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Published by EH.NET (October 2008)

Istvan Hont, Jealousy of Trade: International Competition and the Nation-State in Historical Perspective. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005. xviii + 541 pp. $50 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-674-01038-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Stephen Meardon, Department of Economics, Bowdoin College.

“Why do we need,” asks Istvan Hont in his introduction, “to rediscover repeatedly” what was already understood about Adam Smith by his first biographer over two centuries ago? Smith was no doctrinaire liberal and “simplistic quasi-Physiocrat” – as Dugald Stewart knew then and plenty of readers have found since. As Herbert Stein once put it in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Smith “did not wear the Adam Smith necktie.”[1]

At the 2007 meetings of the History of Economics Society, where Hont won the award for best book in the field, one of its most eminent practitioners, Warren Samuels, posed nearly the same question. Samuels, though, was referring not to Hont’s book but instead to an older one by Donald Winch: Adam Smith’s Politics: An Essay in Historiographic Revision (Cambridge, 1978). The Society had just named Winch a Distinguished Fellow, in no small part for his manner of rediscovering the same thing three decades ago. Samuels was one of the panelists in an honorary session. “How many times will people keep making this point?”he asked the audience ebulliently, more in the tone of an exclamation.

Samuels surely intended it as a tribute, but it was an awkward one. Unless he meant that the point is common knowledge only because Winch, at long last, revealed it – which Dugald Stewart, among others, would not allow – his question implied that among Winch’s book’s many virtues one could not count originality of its punchline. And if the question was awkward when Samuels applied it to Winch, whose book appeared over a quarter century ago, then Hont would seem to be courting some risk by inviting us to apply it to him, too.

Like Winch’s admirable book, after all, Hont’s is a record of rediscovery that does not challenge the basic image of its subject (or subjects) – at least not the image that appears in the standard scholarly references, if not fashion accessories. Thus Smith appears as one who saw extraordinarily keenly the “blemishes” (as H. W. Spiegel put it) of an incipient capitalist society at the same time that he systematized its defense. Winch showed that this image is accurate, given the perspective from which it was drawn – and yet the perspective is anachronous. It sublimates Smith’s political philosophy; it reflects later generations’ preoccupations with “the strength and autonomy of a socio-economic realm [that] variously threatens, limits, or deflects the realm of the political,” and posits Smith as master of the first.[2] Smith’s own preoccupations were different. One may understand them better by revisiting the political dialogues in which he participated. The reward is a more thorough acquaintance with a personage whom one recognized all along.

There lies Winch’s answer to the sticky “Why again?” question. It is worth keeping in mind while considering Hont’s.

Hont’s answer is bound to be at least a little different: the subject matter of Jealousy of Trade overlaps that of Winch’s book but also extends well beyond it. One could fairly say the subject matter sprawls. Smith is front and center but is not given top billing. That honor is reserved for a theme: “the intersection of politics and the economy” in the eighteenth century, “the constitutive moment of modern politics” (p. 10).

The book’s title is borrowed from an essay by Hume, who despaired of the new penchant for carrying old international rivalries into the arena of trade. Smith, Hume, and their contemporaries, writes Hont, “wanted to explain how the conflation of the logics of war and trade arose in the seventeenth century and why it was so difficulty to exorcise them afterward” (p. 8). But the book ventures far afield from the conflation of war and trade per se. It embraces a lengthy introduction plus chapters grouped in three different sections, titled “Natural Liberty and Global Competition,” “Paradoxes of Reform and Transition,” and “Commercial Nation State.” The first includes consideration of theories of man’s innate sociability and its relation to commerce; how changes in the pattern of trade fomented jealousy of trade in Britain and Europe; and the Scottish Enlightenment’s “rich country–poor country” debate about the international distribution of the gains from trade. The second section includes explorations of Hume’s aversion to public debt, which he believed fostered military adventurism; the centrality of Smith’s critique of Physiocracy to his science of the legislator; and (in this instance in co-authorship with Michael Ignatieff) the demands of “justice” with respect to redistribution in Smith’s system. The third section investigates the deeper roots of the idea of nationalism and “nation-state” that grew out of the French Revolution. All of the chapters were published elsewhere, mainly in edited volumes, between 1983 and 1994.

