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 Condorcetand of ideas of Enlightenmentthat 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.
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About the Author
Emma Rothschild is a Fellow of King's College, Cambridge, and Director of the Center for History and Economics, King's College.
Read an Excerpt
This book is about laissez-faire when it was new. The half century from the 1770s to the 1820s was a time of enthusiasm and fear in economic life; of excitement over the projects of merchants and manufacturers, resentment over restrictions on buying and selling, confidence in the "liberal plan of equality, liberty and justice" to which Adam Smith looked forward in 1776, anxiety about what Napoleon in St. Helena, studying the Wealth of Nations, described in 1816 as the new system of "freedom of commerce for all," which had "agitated all imaginations" in the "furious oscillations" of modern times.
Economic life was intertwined, in these turbulent times, with the life of politics and the life of the mind. Economic thought was intertwined with political, philosophical, and religious reflection. The life of cold and rational calculation was intertwined with the life of sentiment and imagination. The sources of economic opulence were to be found, it was thought, in political and legal institutions, and in the history of the human mind. They were to be found, most of all, in the dispositions or ways of thinking of individuals; in the disposition to discuss and dispute and to think about the future; in the unfrightened mind.
To look at the economic thought of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the setting of the political, legal, and philosophical disputes of the times is to cast light, I hope, on the events and the dispositions of those times. It is to see the past more clearly; to glimpse a now unfamiliar landscape ofeconomic and political life.
But the book is also about the present. For the disputes with which I will be concerned are in an odd and disconcerting sense the disputes of our own present times. They are disputes which have continued in one form or anotherover laissez-faire and the state, over respect and disrespect for established institutions, over reason and faiththroughout the entire period which separates Adam Smith's times and our own. They are even newly modern, in the new circumstances of the beginning of the twenty-first century. The rhetoric of freedom of commerce is as conspicuous now as it was in the period which preceded and followed the French Revolution. So is the sense of living in a society of universal commerce and universal uncertainty. It is this new world, too, with which the book is concerned.
The treatises and pamphlets of the late eighteenth century about the reform of commerce were considered, very soon, to be disquisitions of only limited and technical interest. The Wealth of Nations, Jean-Baptiste Say wrote in 1803, was a "vast chaos of just ideas, pell-mell with pieces of positive knowledge," overfull of historical digressions and "particular facts." Caroline, the ingenuous interlocutor in Jane Marcet's Conversations on Political Economy of 1817, complained that economic science "is about custom-houses, and trade, and taxes, and bounties, and smuggling, and paper-money, and the bullion-committee, &c," and that Adam Smith's work is no more than "a jargon of unintelligible terms."
My objective, in what follows, is to look back, beyond the preoccupations of the early nineteenth century, at an earlier and more open political economy. I will be concerned mostly with two eighteenth-century writersCondorcet and Smithwho have become emblems of the cold, hard, and rational enlightenment. They are opposite emblems in several respects. Condorcet has come to epitomize the cold, universalistic enlightenment of the French Revolution; the "utopian" enlightenment. Smith has come to epitomize the one-sided, reductionist enlightenment of laissez-faire economics; the "conservative" enlightenment. But both philosophers were preoccupied, as will be seen, with similar details of the regulation of commerce. Both were concerned with what Condorcet described, in 1790, as "the restoration of the most complete freedom" in commercial policy. Both were also interested in economic dispositions, and in the politics of a universe of uncertainty. Both were interested in economic life as a process of discussion, and as a process of emancipation. To rediscover a different political economy, I will suggest, is also to rediscover a different, and more open, enlightenment.
Political economy, in the period with which the book is concerned, was seen already as a science of sorts. Condorcet indeed complained, as early as 1771, about the deluded use of "the language of geometry" in "the economic sciences," and one of Turgot's theological opponents wrote of "economic science," with its "useless, lewd, and twisted" views, that it was already, in 1780, "beginning to go a little out of fashion." But the intertwining of economic, religious, political, and moral thoughtthe sense that there is only a shifting, indistinct frontier between economic and political relationships, or between economic life and the rest of lifeis far more characteristic of the beginning of the period than of the end.
It was "since Adam Smith," in Jean-Baptiste Say's description, that political economy, defined "as the science concerned with wealth," had been distinguished from the quite different discipline of politics. The economist George Pryme, the first professor of political economy at the University of Cambridge, looked back with some alarm, in 1823, at Smith's jumbling together of economic and political concerns. "Since his time the distinction between Political Economy and pure Politics, has been generally observed," Pryme wrote. Political economy had become an inoffensive and orderly subject; "though it may seem less interesting than Political Philosophy, its utility is more extensive, since it is applicable alike to a despotism and to a democracy."
The new circumscription of political economy corresponded to the classificatory disposition of the times. It was suited to what Hegel described in 1807 as the "method of labelling all that is in heaven and earth" in the museum of science as in a "synoptic table like a skeleton with scraps of paper stuck all over it, or like the rows of closed and labelled boxes in a grocer's stall." Condorcet himself contributed to the subsequent professional organization of political economy through his theory of social science, and through his projects of the 1790s (including those for the establishment of special chairs in the application of mathematics to the political and moral sciences, and in political economy). Smith commented with characteristic coolness, a generation earlier, on the new taxonomic spirit; in an early draft of the Wealth of Nations, from the 1760s, he says of the subdivisions of modern philosophy"mechanical, chemical, astronomical, physical, metaphysical, moral, political, commercial and critical"that their effect is such that "more work is done upon the whole and the quantity of science is considerably increased by it."
