The Political Economy

The Invocation of Liberal Economics by the Catholic Free Press in the French Right-to-Work Debates of 1848

This essay explains why the conservative Catholic press in France invoked a liberal political economy during the 1848 Revolution. It argues that as political actors attempted to define the fledgling republic that year, they grounded their claims to authority on external sources of legitimacy and established regimes of truth that could justify competing policy positions. As unemployment spiked in Paris, the debate over whether there existed a right to work played a pivotal role in determining the path of the revolution. This essay first reconstructs the moral economy rooted in Christian ethical teachings that radicals referenced to justify active state intervention in the economy to provide work to all in need. Second, it highlights key elements of the era’s prevailing political economic theories about how market processes generated a market order to explain why economists advocated state abstention from the labor market. Finally, it traces shifts in the conservative Catholic press when, confronted with the threat of social revolution premised on Christian moral economy, it embraced and then abandoned a liberal political economy as a political rhetoric against the radical understanding of the revolution. By doing so, this essay emphasizes the importance of considering the political and cultural context surrounding the adoption of ideologies.