Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment
Emma Rothschild | 2002-04-30 00:00:00 | Harvard University Press | 368 | Economics
"A powerful and original reconsideration of the thinking of Smith and Condorcet. This is a reinterpretation of Enlightenment political economy. Delightfully fresh, sensitive, sensible, and wide-ranging."
Keith Baker, Stanford University In a brilliant recreation of the epoch between the 1770s and the 1820s, Emma Rothschild reinterprets the ideas of the great revolutionary political economists to show us the true landscape of economic and political thought in their day, with important consequences for our own. Her work alters the readings of Adam Smith and Condorcet--and of ideas of Enlightenment--that underlie much contemporary political thought. Economic Sentiments takes up late-eighteenth-century disputes over the political economy of an enlightened, commercial society to show us how the "political" and the "economic" were intricately related to each other and to philosophical reflection. Rothschild examines theories of economic and political sentiments, and the reflection of these theories in the politics of enlightenment. A landmark in the history of economics and of political ideas, her book shows us the origins of laissez-faire economic thought and its relation to political conservatism in an unquiet world. In doing so, it casts a new light on our own times.
This is a nicely done zoom level retrieval of the real Adam Smith (or one of them) before conservative ideologists appropriated his name and theories, resulting in amnesiac palpitations and the fulminations of Karl Marx. Adam Smith is an historically ambiguated figure whose reputation fluctuated very quickly between the era leading up and throughout the French Revolution and the era thereafter. We blame Rousseau for wicked deeds, in a snort at the Revolution, but similar 'misgivings' attended the radical Smith. This is a well done account, with a good critical history of the 'invisible hand' scenario, and a reminder of the dangers of historical hallucination curable only by hard labor at the historical record.
First, a romantic note - Rothschild dedicates this book to her husband Amartya Sen, and Sen dedicated his last book ('Development as Freedom') to her. So these books will lie side by side on my shelf. Both are well worth reading.
There is more than just a familial connection. Sen clearly used his wife's research on Smith and Condorcet in the writing of 'Development as Freedom' since the Adam Smith that appears in his book is not the cold and callous economist of myth. One suspects that Rothschild's perception of Smith and Condorcet had been coloured by Sen as she presents them as more than just economists as we understand the term, but concerned with a far wider range of phenomena in politics and sociology. In fact they were exactly as much an 'economist' as Sen himself is. As any reader of Sen knows, he covers an extremely broad range of factors in his work, not just GDP and income.
Rothschild argues that Smith's example of the 'invisible hand' that regulates free markets would have as easily been meant as a malign as a benign regulator. Traders who influence markets by bribery or trickery are as much an 'invisible hand' as an imagined self-regulating mechanism. In fact, the beneficient invisible hand was very much a product of later economists. Smith was not as negative on government regulation as he was made out to be by later writers, though strongly against price-fixing by government fiat, guilds which prevented fair competition, and over-zealous regulation of trade and commerce by insiders, profiteers and parasites.
Condorcet comes across as a very attractive human being, passionate and commited to his beliefs. Accused of Utopianism, he struggled with his conviction that he had no right to dictate opinion to others. Yet he believed that his liberal philosophy was best.He was concerned with the 'ordinary man in the street', and rejected any idea that he/ she should be indoctrinated with the 'right' ideas by a state-supported educational system. He wrote for the rights of women, believing that all humanity were entitled to equal rights.
I have to say the book is dense and quite difficult at times. However, it is the ideas that are difficult, not the presentation. It will probably repay a second reading.But I feel after reading this that I have had an excellent introduction to two first-class and important (in a world-historical sense) intellects.
To their enemies the Marquis de Condorcet was the epitome of the worst elements of the French Enlightenment, fatuously optimistic, subtly intolerant and dangerous utopian with his emphasis on the "perfectability" of man, while the notoriously absent-minded Adam Smith was the architect of a notoriously callous and philistine economic theory. Aside from that, the enthusiastic and idealistic Condorcet does not appear to have much in common with the quiet and discreet Smith. Emma Rothschild is the husband of the nobel prize winning economist A. Sen, whose most famous work shows the devastating effect dogmatically applied free market rules can have on worsening famines. Yet this book is a defense of the two from the critics of the Enlightenment.
