Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

Rosmini's Liberalism and the Shadow of Adam Smith

Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

Rosmini's Liberalism and the Shadow of Adam Smith

Article excerpt


"If [classical] liberal economics did not exist, Rosmini, for the sake of consistency with his own ideas, would have to invent it" (Piovani 1957:79). This statement by Pietro Piovani (1922-1980) may sound astonishing, since it does not refer to an economist but to a Catholic priest, founder of religious orders, and philosopher. Antonio Rosmini (1797-1855) was indeed a passionate advocate of competition.

Rosmini was no second-league thinker in nineteenth century Italy. He left behind an enormous body of writings: The still-incomplete critical edition of his works would amount to more than one-hundred volumes. His contributions covered a wide variety of subjects, ranging from religion and metaphysics to anthropology and politics. Although international scholarship on Rosmini's social thought remains limited, (1) his eminence as a political and legal thinker has long been known to Italians. Scholars such as Gioele Solari (1872-1952), Giuseppe Capograssi (1886-1959), the above-mentioned Pietro Piovani, Mario D'Addio (1923-2017), and Danilo Zolo (1936-2018) have nurtured an intense discussion on the tenets of Rosmini's political thinking, which endures today. Dario Antiseri credits Rosmini for being one of the first authors to see clearly that "between our intentions and the outcomes thereof--that is, between our schemes and their actual outcomes--a gap is but unavoidable" (Antiseri 1997: 456). (2)

Initially attracted by counterrevolutionary and reactionary thinkers, Rosmini came to rely on "the right kind'* of constitutionalism to avoid French-Revolution-like degenerations of political systems. (3) For his views and his sensibilities, he has been compared to Alexis de Tocqueville (Del Noce 1983: 235).

Economics was central to Rosmini's political theorizing. His interest in political economy shaped his theories from his early thought forward. In discussing Rosmini's liberal leanings, Piovani summarizes those pillars of his worldview that remain unchanged, or that he perhaps developed more fully, over his lifelong reflections on politics:

(a) The need of safeguarding from the government's unlimited encroachments the autonomous centers characterized by their own complete social individuality ... (b) The vindication of property as concrete embodiment of the moral creative efforts which characterize all human beings ... (c) Proximity to several liberal tenets, to several principles of classical economics, which Rosmini appreciated and investigated as few other Italian philosophers of his age. Against the claims of the ancien regime, [classical] liberalism, by checking the political encroachment in the economic sphere, denies any further enlargement of the powers of the State, (d) Interest in the fledging issues of wealth ... understood as the one obstacle, within the sphere of the modern State, to an overbearing government ... (e) Hostility to the notion of entirely enclosing the juridical sphere in the legality of the State ... (f) Support to the movement for the Italian national independence, particularly as it stems from natural, spontaneous forces, of which the nation is--or can be--the summary or the symbol. (Piovani 1961: 219-220) (4)

Rosmini's proximity to the ideas of laissez-faire and his acquaintance with "many principles of classical economics" was the outcome of a continuous interaction with Adam Smith's (1723-1790) works that, together with Jean-Baptiste Say's (1767-1832), were his true lodestar. In this article, I will try to present the most notable instances in which Rosmini's writings exhibit a critical engagement of Adam Smith.

Precisely ascertaining how other thinkers influenced an author who at the time was so well read and had a strong pretense of originality, like Rosmini, can never be easy. I have therefore privileged instances in which either Rosmini himself quotes Smith, or the latter's shadow seems to me unmistakable, in his economic and political works. …

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