But the new circumscription and circumspection of political economy also corresponded to the exigent circumstances of post-Revolutionary politics. The context of political economy at the very end of the eighteenth century was the prospect, described by Malthus in 1798 in the first paragraph of his Essay on the Principle of Population, that the French Revolution would "scorch up and destroy the shrinking inhabitants of the earth." The French economists were inculpated, as will be seen, in the anti-Jacobin and anti-philosophical writings of the 1790s. Like the supporters of political reform in Kant's Contest of Faculties, also of 1798, economic reformers were subject to the charge of "innovationism, Jacobinism and conspiracy, constituting a menace to the state." The disposition of enlightenment, or the uncertain and insubordinate way of thinking of commercial society, was inculpated in the moral revolutions of the times.
The economic writings with which I will be concerned belong to a different, more innocent world. Smith and Condorcet, Hume and Turgot wrote, sometimes at great length, about freedom of commerce; none of them was a political economist in the professional sense that became familiar in the early years of the nineteenth century. All of them also wrote about philosophy, the history of science, the history of ideas, and about politics. All were, on occasion, public officials. Hume died in 1776, Turgot in 1781, Smith in 1790, and Condorcet in 1794, a few weeks before the end of the Jacobin Terror; they belonged to an earlier universe of thought. When Thomas Jefferson drew up "a course of reading" in 1799, he included Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Smith's Wealth of Nations, and Condorcet's Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain. Condorcet's own objective, in the Esquisse des progrès, was to describe the history of ideas about the mind and morality and the law, from the earliest sages to "the profound analyses of the Lockes, the Smiths, the Turgots." For Arthur Condorcet O'Connor, the Irish general who married Condorcet's daughter Eliza, "the Turgots, the Condorcets, the Smiths" were the "fathers of the science" of political economy, whose principles, including "the eternal principle of equality," had been overturned by the "new sect of so-called economists" of the post-Revolutionary reconstruction.
It is this earlier world which I will try to describe. Chapter 1 is about late eighteenth-century descriptions of sentiments and dispositions in economic life, and the idea of an unfrightened mind; of a way of thinking of individuals, emancipated, at least from time to time, from fears of violence, injustice, and vexation. Chapter 2 is about Adam Smith's reputation following his death in 1790, including his reputation for an unseemly relationship to the principles of the French Revolution, and some of the ways in which the renown of political economy changed, in France, England and Scotland, over the decade of the 1790s. Chapters 3 and 4 are about two of the great controversies in economic policy which shaped subsequent views of eighteenth-century economic thought. The first, discussed in Chapter 3, is the dispute over free commerce in subsistence food, over the relations between commerce and government in the grain trade, and over the transition to commercial freedom. The second, discussed in Chapter 4, is the dispute over apprenticeship and mastership guilds: over laissez-faire in the market for labor, public instruction, and the relations between commerce and government in industry.
The idea of the "invisible hand," which was presumed, for much of the twentieth century, to constitute a unifying theme of Smith's economic thought, is the subject of Chapter 5. Smith's own view of the invisible hand, I will suggest, was different and more skeptical. It should be understood in the setting of other, and at the time more familiar invisible hands: the "bloody and invisible hand" of Macbeth's providence, or the "invisible hand" which rebuffs and then hovers over the unfortunate hero of Voltaire's Oedipe. The idea of the invisible hand raises troublesome questions both about the relationship between economic and religious thought and about the relationship between the political and economic choices of individuals; about the pursuit of self-interest within rules, and the transformation of wealth into political power, including the power to transform rules.
Chapter 6 is concerned with Condorcet's efforts, in his writings on economic policy, to explore closely related questions about the rules and the dispositions of competition, about buying and selling political influence, and about the depiction of discursive economic subjects. Chapter 7 is about some of Condorcet's criticisms of the cold, universal, and all-imbuing philosophy which has been seen as characteristic of the eighteenth-century enlightenment, and about an ideathe "indissoluble chain" of truth, virtue and happinesswhich was taken, again for much of the twentieth century, as a unifying theme of Condorcet's political thought. In Chapter 8 I will look at theories of economic and political sentiments, and at the reflection of these theories in the politics of enlightenment, including the politics of an uncertain or fatherless world.
The detailed disputes in which Smith and Condorcet were engaged, over duties on salt or apprenticeship regulations or restrictions on the export of rams, are largely unfamiliar to readers today. The political relationships of the periodthe identification of the reforming left and the conservative right, of the state and the market, of the disposition and the sect of enlightenmentare also unfamiliar. We still live, at the outset of the twenty-first century, in a world which is defined, in important respects, by the events of the French Revolution and of the post-Revolutionary restoration; by the coalition of laissez-faire economic policy and political conservatism which was established in opposition to the revolutionary violence of the 1790s, and which came to dominate nineteenth-century political institutions.
