Usually viewed as the premier apologist for laissez-faire capitalism, Smith is seen in this new interpretation within the context of an earlier tradition that condemned the British aristocracy for relinquishing its moral obligation to promote the public good in favor of an unceasing pursuit of private gain.
Through separate chapters on Mandeville, Bolingbroke, and Hume, Gallagher shows that Smith echoed civic humanist sermons against the avaricious inclinations of the nobles who profited most from commercial expansion. Unlike earlier critics, however, Smith concluded that the most prudent response to aristocratic corruption was not to hold ministers, kings, and social notables to higher standards but to limit their access to political power. The Rule of the Rich? accordingly shows that the case for limited government made in The Wealth of Nations was not a defense of individual liberty so much as a concession to the apparent incompetence of the British upper class.