‘Financial Education Is about Everybody's Self-Regulation': Financial Literacy As a Moralizing Project

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
CLM.3.06 (Clement House)
Daniel Maman, Ben-Gurion University, Beer Sheva, Israel
Zeev Rosenhek, The Open University of Israel, Raanana, Israel
A crucial component of the financialization of everyday life is the individualization, privatization and marketization of risk management. This transformation connotes deep changes not only at the institutional level, but also in the ways in which individuals are expected to conduct their personal lives, requiring therefore the constitution of a subject exhibiting particular cognitive and normative dispositions considered as necessary to participate in the financial sphere in a responsible and judicious manner. Hence, a myriad of state and non-state actors attempt through varied means to instill in individuals the knowledge, skills, capabilities and predispositions that are deemed as constituting a proficient and reliable actor regarding financial matters.

The capabilities that constitute a financially capable subject are currently specified and disseminated through the concept and practices of financial literacy. Since the late 1990s, a myriad of international, state, and private actors employ the concept to delineate a set of knowledge, skills and attitudes that are seen as underpinning proper individuals’ financial conduct. We study practices of financial literacy as an important device for the constitution of subjects that conform to the financialization of the economy at the macro-institutional level. This is a process through which a purportedly capable and reliable actor in financial markets is constructed -- a subject who has the cognitive and dispositional capabilities to handle individualized financial risks according to proper rules of calculability, rationality, prudence and self-reliance.

In this paper we analyze programs of financial literacy currently conducted by several state agencies in Israel. We examine the notions, principles, causal accounts, norms of conduct and guidelines articulated in the programs. The analysis indicates that moral concerns and themes occupy a central place in the messages imparted by the programs. Notions of individual responsibility, self-discipline, prudence, planning, self-reliance, rationality and calculative capacities are presented not merely as valued instrumental resources, but as key moral imperatives of the subject both towards oneself and towards others, including the family, the community and the nation. Through these notions, programs of financial literacy confer moral meanings to practices of personal finance such as saving, investing, borrowing and budget management, thereby connecting financial matters to the domain of moral virtues.

The broad political-cultural significance of financial literacy as a moralizing project goes beyond the attempt to inculcate in individuals particular dispositions regarding their conduct in the financial sphere. Financial literacy portrays the proper and desired actor in financial markets as a moral subject, thus serving as a device to imbue the financial field as a whole and its logics of individualized and marketized risk management with moral meanings. By offering a representation of particular modes of action in financial markets as a constitutive component of morally virtuous personhood, financial literacy contributes to the insertion of financial markets’ ideational and institutional logics into everyday life.