Until the early nineteenth century, "risk" was a specialized term: it was the commodity exchanged in a marine insurance contract. "Freaks of Fortune" tells the story of how the modern concept of risk emerged in the United States. Born on the high seas, risk migrated inland and became essential to the financial management of an inherently uncertain capitalist future.Read more...
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Until the early nineteenth century, "risk" was a specialized term: it was the commodity exchanged in a marine insurance contract. "Freaks of Fortune" tells the story of how the modern concept of risk emerged in the United States. Born on the high seas, risk migrated inland and became essential to the financial management of an inherently uncertain capitalist future.
Focusing on the hopes and anxieties of ordinary people, Jonathan Levy shows how risk developed through the extraordinary growth of new financial institutions-insurance corporations, savings banks, mortgage-backed securities markets, commodities futures markets, and securities markets-while posing inescapable moral questions. For at the heart of risk's rise was a new vision of freedom. To be a free individual, whether an emancipated slave, a plains farmer, or a Wall Street financier, was to take, assume, and manage one's own personal risk. Yet this often meant offloading that same risk onto a series of new financial institutions, which together have only recently acquired the name "financial services industry." Levy traces the fate of a new vision of personal freedom, as it unfolded in the new economic reality created by the American financial system.
Amid the nineteenth-century's waning faith in God's providence, Americans increasingly confronted unanticipated challenges to their independence and security in the boom and bust chance-world of capitalism. "Freaks of Fortune" is one of the first books to excavate the historical origins of our own financialized times and risk-defined lives.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-08-20
- Reviewer: Staff
A free-wheeling yet finely targeted history of capitalism and the modern financial industry, this study by Princeton historian Levy revolves around one specific concept—risk—while considering changing notions of liberty, justice, and human agency. Originally a mariners' term for the possibility of a ship's cargo being lost at sea, "risk" became a defining feature of American commercial life as the free market expanded and industrialization radically increased the pace of economic change. Although the casual reader may struggle with the book's specialist terminology and high-level concepts, Levy's humane vision and his extensive knowledge of American law, economics, and politics turn what could have been a dry treatise into a fascinating portrait of a society in flux. The author sheds light on such topics as corporate profit-sharing and the ethical ramifications of futures trading, underscoring the extraordinary power of the "economic chance-world" to create and destroy. Happenstance has always played an enormous role in human life, and the book explores society's reaction to the realization that individuals are increasingly defined by the possibility that their station in life will dramatically rise or fall. (Oct.)