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Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment

Author(s):Rothschild, Emma
Reviewer(s):Hueckel, Glenn

Published by EH.NET (September 2002)

Emma Rothschild, Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the

Enlightenment. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2001.

ix + 353 pp. $50 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-674-00489-2; $18.95 (paper), ISBN:

0-674-00837-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Glenn Hueckel, Department of Economics, Pomona College.

This is a book that will itself provoke in its readers a number of

“sentiments,” chief of which will be, no doubt, what Smith would have

described as a “sense of wonder” at the breathtaking range of the author’s

learning. Her exposition carries us beyond the works of the two authors in the

staring roles, beyond even those of the two chief supporting actors (Hume for

Smith; Turgot for Condorcet), to commentaries on Greek tragedies, studies of

medieval British labor markets, comments on a modern French philosophical

critique of “bourgeois society,” and much more. Indeed, since few

English-speaking readers will be able to measure up to Rothschild’s linguistic

skills, her commentary on a vast French literature, supplemented with

occasional German sources, cannot fail to prompt new lines of thought. The

argument is lavishly documented; her endnotes alone could provide the diligent

scholar with a rich syllabus for a long and highly instructive course of

reading.

The text, however, is a rather different matter. That initial reaction of

“wonder” will be, I fear, quickly tempered by a growing sense of aggravation

and disappointment as readers contemplate the interpretative structure the

author constructs from her sources, particularly as that structure concerns

Smith. Frequently, the reading advanced seems to be conditioned by the needs

of Rothschild’s argument rather than by the content of her sources. This is,

without question, a difficult book. The exposition is highly allusive,

carried along by hundreds of fragmentary quotations that are more tantalizing

than instructive. Not infrequently one longs for a series of simple

declarative sentences where one can get one’s bearings. Nevertheless,

“enlightenment” eventually arrives in the last chapter, where the author

finally makes explicit her organizing structure.

That structure is best described as comprising three layers of varying degrees

of complexity. At the simplest, most descriptive level, the author seeks to

“cast light” on her notion of eighteenth-century enlightenment. For this

purpose, the object of our attention is to be understood as “a universal, or

potentially universal disposition; … not a characteristic only of

philosophers,” but “a particular disposition of everyone.” This is a

disposition to “a discursive, disputatious, theorizing way of life” which

infuses all areas of existence, particularly the political and commercial

spheres (which, as the author is at pains to point out, are themselves

interrelated) (pp. 16, 31, 39, 49). It is at this level that the argument is

most instructive. The ideas of her authorities fit easily into this scheme,

and the arrangement reveals a number of fascinating insights that will enrich

our understanding of those authorities.

It will be evident from the book’s title that our attention is to be directed

at those enlightenment authors who were roughly a generation younger than

Quesnay and his physiocratic contemporaries. This is an important distinction

since that earlier generation has been criticized for the authoritarian stance

of their political views, a sort of “compulsory enlightenment” in which the

state was to shape the spirit of its people in the philosophers’ image of the

“laws of nature.” Indeed, our authors — Condorcet and Turgot; Smith and Hume

– were among those critics. The failure to maintain this important

distinction in the post-Revolutionary world led, we are told, to the false

portrayal of Smith and Condorcet as expressing that same “cold, rational, and

reflective calculation” associated with the previous generation of

Enlightenment writers in contrast to that “warmth” of sentiment said to

characterize post-Napoleonic thought (pp. 25-28; 34-39).

The author’s first objective is to rescue the reputations of Condorcet and

Smith from this frigid characterization. The task is accomplished for

Condorcet in chapters 6 and 7, the latter of which is slightly revised from

its earlier version appearing in the Historical Journal, 39.3

(September 1996): 677-701. These demonstrate quite satisfactorily that his

“principles … are strikingly different from the cold, unfeeling, all-summing

‘mechanical philosophy’ which is supposed to be characteristic of the French

enlightenment” (p. 212). His world not only permitted diversity of opinion but

encouraged it. Indeed that diversity is to be seen as “of central importance”

to the analysis of voting procedures that led to his famous conclusion that

aggregation of individual choices by majority vote will, under certain

circumstances, produce intransitive outcomes. Condorcet’s solution to the

problem was to envision constitutional procedures to manage that “political

dissonance” by encouraging “deliberation, delay, and the prospect of

reversibility.” His citizens would “vote interminably” on “everything from

property rights in ponds to the future constitution of representative

government” (pp. 188-89; 198-99; 204-05; 219-20).

