Skip to main content

Economic Satires

"Social Reform", (c) George Cruikshank (1819)


"I'm a-coming! I'm a-coming! I shall have you! And though I'm at your heels now, I'll be at your heads presently."

The best way to begin learning anything is to read satires of it; this is because satire will present the field's cliches concisely and criticise them memorably, as a part of the gig. However, most economists cannot write, and most writers have naive economic views, so economics is short of this source of instruction, deflation and self-consciousness. Here are some corkers:

  • "A Modest Proposal"(1729) by Swift

    The original: "solve poverty; make 'em eat their kids." Swift was targeting the treatment of labourers as commodities found over hundreds of years of mainstream economic thought (the Malthusians before Malthus, Walrasians before Walras). Callous scientism is still around in places. It was quite hard to spot the satire at the time: the description of Irish people as animals was fairly commonplace well into the C19th. In proper Classical style Swift includes his actual view, backwards:
    "Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: Of taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound: Of using neither clothes, nor household furniture, except what is of our own growth and manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury: Of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women: Of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence and temperance: Of learning to love our country, wherein we differ even from Laplanders, and the inhabitants of Topinamboo: Of quitting our animosities and factions ... 'till he hath at least some glympse of hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice."

  • Southey's Colloquies on Society (1830) by Thomas Macaulay

    This is good and mean. The poet Southey had weighed in on matters Macaulay judged ill-befitting a poet. So most of this is just basic philosophy couched in snark about how poets can't think:
    "He does not seem to know what an argument is. He never uses arguments himself. He never troubles himself to answer the arguments of his opponents."

    "Government is to Mr. Southey one of the fine arts. He judges of a theory, of a public measure, of a religious or a political party, of a peace or a war, as men judge of a picture or a statue, by the effect produced on his imagination

  • "A Petition" (1845) by Frederic Bastiat

    The book this is from, Economic Sophisms, captures the energetic, snarky side of laissez-faire better than anything else. Depending on yr ideology, this will delight or enrage, obviously. Here's his send-up of trade barriers (which, by the way, no economy ever has gotten started without):
    We are suffering from the ruinous competition of a foreign rival who apparently works under conditions so far superior to our own for the production of light that he is flooding the domestic market with it at an incredibly low price; for the moment he appears, our sales cease, all the consumers turn to him, and a branch of French industry whose ramifications are innumerable is all at once reduced to complete stagnation. This rival, which is none other than the sun...

  • "Pictures of the Socialistic Future" (1891) by Eugene Richter

    Propaganda of the consequences of vanguardist revolutionary Communism which now looks like Cassandra forecasting for the Soviet case. Depicts mass exodus, draconian border controls and internal monitoring, police brutality, military escalation, unfree labour, ubiquitous corruption - but there's too much triumph in Richter's arc, and not enough mercy. (His message: "Socialism started off bad with bad people who got worse as their powers multiplied.") In its haste to declaim, to derail the gulag train, it can't really empathise with idealists betrayed . No jokes either: satire only in the sense of a Juvenalian jeremiad.

  • "The Theory of the Leisure Class" (1899) by Thorstein Veblen
  • The quasi-peaceable gentleman of leisure, then, not only consumes of the staff of life beyond the minimum required for subsistence and physical efficiency, but his consumption also undergoes a specialisation as regards the quality of the goods consumed. He consumes freely and of the best, in food, drink, narcotics, shelter, services, ornaments, apparel, weapons and accoutrements, amusements, amulets, and idols or divinities.

    Only quasi-satirical: he is deadly serious about capitalism being frivolous barbarism. Satire usually has to be a lighter-written, but Veblen rides the edge: he's as verbose as stylish prose can get (if not more). The Theory was an attempt to get economists to address the massive socio-cultural factors properly - but we've come barely any further since, so it was the sociologists that seized upon him instead.

  • "The Cuandine Trilogy" (1926) by Eimar O’Duffy
  • "If there were no incentive to such people to save and invest their money, there would be no employment for anybody. We should simply stand around with our hands in our pockets and starve. That was what actually happened in primitive times. There were no capitalists to employ the people so they just sat down and died.

    "A science-fiction exploration of Social Credit themes". Ignore that programme though; this is really funny and humane stuff from a neglected member of Ireland's incredible artistic modernist blurt.

  • "Report From Iron Mountain" (1967) by Leonard Lewin (probably)

    More than a hoax. Deadpan black comedy capturing the scientific savagery of think-tanks, very early on in that format's history. Also pushed the military-industrial complex thesis, now almost a truism.
    ...even in the unlikely event that a lasting peace should prove 'attainable', it would almost surely be undesirable. The "war system" is essential to the functioning of a stable society: until adequate replacement for it might be developed, wars and an "optimum" annual number of war deaths must be methodically planned and budgeted.

