After Adam Smith: A Century of Transformation in Politics and Political Economy

After Adam Smith: A Century of Transformation in Politics and Political Economy

After Adam Smith: A Century of Transformation in Politics and Political Economy

After Adam Smith: A Century of Transformation in Politics and Political Economy


Few issues are more central to our present predicaments than the relationship between economics and politics. In the century after Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations the British economy was transformed. After Adam Smith looks at how politics and political economy were articulated and altered. It considers how grand ideas about the connections between individual liberty, free markets, and social and economic justice sometimes attributed to Smith are as much the product of gradual modifications and changes wrought by later writers.

Thomas Robert Malthus, David Ricardo, James Mill, John Stuart Mill, and other liberals, radicals, and reformers had a hand in conceptual transformations that culminated in the advent of neoclassical economics. The population problem, the declining importance of agriculture, the consequences of industrialization, the structural characteristics of civil society, the role of the state in economic affairs, and the possible limits to progress were questions that underwent significant readjustments as the thinkers who confronted them in different times and circumstances reworked the framework of ideas advanced by Smith--transforming the dialogue between politics and political economy. By the end of the nineteenth century an industrialized and globalized market economy had firmly established itself. By exploring how questions Smith had originally grappled with were recast as the economy and the principles of political economy altered during the nineteenth century, this book demonstrates that we are as much the heirs of later images of Smith as we are of Smith himself.

Many writers helped shape different ways of thinking about economics and politics after Adam Smith. By ignoring their interventions we risk misreading our past--and also misusing it--when thinking about the choices at the interface of economics and politics that confront us today.


The mutual interplay between economics and politics is a striking feature of our everyday experience. Whether for good or ill, there seems to be something almost sacred about the names of some of the great economic and political thinkers of the past. They are not infrequently deployed in the arena of current debate and controversy either to legitimate particular ways of thinking about our economic and political circumstances, or to suggest new ways of addressing some of the more challenging difficulties of our own times. Yet this quite understandable appeal to a presumed higher or foundational authority seems to overlook not only the distance that separates us from their original writings (and the problems they faced in their own times), but also the paths that our thinking about economics and politics have travelled in the meantime.

There would be few writers of whom this could more surely be said than Adam Smith. His name is pretty well synonymous with the case for unregulated free markets in every sphere of life in which they operate. Furthermore, the recent collapse of global credit markets, and the turmoil in financial circles and the real economy that has followed in its wake, has seen the name of John Maynard Keynes reappearing in the print and electronic media, as the champion of large-scale deficit spending, to an extent that would have been almost unimaginable twenty years ago. Such appropriations of the past, however convenient they may be to various partisan causes of the present, have a tendency to make us misremember the past, and to encourage us too readily to skip over the conceptual changes that have been wrought on those ideas as they have been handed down to us today. the kinds of things that Smith may have had to say about free markets, or that Keynes may have had to say about government loan expenditure, are not infrequently different from what we may take them to be, and they have certainly been modified and changed by subsequent ideas and events that cannot be put to one side.

The complex connections between liberty, free markets, and social and economic justice, for example, have seen quite radical embellishment since Smith's day. the very conception of civil society that formed the starting point of classical political economy was not only different from that which forms the basis of economic thinking today, but it was altered in their own hands to suit the changing economic circumstances and political aspirations they confronted. We inherit, so to speak, not the original, but the summation of the reworkings to which it has been subjected over time. Prudence, therefore, would seem to suggest that the time may be . . .

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