In Smith’s case, the rescue occurs in chapter 2, which, like chapters 3 and 7,

is very slightly revised from an earlier publication (in the Economic

History Review, 1992, 45.2: 74-96). Here the problem is to explain how

Smith’s expansive views on “natural liberty” could come, within a decade of

his death, to be compressed in the minds of his countrymen to no more than a

narrow call for commercial freedom. Here the argument introduces us to the

oppressive social atmosphere in Britain of the 1790s, when widespread fear

that the terrors of the Revolution might be exported across the Channel made

very unpopular any discussion of reform, or even expressions of anything less

than wholehearted support for the war with France. We are reminded that

Stewart, Smith’s first biographer, read his “Account” of Smith’s life to the

Royal Society of Edinburgh at just the time when several of his countrymen

were on trial in the same city for sedition, for which they were eventually

convicted and transported. Some even appealed in their defense to the views

expressed in The Wealth of Nations, which, no doubt, made Smith’s less

reckless readers very nervous. Indeed, Stewart himself fell afoul of the

contemporary sensibilities a year later and was constrained to repudiate what

seems to modern eyes a very mild quotation from Condorcet included in an

earlier work. No wonder Stewart was at pains in his “Account” to distinguish

commercial freedom alone as conducive to national wealth, assuring his hearers

that the freedom of widespread political participation is not, in all cases,

necessary to the “happiness of mankind” (Smith, 1980, p. 310). It is, of

course, obvious that the reception and interpretation of an author’s work will

be influenced by the political and social environment of the time. Rothschild

has here given us a fascinating picture of how that environment influenced the

reception of Smith’s work in the 1790s. A similar story is told in chapter 4,

which contrasts Smith’s criticism of apprenticeship with the arguments

advanced in the debates leading to the 1814 repeal of the apprenticeship

clauses of the Elizabethan statute of artificers. Here too we see in detail

how the participants in those debates carefully chose from among Smith’s

broader arguments to support their own narrower purposes. These and the

intervening chapter 3 may well be the best in the book.

That intervening chapter (appearing in a shorter version in the Economic

Journal, 1992, 102.414: 1197-1210), completes the effort to rescue

Condorcet and Smith from that “cold” and “unfeeling” version of the

Enlightenment. Here we are concerned with the teachings of our authorities

regarding the grain trade because, we are told, “The political economy of food

has been an emblem, at least since the 1760s, of the heartlessness of the

liberal system” (p. 72; the like point is made with particular reference to

Smith on p. 61). Rothschild, however, is at pains to convince her readers that

Condorcet, Turgot, and Smith all “argued that free trade in corn is the best

means to avoid famine” (pp. 73-74). This will come as no surprise to

economists; but her brief survey of the arguments contained in Turgot’s

“Lettres” and Condorcet’s R?flexions on the grain trade (which, apart

from some brief excerpts from Turgot translated by Groenewegen, are not

available in English) will be of considerable help to scholars interested in

understanding how societies (and economic theory) respond to subsistence

crises.

It should by now be evident that Rothschild’s effort to describe the positions

advanced by her second-generation Enlightenment authors and to trace out how

the perception of those positions changed in the decades immediately following

the Revolutionary period does indeed cast new and revealing light on the

position of those authors in the pre-Revolutionary intellectual firmament.

