In the years since The Atlantic’s founding, the national and global economies have changed dramatically. A predominantly agrarian society has given way to an industrial society, which in turn has given way to a globally networked information society. Through all these dramatic transformations, written commentary in magazines like The Atlantic has provided context, insight, and occasional pointed criticism, to help ordinary people make sense of the shifting economic climates affecting them.
In some instances—as in the case of Henry Demarest Lloyd’s compelling written attack on the infamous Standard Oil monopoly—the urgent eloquence of a critical essay has mobilized citizens to amend the rules governing the prevailing economic system. In other cases, economic thinkers have availed themselves of the essay form to buoy readers during times of financial crisis, or to provoke them to demand more from capitalism than mere fulfillment of their material needs. Still others have sought to alert readers to major social and economic changes being wrought by new technological advances, or to celebrate the heady (and lucrative) possibilities available to the savvy entrepreneur in a free market.
Taken together, the five articles excerpted here exemplify the ways in which large-minded thinkers can illuminate the complexities of the sometimes mysterious-seeming economic world—dispelling harmful myths, opening readers’ eyes to insidious abuses or unrecognized potentials, and equipping ordinary citizens with tools not merely for weathering the prevailing economic system but for engaging with it in a positive and strategic manner.