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The Problems and Promise of Commercial Society

Adam Smith's Response to Rousseau

Dennis C. Rasmussen

Publication Year: 2009

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.

Published by: Penn State University Press


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pp. i-iii


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pp. iv


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pp. v

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pp. vii-viii

The joys of finishing a first book are many, but chief among them, for me, is the opportunity it presents to express my gratitude to those who have supported me along the way. Given that this book grew out of my dissertation, I must begin by thanking my teachers, who showed me through their example what it means to be a devoted teacher and scholar. During my time as an undergraduate...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. ix-xi

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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...

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1. Rousseau’s Unhappy Vision of Commercial Society

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pp. 15-49

On receiving a copy of the Discourse on Inequality in 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” (CW III, 102). This is a common view...

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2. Smith’s Sympathy with Rousseau’s Critique

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pp. 51-90

Rousseau claims in his Confessions that “the Discourse on Inequality . . . found only a few readers who understood it in all of Europe, and none of these wanted to talk about it” (Confessions VIII, 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.

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3. The European Peasant and the Prudent Man

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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...

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4. Progress and Happiness

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pp. 131-158

In The 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” (TMS IV.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...

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pp. 159-175

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,...


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pp. 177-186


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pp. 187-193

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780271053189
E-ISBN-10: 0271053186
Print-ISBN-13: 9780271033495
Print-ISBN-10: 0271033495

Page Count: 208
Publication Year: 2009