About midway through the book, however, the argument shifts away from this

descriptive stance and turns ever greater attention to an evaluation of that

“liberal economic thought” associated with those authors. By the end of the

fifth chapter we are confronted with what Rothschild insists are the two

“shortcoming[s] of the liberal economic order.” The first is its alleged

failure to acknowledge “that individuals seek, on occasion, to pursue their

own (economic) interests by political means.” The second is the “inconstancy”

of that “liberal order.” The institutions comprising the world described by

Condorcet and Smith, being “the outcome of innumerable, unruly judgments, …

may or may not be good.” In this respect that structure “is very unlike a

divine providence … in which individuals should have confidence.” Or, as

the point is expressed in the last chapter, this “more insidious shortcoming

of the liberal orders … is that they do not contain within themselves the

sources of their own improved orderliness.” If, in their intellectual systems,

our authors deny the existence of a “divine providence” looking after things,

then they can have no certainty that those “innumerable, unruly judgments”

will lead to “improved orderliness” (pp. 157-58; 219-20). This uncertainty

provides the third facet of Rothschild’s organizational structure. As she puts

it on the penultimate page of her text, she “has been concerned in this book

with an economic thought in which uncertainty is the overwhelming condition of

commercial society.”

It must be admitted that this theme of “uncertainty” appears frequently in

various brief obiter dicta throughout the book, but the precise nature

of the “uncertainty” that is supposed to be at issue is not made explicit

until the last chapter. There it takes several forms, ranging from the trivial

to the profound. At its most mundane level, it is no more than normal market

risk: “The world of eighteenth-century commerce was insecure, or risky, in the

sense that it was full of new investments and new economic relationships” (pp.

239-40). Yes, replies the reader, and the same could be said for any other

century. To some degree, the uncertainty that is supposed to be at the heart

of “liberal economic thought” arises from capricious changes in the rules of

the game: “The new world of commerce was insecure, too, because it was subject

to frequent and often sudden changes in laws, regulations, and the

jurisprudence of property” (p. 240). But the key role in the argument is

played by those sources of uncertainty that correspond to Rothschild’s two

“shortcomings” of the “liberal order.” That enlightened disposition to “a

discursive, uneasy, self-conscious way of life” that produced the “political

dissonance” that so occupied Condorcet spills over into commercial life as

well: “The eighteenth-century system of commerce … was subject to continuing

flux not only in events, and in rules, but also in the dispositions of the

individuals … of whom the system is composed.” This “flux in the condition

of men is the essential circumstance of modern commerce, in Smith’s, Turgot’s,

and Condorcet’s description” (p. 241). The individuals who populate the world

envisioned by these authors are said to “have opinions about their own

interests, about the interests of the society, and about the policies which

are likely to promote those interests,” and they recognize that they can

promote their private interests through efforts to influence those policies:

“They are buying and selling, buying and selling; in the end, they are buying

and selling rules, and customs, and their own dispositions.” Apparently this

flaw in the “liberal economic system” is to be understood as a fundamental

internal contradiction and is, consequently, the source of “the system’s own

insecurity”: “The system of economic freedom is founded on the equality of all

individuals, and it is at the same time subversive of equality,” that

subversion arising from “the endless circle in which individuals become rich,

and use their money to buy power, to buy other individuals, and to influence

the ways in which other individuals think” (pp. 239; 245; 251-52). Here,

obviously, we have come to Rothschild’s first “shortcoming.” The connection to

the second is obvious: without the presumption of a benevolent, divine

creator, there can be no certainty that those shifting “dispositions of the

individuals” in the system will lead to a socially desirable outcome. But,

Rothschild insists, the system to which Smith, Hume, Condorcet, and Turgot all

subscribed “is not the sort of order which is directed, like the ‘movements of

nature,’ by an ‘all-wise Being,’ or by a single, unified theory” (p. 230).