    The economic analysis isn't actually any good, though that could be the point. Lewin eventually confessed, and got this wonderful barb out of the confession: "The charade is over, whatever is left of it. For the satirical conceit of Iron Mountain, like so many others, has been overtaken by the political phenomena it attacked. I’m referring to those other documents -real ones, and verifiable - that have appeared in print. The Pentagon Papers were not written by someone like me. Neither was the Defense Department’s Pax Americana study (how to take over Latin America). Nor was the script of Mr. Kissinger’s Special Action Group reported by Jack Anderson (how to help Pakistan against India while pretending to be neutral)." See also.

  • "Life Among The Econ" (1973) by Axel Leijonhufvud

    Anthropological study of academic economists. Captures the thing's cerebral machismo, which remains despite feminist and pluralist gains, and the 'fall' of ISLM general equilibrium. (Where by 'fall', read 'rise to almost entirety of undergraduate programme'.)
    The facts (a) that the Econ are highly status-motivated, (b) that status is only to be achieved by making “modls,” and (c) that most of these “modls” seem to be of little or no practical use, probably accounts for the backwardness and abject cultural poverty of the tribe. Both the tight linkage between status in the tribe and modlmaking and the trend toward making modls more for ceremonial than for practical purposes appear, moreover, to be fairly recent developments, something which has led many observers to express pessimism for the viability of the Econ culture.

  • "Lean Brain Management" (2006) by Gunter Dueck

    Curious German book satirising business selfhelp fluff and squashing consultancy. "Economize on intelligence!"

  • Hammer And Tickle" (2009) by Ben Lewis
    When Russian tanks rolled into Prague in 1968, the population fought back with wit. Every night graffiti appeared in Wenceslas Square with lines like “Soviet State Circus back in town! New attractions!” and “Soviet School for Special Needs Children—End-of-Term Outing.” People cracked jokes: Why is Czechoslovakia the most neutral country in the world? Because it doesn’t even interfere in its own internal affairs. And: Are the Russians our brothers or our friends? Our brothers—we can choose our friends.
  • Actually a nice and narrow history book, and poignant as anything. Could so easily have been an shallow racialist mess, but instead captures the anxieties and desparate humanity of it. But a joke could be told about Stalin, or by Stalin:

    "Stalin gets a visit from a Georgian delegation: They come, they talk to Stalin, and then they go, heading off down the Kremlin’s corridors. Stalin starts looking for his pipe. He can’t find it. He calls in Beria, the dreaded head of his secret police. “Go after the delegation, and find out which one took my pipe,” he says. Beria scuttles off down the corridor. Five minutes later Stalin finds his pipe under a pile of papers. He calls Beria— "Look, I’ve found my pipe." “It’s too late,” Beria says, "half the delegation admitted they took your pipe, and the other half died during questioning."" (But according to Lewis, under Stalin, 200,000 people were imprisoned for telling such jokes.)

  • "Blacklisted Economics Professor Found Dead" (2011) by Yves Smith

    Incredibly well-conceived piece in which Outis Philalithopoulos ("Nobody, Son of Loves-Stones") explains his theory of academia - one in which the cynicism of economic method is applied to explain the output of economists. He's then cast out for breaking ranks and endangering their sweet racket. Smith is comparable to Veblen here, commenting as she is on the self-satisified imperialism of economic method. For instance Public Choice theory ("politicians just hawk policies for votes"), or Becker's 'On the Interaction between the Quantity and Quality of Children' (1973).
    Consider the following seven propositions. All of them have been effectively promoted and publicized by academic economists ... As a bright high school student like yourself can clearly see, the list consists entirely of statements that are obviously wrong, and several of them are internally inconsistent. If economists were simply confused, we would expect to find no pattern in these statements. Instead, as predicted by Academic Choice, statements P1-P7 all directly enable rent-seeking by certain influential minorities (financial sector employees and corporate executives). Moreover, P1-P7 have also helped to generate market discontinuities with significant public costs, among which the recent global financial crisis.


  1. You left out Bernard de Mandeville's 'Fable of the Bees', bad = good:

    Thus every Part was full of Vice,
    Yet the whole Mass a Paradice;
    Flatter'd in Peace, and fear'd in Wars
    They were th'Esteem of Foreigners,
    And lavish of their Wealth and Lives,
    The Ballance of all other Hives.
    Such were the Blessings of that State;
    Their Crimes conspired to make 'em Great;
    And Virtue, who from Politicks
    Had learn'd a Thousand cunning Tricks,
    Was, by their happy Influence,
    Made Friends with Vice: And ever since
    The worst of all the Multitude
    Did something for the common Good.


Post a Comment