To a surprising extent she succeeds. Conservatives will be unpleasantly surprised to read that in the decade after his death, mentioning your support of Smith did not prevent Scottish democrats from being transported to Australia by reactionary Scottish judges. For many years Tories did not view Smith as the great economist or philosopher. Instead Smith was the man whose account of his friend, the atheist philosopher David Hume on his deathbed, enraged the pious for showing Hume's complete calm, class and lack of fear of eternal damnation. Rothschild notes how the great economist Carl Menger noted how prominent socialists quoted Smith against their enemies. (Oddly enough she does not quote the passage in CAPITAL where Marx cites an enraged prelate angry at Smith for classifying priests as "unproductive labor.) Smith was an opponent of militarism, a supporter of high wages, and a supporter of French philosophy (and not unsympathetic to the French Revolution,either). Reading of his relations with Turgot and Condorcet, it will be much harder to defend the view of a sharp distinction between a good sensible Protestant Enlightenment, and a bad, Nasty, atheist one on the continent.
In discussing Turgot and Condorcet's support for the free trade in grain, which Smith also supported, Rothschild helps remind us that laissez faire did not simply mean watching while people starved. Confronted with the threat of famine in Limousin in 1770, Turgot preserved the freedom of the corn trade. But he also provided workshops for the poor, increased grain imports from other regions, reduced taxes for the poor, and protected poor tenants from eviction. Condorcet and Smith were both sympathetic to these policies. Rothschild also devotes a whole chapter to Smith's metaphor of the "invisible hand." She points out how rarely it was used in Smith's work, and how on the centennial of the publication of the Wealth of Nation almost no-one mentioned it, even at a special celebration organized by William Gladstone. She then goes into how the concept is used in Smith's works. The concept is complex, and in my view not entirely convincing. But she is successful in pointing out how Smith did not follow Hayek in viewing pre-existing structures as the product of an infallible "organic" wisdom. In contrast to the cant of a Calhoun or a Kendall, Smith realized that the most tyrannical acts of government are those that are local and unofficial.
One should point out the defense of Condorcet as well. In an age where Francois Furet, Keith Michael Baker, Mona Ozouf and others have castigated the French Revolutionary tradition as inherently totalitarian, it is good to be reminded that Condorcet is firmly in the liberal tradition. Like Smith, Condorcet was a great supporter of public education, in contrast to the conservative critics of both. Rothschild discusses his views as an economist, and as a theorist of proportional representation. Surprisingly she does not discuss what were Condorcet's most admirable views, his support for female emancipation and suffrage. But she is excellent in pointing out how Condorcet opposed the crassness of the utilitarians. She notes how Condorcet had a view of the limits of truth and scientific inquiry that would have been approved by Karl Popper himself. She notes that he did not believe that voting could or should create a General Will, in the Rousseauean Sense. He did not believe in using education as a form of propoaganda in civic studies, while his opinions were closer to the reservations of a Herder, a Holderin or a Kant than previously believed.
The book is not perfect. Although studiously documented, most of the quotes are from Smith and Condorcet themselves. More historical context could have been provided. There should have been more about actual historical studies of famines, and more on the political and social context of modern Scotland would have been very informative. And her defense of Condorcet would have been stronger if Rothschild had confronted the well-deserved reputation of Condorcet's colleagues in the Gironde for hypocrisy and demagoguery. But this is an important work, and it helps link one of the most familiar of "english" minds into a full international context. That in itself is praise enough.
The subject is interesting. Putting Adam Smith in a historical context can reveal much about what he really wanted to say. But Emma Rothschild's writing style is frustrating. Time and again I would read a sentence and then ask "what did she just say?" and realize that it was a banal generality or that she could have expressed herself more directly. I studied history when in college and have read many well written books on intellectual history. Rothchild's book isn't one of them.
This is an admirably lucid exposition of the beginnings (at the end of the 18th century) of thinking about economics and globalization. It offers a revision of received ideas about Adam Smith and, for me (not an economist, nor a student of same) it's an introduction to a fascinating figure, the Marquis de Condorcet. Some of it is a real revelation.
The biggest revelation is that the non-specialist can really follow it!
It's an important book.
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