Here then is the evaluative framework that Rothschild would have us adopt. It

portrays the social systems envisioned by Condorcet and Smith as infused by

uncertainty in various forms, all arising from the “continuing flux” in the

“dispositions” of a “discursive, disputatious” populace, that perpetual social

“dissonance” operating with no hope of a divine, guiding hand and,

consequently, plagued by the “shortcoming” that its agents might pursue their

private interest through anti-social means. But what of the supporting

argument? Can such a reading be shown to be consistent with the texts under

review? With respect to Condorcet, Rothschild’s evidence is extensive and

largely persuasive. Smith, however, simply will not permit himself to be

forced into this template for it attributes to his work positions that, in

several cases, are directly opposed to those which he actually advanced. At

nearly every point, the argument rests on selective omissions and

misrepresentations of the Smith texts. Consider, as illustration, just those

bearing on Rothschild’s two “shortcomings of the liberal order.”

If, as alleged by that first “shortcoming,” we fail to acknowledge that those

intelligent, “discursive,” “self-conscious,” agents in our enlightened world

will recognize the incentives to pursue their private interests through the

political system, then our only hope for future social improvement is to take

refuge in the hope that those agents will grow in social awareness and form

their own interests to those of society. As Rothschild puts it, the

Enlightenment’s “late eighteenth-century exponents” looked forward to “a

universe of small proprietors, most of whom are sufficiently foresighted to

understand that their own lasting self-interest, which coincides with the

interest of the society, consists in competing by economic means … and not

through political influence” (p. 158). Now, this seems a fair portrayal of

Condorcet’s position, at least as it was near the end of his life. Quoting

from her translation of one of his last texts, Rothschild observes that

Condorcet put his faith in reform. With “better laws, … ‘the interest in

acquiring things by illegitimate means will present itself less often, to a

smaller number of individuals, and in less diverse and less seductive forms'”

(p. 166). Here, no doubt, is the source of Rothschild’s claim of

“uncertainty.” There is nothing in this rendition of Condorcet’s vision to

inspire confidence in future improvement. It is, as Rothschild puts it, no

more than “a probabilistic judgment,” an “expression of confidence in the

disposition of individuals to discuss and to live by principles of morality;

to be mild and moderate, and to feel an increase of humanity, from the very

habit of conversing together” (p. 232). “The only source of certainty in such

a society,” we are told, “is to be found … in domestic virtues and domestic

conversations. … Condorcet … is prepared to defend the softness or

sweetness of modern life; to look forward to the ‘easy virtues’ of a world in

which improvements in education and laws would have made ‘the courage of

virtue almost useless.'” But, and here we see evidence of that second

“shortcoming,” Condorcet “also recognizes the frightening insecurity of such a

world, in which there is no foundation of political order, either in reverence

for divine right, or in fear, or in political virtue” (p. 235). Now, to make

her case, Rothschild must demonstrate the existence of Smithian parallels to

this rather bland, but insecure, Condorcevian society. Hence we are told that

Smith “was confident that there would be very little opportunity for violence

in a free, civilized, commercial society, and little advantage to be derived

from fraud” (p. 244). We are to take it that Condorcet’s “mild and moderate”

agents populate Smith’s world too. At any rate, we read that “Smith’s

political philosophy … is a description of a world without violent conflicts

over political principles, without revolutions, and without certainty” (p.

232). Presumably to echo Condorcet’s praise of the “softness or sweetness of

modern life,” we are assured that, for Smith, the “political virtues are the

virtues of humanity, and they are even, in some circumstances, the virtues of

women”; and we are offered a brief quotation in support: “‘Humanity is the

virtue of a woman,’ Smith wrote in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, and

it … requires ‘no self-denial, no self-command, no great exertion of the

sense of propriety'” (p. 234).

