From Pragmatic Realism to Dogmatic Utopianism
Seminal thinkers like Adam Smith remain conservative icons more than 350 years after their writings first appeared. They are invoked to celebrate capacities of private markets and unfettered voluntary exchange to expand wealth and social well being. The iconography too often, however, neglects the formidable intellectual energy that Smith and other eighteenth-century philosophers and social scientists devoted to mapping why and when the visible hand of government might properly check, complement, or even supplant private markets both to keep them working and to ensure that communities are supplied with essential goods and services. The pioneering promoters of private markets argued for both a broad scope for voluntary exchange among individuals and an authoritative framework of governmental rules that constrain market transactions. Today's image of Adam Smith as a single-minded proponent of “free” markets is a caricature that distorts Smith and later generations of economists.
The classics in political economy—the shorthand description for the analysis by Smith and others of the intersection of markets and government—have suffered an especially selective reading in the United States. American conservatives have sacrificed the insistent institutional realism of Smith and other classical political economists for a Utopian image of markets that understates both the dangers that markets might break down and the importance of government rules and correctives in averting such failures and in supplying the public goods society requires.
Understanding the evolution from the realism of Adam Smith