Dostoevsky and the Economy

I have always been a little bit disappointed by the inclination of certain business leaders to talk only about figures, quarterly results, return on investment whereas, often evidently, their employees, their clients, and even their shareholders would prefer to detect a vision, to listen to a story …

This bias is the result of a fundamental error of understanding of what economy is about, accentuated in France by the method of selection of our elites, often obsessively based on mathematics.

I had the chance to attend the ceremony of the award of the title of Doctor Honoris Causa to Daniel Kahneman on July 5, 2006 at the Sorbonne. Prize of the Bank of Sweden in 2002 (the “Nobel Prize for economics”), the latter had integrated the achievements of research in psychology with economic analysis to lay the first foundations of so-called “behavioral” finance.

Before and after him, the Nobel jury recognized works that stroll in the same territories, somewhere between behavioral psychology and economics: I am thinking of Herbert Simon, in 1978 and Richard Thaler in 2017.

All these economists have thus explored the cognitive biases that exist in the decisions of economic agents, consumers or even investors.

But everything brings us back to literature and it was Dostoevsky who expressed this best!

I discovered him as a teenager when I read Crime et Chatiment, a book written in 1865, serialized in Le Messager Russe from the following year.

“Confined” long before it was all the rage by a nasty broken collarbone, I had been looking for a reading that might occupy me for a while … nothing like Russian literature for that!

The edition of La Pleiade also included Raskolnikov’s Diary, The Crime and Punishment Notebooks and Souvenirs from the House of the Dead. I’ll be honest: I don’t think I’ve read everything!

Unlike Balzac, his teacher, Dostoevsky hated capitalism.

A century after Adam Smith, Dostoevsky’s assertion is that man does not act according to his own interests but according to his fantasies. This is how he protests against the claim of supporters of liberalism to make everything calculable. A constant in his work.

To understand the somewhat sordid atmosphere of Crime and Punishment, you have to imagine Dostoievski, exiled to Wiesbaden to escape debt prison in Russia, trying to recover around the gaming tables. A man who has just lost his wife and his brother …

The action takes place in a city of Saint Petersburg in the midst of the industrial revolution. In a Russia, moreover, traversed by a deep political crisis (the Tsar was also assassinated in 1881 by a revolutionary group).

The odious but fortunate merchant Loujine integrated Adam Smith very well: “by only working for me, I work, in fact, for everyone”.

By mocking him, Dostoevsky is in truth mocking the English liberal economists who since Ricardo have forgotten philosophy to focus on mathematical formalization …

It is this original intuition that researchers at the confluence of psychology and economics that I mentioned have explored after him.

To be included in our reflections on the Next World?


Iconography: Auction of public goods, oil on canvas, Vasili Maksimovich (1844-1911)


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