By now, those familiar with Smith’s thought will be writhing in agony. Anyone

who is aware of Smith’s praise for the virtue of self-command (that from which

“all the other virtues seem to derive their principal luster”) will be

suspicious of any suggestion that it can be excluded from the “political

virtues.” The suspicion is confirmed when we take the trouble to check the

citation. Rothschild fails to warn us that the fragment concerning “humanity”

as “the virtue of a woman,” appears as the other half of a contrast with the

character of “generosity.” The meaning of the passage changes dramatically

when we return the fragment to its context: “Generosity is different from

humanity. … Humanity is the virtue of a woman, generosity of a man.” While

it is true that “[t]he most humane actions require no self-denial, no

self-command, no great exertion of the sense of propriety, … it is otherwise

with generosity.” This “masculine” virtue requires the “sacrifice [of] some

great and important interest of our own to an equal interest of a friend or of

a superior.” It is, in other words, the opposite of “humanity” in that it

does require “self-denial.” Now, perhaps Rothschild’s selective omission of

the other half of Smith’s rhetorical contrast could be excused if the omitted

concept was, in Smith’s system, excluded from the “political virtues,” but no

such defense is possible here. In the very next sentence, Smith takes his

illustrations from the fields of political and military conflict: “The man who

gives up his pretensions to an office that was the great object of his

ambition because he imagines that the services of another are better entitled

to it; the man who exposes his life to defend that of his friend, which he

judges to be of more importance; neither of them act from humanity;” rather,

they both exhibit the “self-denial” of “generosity” (Smith 1976b, p. 190-91).

Apparently Smith’s vision does include “conflicts over political principles”

and even battlefield sacrifice. His system contemplates revolution too, but

here that “divine order” supposedly missing from that system interposes

impediments to such violent disruption. As we will see shortly, Rothschild’s

peculiar refusal to acknowledge the role of a divine creator in Smith’s system

is the most puzzling aspect of her argument. The benevolent care of that deity

pervades his Theory of Moral Sentiments. “[T]o raise and support …

the great, the immense fabric of human society,” Smith wrote there, “seems in

this world, if I may say so, to have been the peculiar and darling care of

Nature.” To preserve that social fabric, “Nature” implants in us a disposition

to acquiesce in our rulers even when reason would have it otherwise: “That

kings are the servants of the people, to be obeyed, resisted, deposed, or

punished, as the public conveniency may require, is the doctrine of reason and

philosophy; but it is not the doctrine of Nature.” On the contrary, “Nature

would teach us to submit to them for their own sake.” This disposition to

submit to unjust rulers can apply even in the case “of the most brutal and

savage barbarians, of an Attila, a Gengis, or a Tamerlane.” This is not a

particularly noble characteristic. It arises from our disposition to admire

success and to despise failure even when those outcomes are the product of

chance or force. Nevertheless, even this “great disorder in our moral

sentiments” serves to preserve human society, particularly in the worst of

times. Consequently, “we may on this, as well as on many other occasions,

admire the wisdom of God even in the weakness and folly of man.” It may be a

“foolish admiration,” but by this tendency to admire those who, whether by

chance, by force, or by merit, succeed in achieving positions of political

leadership, the populace “are taught to acquiesce with less reluctance under

that government which an irresistible force imposes upon them, and from which

no reluctance could deliver them.” Where in passages such as these are we to

find any hint of Rothschild’s reading of Smith as envisioning “a world

without violent conflicts over political principles, without revolutions”? At

best, Smith’s world is one in which, by virtue of “the wisdom of God,” only

“the most furious passions, fear, hatred, and resentment … excited [to] the

highest degree” can rouse “the bulk of the people … to oppose [their

leaders] with violence” (Smith 1976b, pp. 53, 86, 252-53).

Nor does Smith’s vision of social order rest on a na?ve “confidence in the

disposition of individuals to live by principles of morality.” The agents who

populate Smith’s world exhibit all the faults we have come to know in fallible

humans. It is true that Smith’s ethics — his “theory of moral sentiments” —

rest on a presumed human capacity and desire to, through our imaginations,

“enter into” the situation of our fellows and to experience to a muted degree

their emotions. But it is also true that Smith was ready to acknowledge that

“self-deceit” — that “fatal weakness of mankind” — that too often prevents

us from checking and condemning behavior in ourselves that we would condemn in

others. Yet the “fabric of human society” requires that we all meet certain

accepted standards of decorum. Once again “Nature … has not left this

weakness … altogether without a remedy; nor has she abandoned us entirely to

the delusions of self-love.” Through our normal social interactions, we form

“certain general rules concerning what is fit and proper either to be done or

to be avoided.” These “general rules of conduct” become “fixed in our mind” by

training and “habitual reflection.” Although “ultimately founded upon

experience of what … our moral faculties … approve, or disapprove of,”

