The Problems and Promise of Commercial Society

The Problems and Promise of Commercial Society: Adam Smith's Response to Rousseau

Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    The Problems and Promise of Commercial Society
    Book Description:

    Adam Smith is popularly regarded as the ideological forefather of laissez-faire capitalism, while Rousseau is seen as the passionate advocate of the life of virtue in small, harmonious communities and as a sharp critic of the ills of commercial society. But, in fact, Smith had many of the same worries about commercial society that Rousseau did and was strongly influenced by his critique. In this first book-length comparative study of these leading eighteenth-century thinkers, Dennis Rasmussen highlights Smith’s sympathy with Rousseau’s concerns and analyzes in depth the ways in which Smith crafted his arguments to defend commercial society against these charges. These arguments, Rasmussen emphasizes, were pragmatic in nature, not ideological: it was Smith’s view that, all things considered, commercial society offered more benefits than the alternatives. Just because of this pragmatic orientation, Smith’s approach can be useful to us in assessing the pros and cons of commercial society today and thus contributes to a debate that is too much dominated by both dogmatic critics and doctrinaire champions of our modern commercial society.

    eISBN: 978-0-271-05489-6
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. 1-14)

    Liberal democracy and market capitalism would seem to be the great success stories of our age—indeed, of any age. While troubling levels of deprivation and oppression still blot large regions of the globe, people living in today’s liberal capitalist societies enjoy unprecedented levels of prosperity as well as a greater degree of civil, political, and economic freedom than has been attained by any other society in history.¹ Those who belong to these societies live longer and healthier lives, achieve higher levels of education, and enjoy more leisure time than almost anyone would have thought possible even a relatively short...

    (pp. 15-50)

    On receiving a copy of theDiscourse on Inequalityin 1755, Voltaire wrote to Rousseau: “I have received, Sir, your new book against the human race. . . .One acquires the desire to walk on all fours when one reads your work. Nevertheless, since I lost this habit more than sixty years ago, I unfortunately feel that it is impossible for me to take it up again” (CWIII, 102). This is a common view of Rousseau’s position, even if it is articulated in an uncommonly sardonic manner: Rousseau is often portrayed as a critic of society or civilization as...

    (pp. 51-90)

    Rousseau claims in hisConfessionsthat “theDiscourse on Inequality. . . found only a few readers who understood it in all of Europe, and none of these wanted to talk about it” (ConfessionsVIII, 326). We will see in this chapter, however, that Adam Smith not only understood this work and wanted to talk about it, but also was far more sympathetic to its arguments than is commonly acknowledged. Early in his career Smith wrote a review of Rousseau’s famous work that urged his fellow Scots to take notice of it, and in that review he translated three...

    (pp. 91-130)

    We have seen that Smith was well aware of—even more,insisted on—the many problems associated with commercial society. Indeed, if taken in isolation his statements on the debilitating effects of the division of labor and on the rapacity of merchants and manufacturers would seem to comprise a devastating condemnation of this kind of society. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that at least one prominent scholar has argued that Smith’s true conclusion regarding commercial society was that it would end in “material decline” and “moral decay.”¹ But such a view ignores the entire tenor of his writings; while...

    (pp. 131-158)

    InThe Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith states that “all constitutions of government . . . are valued only in proportion as they tend to promote the happiness of those who live under them. This is their sole use and end” (TMSIV.1.11, 185). In other words, Smith’s standard for judging a society seems to consist much more in how happy it is than in how wealthy it is. Thus, Smith’s best-known argument for commercial society—that it makes possible enormous increases in productivity and hence higher living standards—cannot be his ultimate reason for defending this kind of society...

    (pp. 159-176)

    The fundamental puzzle in Adam Smith’s thought, I have contended, consists of the fact that he simultaneously concedes a good deal of validity to each of Rousseau’s rather severe critiques of commercial society and also resolutely defends this kind of society. Smith provides a number of different counterarguments and countermeasures for a number of the problems that Rousseau points to, but the ultimate solution to this puzzle—the key line of reasoning running through most of Smith’s arguments—is that while commercial society is far from perfect, all other forms of society are evenlessperfect. Given the enormous economic,...

    (pp. 177-186)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 187-194)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 195-195)