It is in reference to the fifth and sixth chapters, on Smith’s understanding of Physiocracy and of justice, that Hont poses the “Why again?” question. (He claims (p. 111) to refer to the seventh chapter, but this appears to be a minor error.) His answer is two-fold. First, and echoing Winch, by drawing out painstakingly the intellectual and political context in which Smith wrote, we may “look at the dilemmas Smith himself faced.” Second, having taken a look, we will find that “they are often identical with our own predicament today”(p. 111).

If the second part of the answer signaled accurately an important purpose of several chapters, then it would mark a signal difference between Winch’s book and Hont’s. To Winch, after all, reacquaintance with Smith on Smith’s terms was purpose enough. But the second part of the answer misleads. The purpose of drawing parallels with the present day, although avowed repeatedly in the introduction–in one instance Hont professes to write with “eyes firmly fixed on the challenges of today” (p. 5)–is not only unmet, it is mostly untried.

The book is better for the omission. Because Hont’s eyes are actually fixed firmly on Smith’s moment (specifically, on an astonishing quantity of literature and archival evidence generated from it), we do indeed learn, in superb detail, about the dilemmas Smith and his contemporaries faced – and in those dilemmas, the forgotten origins or purposes of otherwise familiar ideas. The instances are too various to distill to a paragraph or two, but an example is in order. In chapter 5, “Adam Smith and the Political Economy of the ‘Unnatural and Retrograde’ Order,” Hont tells the story of Smith’s dispute with the Physiocrats over the proper way to reintroduce the “system of natural liberty” where it had been upended by Colbertism. Colbert had established in France an “unnatural” economic order that promoted manufactures at the expense of agriculture; the “four-stages theory” of history was the prop Smith used in common with Quesnay and his followers to debate the proper way to return to the natural order. But it was only a prop; the theory showed how manufacturing naturally followed agriculture, but not (or at least not obviously) how to return to the agricultural stage of society after Colbert’s deviation. The Physiocrats saw in the four-stages theory the need for an immediate and determined reorientation of the French economy toward agriculture. Smith saw in it a gap that could be filled adequately only by the political deliberation and gradual actions of “future statesmen and legislators” (quoted on p. 383). Thus Hont arrives, from one of several angles, at an insight into the intersection of politics and economics in the late eighteenth century. To Adam Smith, “the politics of natural liberty had to build on the existing unnatural order and the actual liberty it produced” (p. 375).

Insights like this are good enough; one need not believe that Smith’s predicament was identical to our own to be motivated to read it. But while the inflated claims of the book’s purpose are unnecessary, one can also guess the reason for their presence. Hont allows from the outset that “Jealousy of Trade is not a monograph,” but adds immediately that its chapters “are closely connected by their subject matter and argumentative purpose” (p. 5). “Closely” is a stretch, as the previous sketch of the contents of sections and chapters ought to show. The claim of a present-day purpose seems a half-hearted, because unexecuted, effort to unify the book’s disparate parts. A more earnest but equally regrettable effort is embodied in the one hundred and fifty-six page introduction. At that length, why not keep writing and complete the missing monograph?

Jealousy of  Trade is a compilation of glittering historical scholarship that creaks from the strain of the contrivances for compiling it. Its value lies in bringing much-deserved attention to a number of essays that otherwise would not have received it. That is value enough for an edited volume – but this volume declares greater aspirations. As ever, the peril of greater aspirations is greater disappointment. Few will want to read this book front to back. Those with a general interest in the subject will benefit from reading the introduction and identifying a chapter or two for more careful perusal. Specialists will be pleased to have at hand, in convenient form, a set of extraordinary essays for selective reexamination.

Notes: 1. Herbert Stein. 1994. “Remembering Adam Smith.” Wall Street Journal, April 6, p. A14. 2. Donald Winch. 1978. Adam Smith’s Politics: An Essay in Historiographic Revision. Cambridge University Press, p. 23.

Stephen Meardon is author of “Postbellum Protection and Commissioner Wells’s Conversion to Free Trade,” History of Political Economy (Winter, 2007) and “From Religious Revivals to Tariff Rancor: Preaching Free Trade and Protection during the Second American Party System,” History of Political Economy (forthcoming in supplement, 2008).