their application does not require that all agents exhibit a finely-tuned

capacity for sympathy in all circumstances. A good thing too since “[t]he

coarse clay of which the bulk of mankind are formed, cannot be wrought up to

such perfection.” It is these general rules or duties that are the proximate

foundation of social order: “upon the tolerable observance of these duties

depends the very existence of human society, which would crumble into nothing

if mankind were not generally impressed with a reverence for those important

rules of conduct.” Finally, lest there be any remaining doubts as to the role

of a benevolent deity in Smith’s system, we are told in the next sentence,

“This reverence is still further enhanced by an opinion which is first

impressed by nature, and afterwards confirmed by reasoning and philosophy,

that those important rules of morality are the commands and laws of the

Deity,” a position which is elaborated on the subsequent pages (Smith, 1976b,

pp. 158-63).

We find in chapter 5 Rothschild’s defense of her claim that Smith’s system

exhibits those two “shortcomings” that she perceives in “liberal economic

thought.” The chapter advances the remarkable position that Smith’s “image of

the invisible hand is best interpreted as a mildly ironic joke” (p. 116; a

very brief summary of the argument appeared earlier in the American

Economic Review, 1994, 84.2: 319-22). This must be the case because “if it

were taken seriously,” the concept expressed by that metaphor “would have been

in conflict with several of Smith’s most profound convictions” (p. 136). What

is at issue here is not simply the metaphor itself but the concept which it is

taken to convey, that concept being, for Rothschild, that the individual

pursuit of private interest can produce an orderly aggregate outcome which

can, under some identifiable circumstances, be socially desirable (p. 121). It

is Smith’s expression of this concept that we are to take as intended as “an

ironic joke … on himself … [and] on his immense posterity as well” (p.

138).

Among those of “Smith’s most profound convictions” with which this concept is

supposed to conflict is his well-known principle that merchants often pursue

their interest through political influence. By Rothschild’s argument, we may

take it that the notion of a spontaneous order conveyed by the invisible hand

metaphor was “un-Smithian and unimportant to his theory” because “Smith’s

criticisms of government and of established institutions are essential to his

economic thought; it is most unlikely that he would simply forget them in a

grand theory of the social good” (p. 128). But this bespeaks a remarkably

narrow reading. Smith did not “forget” his “criticisms” of public and private

institutions in his “grand theory”; they were part of his theory. Rosenberg

(1960) pointed out long ago that those “criticisms” were in fact original and

perceptive investigations of the incentive structures embedded in those

institutions, and the point has only been elaborated since. Rothschild is

quite right (p. 244) that Smith suggested in his jurisprudence lectures that

commercial relationships could improve the character of the participants, at

least with respect to their “probity and punctuality.” But as Rosenberg again

has elsewhere (1990) reminded us, Smith did not stop there. In his vision,

commercial society served to improve not only the character of the people but

also the legal structures that guide their actions and establish their

security of property right. The same philosopher who took account in his

ethics of the “coarse clay of which the bulk of mankind are formed” could not

fail to recognize in his investigation of market behavior that “such, it

seems, is the natural insolence of man, that he almost always disdains to use

the good instrument, except when he cannot or dare not use the bad one”

(Smith, 1976a, p. 799). He was quite aware that the individual pursuit of

private interest must be channeled by properly constructed incentive

structures (which include, of course, not only legal restraints but

competitive markets as well) to prevent recourse to the “bad instrument.” Only

when operating within such structures can we speak of an “invisible hand”

directing individual actions to a socially desirable outcome.

