subtle device allows a narrator to slide between omniscience and seeing the world from inside one character’s head. It was the perfect device for a writer who was also a perceptive psychologist and a delicate humourist.

But in the light of Austen’s looming honour from the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street, it is also worth noting her economic understanding. Austen may not be Adam Smith, but her penetrating record of the human condition reveals truths even in this domain. Standing back from the stories, we find hard economic choices driving and shaping her plots, from the intricacies of inheritance to the material consequences of marriage or misalliance. The hard money of Austen’s day gives us a very different economic landscape, before inflation and taxation assisted what John Maynard Keynes called “the euthanasia of the rentier”. But it still illuminates timeless principles of human action.

Take, for example, game theory. It may be an essential tool of today’s economist, but Austen is still waiting for due recognition of her pioneering work in this field, with its emphasis on strategic calculation and individual choice. Don’t take my word for it – read Michael Chwe’s book Jane Austen: Game Theorist, which shows she was a century ahead of her peers.

We should have expected nothing less. Austen’s novels are concerned with a market of great consequence for her heroines – the marriage market – a fiercely competitive, cutthroat setting, perfect for the acute observation of patterns of strategic thinking, from the impact of visiting Pemberley on Elizabeth Bennet’s affections to the errors of planning at the heart of Austen’s supreme achievement, Emma.

In its convincing portrayal of rational calculation as an integral part of everyday life – and the consequences for the General Tilneys of this world who get it wrong – the Austen canon is a brief yet powerful riposte to the recent emphasis on irrational drives as the best explanation for the ways we all act.

But contemplating the handful of Austen’s completed works, the final thought is always: they are too few. In the end, she draws us back to that fundamental economic principle: scarcity. True value like Austen’s lasts – in this sense quite unlike the banknotes of print-happy central bankers. Austen deserves our lasting attention, even as King’s disappearance from the national scene gives us the chance to bid him farewell with the words “you have delighted us long enough”.

First published: City A.M., 28/6/13

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Filed under Economics, Human nature, Literature

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