How Criminals Built Capitalism

by Clive Crook, published April 6, 2015

Naval hero, fraudster, builder of capitalism? Photographer: Kim Traynor via Wikimedia Commons  

Whenever buyers and sellers get together, opportunities to fleece the other guy arise. The history of markets is, in part, the history of lying, cheating and stealing — and of the effort down the years to fight commercial crime.

In fact, the evolution of the modern economy owes more than you might think to these outlaws. That’s the theme of “Forging Capitalism: Rogues, Swindlers, Frauds, and the Rise of Modern Finance” by Ian Klaus. It’s a history of financial crimes in the 19th and early 20th centuries that traces a recurring sequence: new markets, new ways to cheat, new ways to transact and secure trust. As Klaus says, criminals helped build modern capitalism.

And what a cast of characters. Thomas Cochrane is my own favorite. (This is partly because he was the model for Jack Aubrey in Patrick O’Brian’s “Master and Commander” novels, which I’ve been reading and rereading for decades. Presumably Klaus isn’t a fan: He doesn’t note the connection.)

Cochrane was an aristocrat and naval hero. At the height of his fame in 1814 he was put on trial for fraud. An associate had spread false rumors of Napoleon’s death, driving up the price of British government debt, and allowing Cochrane to avoid heavy losses on his investments. Cochrane complained (with good reason, in fact) that the trial was rigged, but he was found guilty and sent to prison.

The story is fascinating in its own right, and the book points to its larger meaning. Cochrane, in a way, was convicted of conduct unbecoming a man of his position. Playing the markets, let alone cheating, was something a man of his status wasn’t supposed to do. Trust resided in social standing.

As the turbulent century went on, capitalism moved its frontier outward in every sense: It found new opportunities overseas; financial innovation accelerated; and buyers and sellers were ever more likely to be strangers, operating at a distance through intermediaries. These new kinds of transaction required new ways of securing trust. Social status diminished as a guarantee of good faith. In its place came, first, reputation (based on an established record of honest dealing) then verification (based on public and private records that vouched for the parties’ honesty).

Successive scams and scandals pushed this evolution of trust along. Gregor MacGregor and the mythical South American colony of Poyais (“the quintessential fraud of Britain’s first modern investment bubble,” Klaus calls it); Beaumont Smith and an exchequer bill forging operation of remarkable scope and duration; Walter Watts, insurance clerk, theatrical entrepreneur and fraudster; Harry Marks, journalist, newspaper proprietor and puffer of worthless stocks. On and on, these notorious figures altered the way the public thought about commercial trust, and spurred the changes that enabled the public to keep on trusting nonetheless.

The stories are absorbing and the larger theme is important: “Forging Capitalism” is a fine book and I recommend it. But I have a couple of criticisms. The project presumably began as an academic dissertation, and especially at the start, before Klaus starts telling the stories, the academic gravity is crushing.

Trust, to be simple with our definition, is an expectation of behavior built upon norms and cultural habits. It is often dependent upon a shared set of ethics or values. It is also a process orchestrated through communities and institutions. In this sense, it is a cultural event and thus a historical phenomenon.

No doubt, but after a first paragraph like that you aren’t expecting a page-turner. Trust me, it gets better. When he applies himself, Klaus can write. Describing the messenger who brought the false news of Napoleon’s death, he says:

Removed from the dark of the street, the man could be seen by the light of two candles. He looked, a witness would later testify, “like a stranger of some importance.” A German sealskin cap, festooned with gold fringes, covered his head. A gray coat covered his red uniform, upon which hung a star… Neighbors and residents of the inn stirred and peered in as the visitor penned a note.

Tell me more.

My other objection is to the book’s repeated suggestion that Adam Smith and other classical proponents of market economics naively underestimated the human propensity to deceive and over-credited the market’s ability to promote good behavior. Klaus doesn’t examine their claims at length or directly, but often says things such as:

The sociability in which Adam Smith had placed his hopes for harnessing self-interest was not a sufficient safeguard in the sometimes criminal capitalism of the ruthless free market.

Of course it wasn’t. Smith didn’t believe that the market’s civilizing tendencies, together with humans’ instinct for cooperation, were a sufficient safeguard against fraud or breach of contract or other commercial wrongs. He was nothing if not realistic about human nature. And by the way, many of the subtle adaptations to the shifting risk of fraud that Klaus describes were private undertakings, not government measures. Far from being surprised by them, Smith would have expected their development.

Nonetheless, Klaus is right: Give the markets’ ubiquitous and ingenious criminals their due. They helped build modern capitalism, and they aren’t going away. Just ask Bernie Madoff.