Yet Rothschild insists that there is “something oddly ingenuous in Smith’s

sudden invocation of the timid, virtuous merchant, led by the invisible hand

to pursue only harmonious interests” (p. 128). In violation of her own

injunction to understand the invisible hand reference in its broad, conceptual

sense, she here limits attention to “the invisible hand passage” in The

Wealth of Nations, where the merchant “does not, for example, seek to

collect together with other merchants to obtain special privileges for home

production.” No, not in this passage; but Smith was, no doubt, writing under

the reasonable presumption that his readers can be expected to recall the

countless other passages that warn of such collusion and propose incentive

structures designed to impede it.

Adding further to her portrayal of Smith as playing a sly joke on posterity

with his invisible hand metaphor, Rothschild would have us find it

“interesting … that in a chapter mainly concerned with British restrictions

on imports, Smith’s ingenuous merchant is described as a resident of

Amsterdam, trading in corn from K?nigsberg and fruit from Lisbon; he is a

cosmopolitan figure, far less tempted than any English merchant to pursue his

own advantage through political influence” (p. 128; the point recurs on p.

144). Now, any reader who takes the trouble to review the reference in its

context will find this to be a particularly egregious mischaracterization.

While it is not commonly mentioned, the particular social benefit supposed to

be achieved by the Wealth of Nations appearance of the invisible hand

is a preference for home over foreign investment, a principle that will seem

peculiar to modern readers accustomed to decisionmaking at the margin.

Nevertheless, the principle arises from Smith’s eighteenth-century view of

capital as “setting to work productive labor.” Capital employed domestically

“in purchasing in one part of the country in order to sell in another …

generally replaces by every such operation two distinct capitals.” But in

foreign trade, where one of the transactions occurs abroad, “the capital

employed … will give but one-half the encouragement to the industry or

productive labour of the country.” Hence, that famous invisible hand, which

Rothschild would have us believe is slyly applied by Smith to an Amsterdam

merchant “far less tempted” to pursue his interest through influence in the

British political arena, applies in fact to the domestic merchant who, in

“preferring the support of domestick to that of foreign industry, … intends

only his own security,” and is “in this, as in many other cases, led by an

invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention,” that end

being, in this case, the support of more domestic labor than would have been

accomplished had he traded abroad. That Amsterdam merchant trading between

Prussia and Portugal enters Smith’s story only as illustration of the lower

risk associated with domestic trade by providing the contrast of the greater

“unease” felt by the merchant engaged in foreign trade, where he is “separated

so far from his capital” (Smith, 1976a, pp. 368; 454-56).

This alleged “ingenuous” character of Smith’s invisible hand expression recurs

throughout the rest of the argument and is central to Rothschild’s case for

her first “shortcoming.” Upon its introduction, that “first conflict or

shortcoming of economic thought” is described as having to do with “the

transformation of money into political power” and is illustrated by the claim

that “[i]n Smith’s description of the invisible hand in the Wealth of

Nations, the circumstance that individuals pursue their economic

objectives by political means is largely ignored” (p. 154). It also provides a

spurious point of contrast between Smith and Condorcet, who is described as

“admirably explicit in addressing one shortcoming of liberal economic orders,

to do with the transformation of money into political power, and of political

power into the power to influence markets” (p. 166). All this is no more than

a figment of Rothschild’s misreading of Smith.

The foundation of Rothschild’s second “shortcoming” of “liberal economic

thought” is also to be found in chapter five. There is no denying the

“conception of providential order” long associated with Smith’s invisible hand

metaphor. That association provides Rothschild with one more reason to dismiss

that metaphor as “un-Smithian” — namely the conviction that Smith would have

found “very serious problems” in such a “theology of the invisible hand” (p.

129). However, her argument on this point, for all its lavish citations, is

nearly devoid of textual evidence from Smith himself, apart from the remark

that he frequently made known “his differences with Christian doctrines.”

