Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations

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The pivotal second chapter of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, "Of the Principle which gives occasion to the Division of Labour," opens with the oft-cited claim that the foundation of modern political economy is the human "propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another."1 This formulation plays both an analytical and normative role. It offers an anthropological microfoundation for Smith's understanding of how modern commercial societies function as social organizations, which, in turn, provide a venue for the expression and operation of these human proclivities. Together with the equally famous concept of the invisible hand, this sentence defines the central axis of a new science of political economy designed to come to terms with the emergence of a novel object of investigation: economic production and exchange as a distinct, separate, independent sphere of human action. Moreover, it is this domain, the source of wealth, which had become the main organizational principle of modern societies, displacing the once-ascendant positions of theology, morality, and political philosophy. Smith's formulation transcends a purely descriptive account of the transformations that shook eighteenth-century Europe. A powerful normative theory about the emancipatory character of market systems lies at the heart of Wealth of Nations. These markets constitute "the system of natural liberty" because they shatter traditional hierarchies, exclusions, and privileges.2 Unlike mercantilism and other alternative mechanisms of economic coordination, markets are based on the spontaneous and free expression of individual preferences. Rather than change, even repress, human nature to accord with an abstract bundle of values, market economies accept the propensities of humankind and are attentive to their character. They recognize and value its inclinations; not only human reason but the full panoply of individual aspirations and needs.3 Thus, for Smith, markets give full expression to individual, economic liberty. This combination of analytical and normative arguments provides Smith with conceptual resources for an implicit theory of social integration based on strategic interaction amongst selfinterested persons. Not just the economy but the larger social order is reproduced by unplanned behavior and processes, rather than by design.4 Instead of grounding social order in a thick moral consensus and social homogeneity, Smith considered such possibilities to have been eliminated by social and symbolic transformations experienced by modern commercial society. Additionally, with this emphasis on spontaneous coordination, Smith pointed to the possibility of a social order in which people live in harmony together with a minimum need of a central, coercive apparatus. He captured the central intuition of classical economists according to which modern commercial society, notwithstanding its conflicts, obeys a kind of pre-established order, and enjoys the advantage of a mechanism, the market, which maintains equilibria by continually adjusting competing interests. Over time, this powerful theoretical proposition has become a legitimating cornerstone for the robust defense of market capitalism, a particular ensemble of political institutions, and a specific line of justification for liberal ideas and values. Though manifestly plausible as an accurate reading of Smith when Wealth of Nations is read on its own, even on these terms, this interpretation, is limited and partial. Astonishingly, and disappointingly, most readers of Wealth of Nations fail to attend the very next sentence that follows Smith's seemingly transhistorical, objectivist theory of human dispositions, mindful of Mandeville's classical representation of human egoism. Smith immediately probed more deeply by asking "Whether this propensity be one of those original principles in human nature of which no further account can be given; or whether, as seems more probable, it be the...
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