But we also live, in the new circumstances of the early twenty-first century, in a post-restoration world. Political institutions are more free of the fear of revolution now than at any time in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. The rhetoric of the endlessness of commerce is more unquestioned. The political and economic thought of the late eighteenth centurythe old, lost idyll of universal freedomis itself, now, newly familiar. Condorcet wrote of the new society of the United States, in 1786, that "the spectacle of a great people where the rights of man are respected is useful to all others ... It teaches us that these rights are everywhere the same." Of the French Revolution, he wrote in 1791 that it had "opened up an immense scope to the hopes of the human species ... [T]his revolution is not in a government, it is in opinions and wills."
The new prospects of the early twenty-first century have something of this vastness, this sense of an unbounded future. We may also have more sympathy, in our societies of universal commerce, for the endless uncertainty, the unquiet imagination, which were believed, in the late eighteenth century, to be the consequences of commercial freedom. The effort to look at eighteenth-century economic thought in its own context might also, in these circumstances, cast light on our context, and our economic politics.
Table of Contents
1. Economic Dispositions
The History of Sentiments
Civilized and Commercial Society
The Unfrightened Mind
Two Kinds of Enlightenment
The Devil Himself
A Sort of Inner Shuddering
The Cold Light of Reason and the Warmth of Economic Life
Seeing the State as in a Picture
Indulgence and Indifference
The Light of History
The Enlightenment and the Present
2. Adam Smith and Conservative Economics
This Famous Philosopher
Scotland in the 1790s
Economic and Political Freedom
The Liberal Reward of Labor
One-Sided Rationalistic Liberalism
Smith's Real Sentiments
3. Commerce and the State
A Reciprocal Dependence
Scarcities, Dearths, and Famines
Poverty and General Equilibrium
Turgot's Policies against Famine
Interpretations of Smith and Turgot
The Lapse of Time
4. Apprenticeship and Insecurity
A Strange Adventure
It Is But Equity, Besides
Corporations and Competition
Education and Apprenticeship
A State of Nonage
The Apprenticeship: A Digression on the Slave Trade
History and Institutions
5. The Bloody and Invisible Hand
The Invisible Hand of Jupiter
Tremble, Unfortunate King!
Intentions and Interests
Order and Design
A Persuasive Device
Explanation and Understanding
Greatest Possible Values
Two Shortcomings of Liberal Thought
6. Economic and Political Choice
Raton Was Quite Astonished...
General Economic Interdependence
Giving the Impression of Doing Nothing
The Soul Discouraged
Poverty, Taxes, and Unsalubrious Factories
Social Choice and Economic Procedures
Discussions and Constitutions
Pelion and Ossa
7. Condorcet and the Conflict of Values
Cold, Descriptive Cartesian Reason
Diversity and Uniformity
The Indissoluble Chain
The Imaginary Enlightenment
The Liberty of Thought and Discussion
8. A Fatherless World
A Different Enlightenment
Smith and Condorcet
Uncertainty and Irresolution
A System of Sentiments
Civilized Political Discussion
A World Unrestored
What People are Saying About This
An elegant, sympathetic and original re-envisioning of the Enlightenment's two greatest economic theorists with significant implications for our own economic politics today.
Rothschild's richly complex and deeply informed account of the writings of Adam Smith and of the Marquis du Condorcet locates them more closely in their own time and, by so doing, changes their significance for us today. The monolithic view of the cold, inhuman Enlightenment, propagated by the early nineteenth-century Romantics, is undercut by close analysis and understanding of the political and social contexts. The book is a triumph of scholarship and reinterpretation, as well as a model of expository prose.
Kenneth J. Arrow, Stanford University
We have all read Adam Smith and we all think we know him well. But this text, in its emphasis on the period after 1776 and its coverage of related works from other nations, is full of revelations and delicious quotes from unstudied sources.
David S. Landes, author of The Wealth and Poverty of Nations
An elegant, sympathetic and original re-envisioning of the Enlightenment's two greatest economic theorists with significant implications for our own economic politics today.
Linda Colley, London School of Economics
A powerful and original reconsideration of the thinking of Smith and Condorcet. Delightfully fresh, sensitive, sensible and wide-ranging. A wonderfully evocative, even lyrical book. This is a scholarly achievement of a very high order. It will be of substantial interest to specialists in a range of fields within the humanities and social sciences, who will be obliged in reading it to think again about many conventional views within their disciplines. But it should also reach a broader audience among all those concerned with how we should think about economics and politics in a new century full of uncertainties and insecurities.
Keith Baker, Stanford University
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Unfortunely I had to buy this book to do a research project for school. I personally do not care for economics or the history of. I am accounting major, I would prefer to crunch the number for the economists while they figure out why those numbers are there. I did not find that Emma brought any new ideas to the table either. She reitterated (sp) a lot of what other historians said about Adam Smith, so this was not a very good book in my mind.
This book was a little advanced for me. I could hardly understand anything the author was trying to say. I would only recommend this book to a historian.