This, of course, is no more than a red herring. That Smith had little patience

with the positions and practices of the established Christian denominations of

his time is obvious. But it is equally obvious that a deistic faith in a

benevolent creator does not rest on Christian doctrine. In support of her

claim, Rothschild can offer us little more than the statement of her “own view

… that … Smith’s and Hume’s religious opinions were indeed quite close,” a

view that no doubt explains why her case so frequently rests on appeals to

Hume rather than to Smith (e.g. pp. 120, 130, 134-35, 139). One could, of

course, argue (and Rothschild does, in passing) that Smith’s frequent

references to the “all-wise Author of Nature” (some of which we have already

noticed) were no more than a smokescreen intended to avoid the kind of

conflict with contemporary sensibilities that so dogged his friend. But the

frequency and apparent sincerity of those references are far greater than the

minimum necessary to satisfy the local keepers of the public morals. Certainly

Rothschild’s claim that Smith denied “the conception of providential order,”

or employed it as no more than “an ironic joke,” is directly opposed to recent

scholarship on the matter. One wishes that in all her footnotes, she had taken

notice of those studies that, with a good deal more relevant documentation,

manage to advance an opposing view (e.g. Evensky 1998; although it appeared

too late to help Rothschild, interested readers will want to consult Hill 2001

as well).

To be sure, Rothschild does acknowledge the common view that Smith professed

the existence of a benevolent creator and that his position on this matter

derived from the natural theology of Stoic philosophy. But she offers little

in rebuttal beyond the unsupported declaration that he “was influenced by

different Stoic doctrines”; that “[w]ithin the overall Stoic system, … it

was the idea of a providential order … to which Smith was most opposed” (p.

132) As to that, I will simply leave it to those interested to read for

themselves Smith’s own assessment of that “Stoical” system, where he assures

us that, even in our greatest extremity, when, in spite of our best efforts,

events “turn out the most unfortunate and disastrous, Nature has by no means

left us without consolation,” that consolation being drawn “from a firm

reliance upon, and reverential submission to, that benevolent wisdom which

directs all the events of human life, and which, we may be assured, would

never have suffered those misfortunes to happen had they not been

indispensably necessary for the good of the whole” (Smith 1976b, p. 292). Is

this an author who opposed the idea of a providential order?

In spite of its flaws, we can learn a great deal from Rothschild’s work here.

Her command of a vast and complex literature is awesome. She has been

scrupulous in identifying her authorities, and she has opened a number of new

and promising lines for further work. She has reminded us that the forces

unleashed by the French Revolution left their mark not only on the political

and social structures of the period but also on the intellectual structures

that conditioned the discourse of the nineteenth century and, at a remove, of

our own time. She has prompted us to look again at the intellectual

influences running in both directions across the Channel in the immediate

pre-Revolutionary period, and she has identified the sources to do so. No

doubt it is that great promise that heightens the disappointment we feel when

we encounter her efforts to turn those sources to purposes which they simply

will not support.

References

Evensky, Jerry. 1998. “Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophy: The Role of Religion and

Its Relationship to Philosophy and Ethics in the Evolution of Society.”

History of Political Economy 30.1: 17-42.

Hill, Lisa. 2001. “The Hidden Theology of Adam Smith.” European Journal of

the History of Economic Thought 8.1:1-29.

Rosenberg, Nathan. 1960. “Some Institutional Aspects of the Wealth of

Nations.” Journal of Political Economy 68.6: 557-70.

1990. “Adam Smith and the Stock of Moral Capital.” History of Political

Economy 22.1: 1-18.

Smith, Adam. 1976a. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of

Nations. Edited by R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner. Oxford: Oxford

University Press.

1976b. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Edited by D. D. Raphael and A.

L. Macfie. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

1980. Essays on Philosophical Subjects. Edited by W. P. D. Wightman and

J. C. Bryce. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

(The author, Emma Rothschild, is a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge and

Director of the Center for History and Economics, King’s College.)

The reviewer, Glenn Hueckel, is the author of various articles on the history

of economic thought in the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries.

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century