The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics

2018 Edition
| Editors: Macmillan Publishers Ltd


  • Albert O. Hirschman
Reference work entry


‘Interest’ or ‘interests’ is one of the most central and controversial concepts in economics and, more generally, in social science and history. Since coming into widespread use in various European countries around the latter part of the 16th century as essentially the same Latinderived word (intérêt, interesse, etc.), the concept has stood for the fundamental forces, based on the drive for self-preservation and self-aggrandizement, that motivate or should motivate the actions of the prince or the state, of the individual, and later of groups of people occupying a similar social or economic position (classes, interest groups). When related to the individual, the concept has at times had a very inclusive meaning, encompassing interest in honour, glory, self-respect, and even after-life, while at other times it became wholly confined to the drive for economic advantage. The esteem in which interest-motivated behaviour is held has also varied drastically. The term was originally pressed into service as a euphemism serving, already in the late Middle Ages, to make respectable an activity, the taking of interest on loans, that had long been considered contrary to divine law and known as the sin of usury. In its wider meanings, the term at times achieved enormous prestige as key to a workable and peaceful social order. But it has also been attacked as degrading to the human spirit and corrosive of the foundations of society. An inquiry into these multiple meanings and appreciations is in effect an exploration of much of economic history and in particular of the history of economic and political doctrine in the West over the past four centuries.

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© Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Albert O. Hirschman
    • 1
  1. 1.