Have Condorcet’s impassioned calls for equal rights and social peace, written shortly before his death in a prison cell, and Adam Smith’s vigorous denunciations of feudal oppression, been unjustly neglected by modern readers? Arguing that recent generations have overlooked key aspects of the Scottish and French Enlightenment, Emma Rothschild’s Economic Sentiments aims to restore the foundational roles of sentiments and politics in the two men’s systems of thought. Smith’s Invisible Hand can be reunited with the human face, and heart, of free market liberalism; and Condorcet’s march of enlightenment complicated by an unexpected emotional subtlety and philosophical uncertainty. Rothschild blends the history of economic thought with its social and political background, and sheds the light of contemporary ideas on both. The avowed purpose of her book is to realign Smith and Condorcet ideologically: rescuing Smith from conservative interpretations, and Condorcet from imputations of a ‘cold, universal rationalism’. The tacit effect is to bring them politically closer to each other than one might naturally place them. Both can enter the ark of subsequent left-liberal thought: champions of economic liberty, but advocates too of political freedom, equity and justice. Rothschild’s conclusion expresses nostalgia for a time before the long alliance of conservatism and economic laissez-faire, and quiet excitement at the prospect of a 21st-century political constellation breaking this mould. Each in their way, the rehabilitations of Smith and Condorcet seem designed to give a gentle nudge—deliberately short of clumsy programmatic recommendations—to insiders and statesmen of the new millennium.
Economic Sentiments is composed of a series of essays that in the main deal alternately with Smith and Condorcet, but also in part focus on themes —political discussion and form, economic order and design—the two thinkers shared. The opening and closing chapters illuminate the overarching project, but the weight of the argument rests on discrete interpretations of the two theorists. There are some drawbacks to the way previously published essays have been collected here: central points, and citations from Smith and Condorcet, are often repeated. But Emma Rothschild’s calm, understated style and thorough scholarship makes the book consistently enjoyable to read. The chapter on the Invisible Hand, in particular, spans a wide range of literary antecedents, contemporary theoretical arguments and modern economic thinking, which all combine to build an eloquent reinterpretation of Smith’s famous metaphor. It is fair to say, however, that progressive elements in Smith’s outlook have been unearthed in a number of scholarly works. It is clear, also, with whom Rothschild’s sympathies lie: the cautious Smith, rather than the ‘credulous’ Condorcet. Her reconstruction of Condorcet’s arguments and struggles is less comprehensive, and as the two are brought into closer orbit, it is Condorcet’s trajectory that has to adjust most.
After his death Smith’s immediate supporters popularized a conservative version of his thought, partly in reaction to the French Revolution, but also out of concern to deflect any suspicion that he was guilty of Hume’s religious scepticism. Rothschild begins her analysis of the Scot with Beatrice Webb’s re-examination of his work, in order to dispel any lingering doubts about its progressive credentials. The bulk of Smith’s argument in the Wealth of Nations was against government regulation of the movement of goods and capital, especially taxes and bounties of a ‘mercantilist’ stamp. But throughout he stressed the wider benefits of the system of ‘natural liberty’. Free mobility of the factors of production would lead, not just to a more efficient allocation of supply to meet demand, but also to investment of capital in response to future needs, deepening the division of labour and enriching the country as a whole. Increases of capital stock and revenue would lead to a growth in the demand for labour, and a ‘liberal reward of labour’ would be a ‘natural symptom of increasing national wealth’.
In France during the same period, Turgot and Condorcet were both active in debates over economic reform that pitted them against Quesnay and the Physiocrats, an especial object of aversion for Smith, with whom (as with Hume) there were more distant interactions. For these thinkers too, a free market in basic goods—especially during drought or famine—was a political touchstone of the era. They shared with Smith the conviction that the exchange of commodities unencumbered by subsidies or price controls would distribute shortages more equitably and investment more productively. Yet, following his work on the famine in France during the 1770s, Turgot recommended intervention in labour markets to raise wages: the poor had to be above subsistence level before market signals yielded incentives to remedy dearth. Turgot and Condorcet sought to establish which markets would be least distorted by intervention, and where it would be most effective: ‘in the case of scarcity and famine, the criteria yield a clear ordering, where intervention in markets for corn is worst, and intervention in rural tenancies, training and labour markets is least bad’.
Whilst this exceeded any conception to be found in Smith, there were broader areas of agreement: simplification and rationalization of property laws to ensure the freedom to buy and sell on open markets, and a drive to dismantle such barriers to competition as guilds and apprenticeships. Turgot’s wide-ranging reform edicts of 1776, presented to Louis xvi as a Lit de Justice, were lauded by Smith as a ‘most valuable monument’. Much in the spirit of the Wealth of Nations, Turgot invited his readers to identify with the troubles of merchants operating in an insecure environment, harassed by changeable laws and at the uncertain mercy of the officials charged with enforcing them. Rothschild characteristically comments: ‘Economic life is full of vexations, of visitations, of the concrete details of oppression. It is also full of emotions.’ In her construction of the two thinkers, every economic transaction was for Smith and Condorcet suffused with sentiments, and it was on this foundation that each erected their wider accounts of economic and political justice.
It is well known that in the Wealth of Nations Smith ventured beyond his habitual dislike of feudal survivals to advocate universal, publicly funded education. As Rothschild notes, contemporary debates over the reformation of apprenticeship mostly revolved around the issue of incentives—what would best ensure a sober, hard-working population? Smith, however, insisted on a natural equality of talents: the differences between a philosopher and a street porter ‘arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom and education’. Moreover, while schooling undoubtedly helped an economy to develop, its justification was not purely instrumental: a full education could also compensate for the uniform and stultifying jobs that often resulted from an increasing division of labour. Rothschild tracks changes in Condorcet’s arguments, too, from education as a tool for instilling virtue and scientific understanding, to a view closer to Smith’s: education not only as an end in itself, but part of a wider, pluralist political settlement. In a society constituted by opposing views, Condorcet saw liberal education as an essential way to institutionalize peaceful dissent and discussion. For Rothschild, society is coming of age here, not just its workers: she cites Bagehot’s ‘society of grown-up competitive commerce’ to argue that independence in politics, education and the marketplace are mutually reinforcing.
The overall interpretation of Smith in Economic Sentiments rests in large measure on its account of the image of the Invisible Hand: a metaphor used only three times across a lifetime of work but subsequently held, not least by Kenneth Arrow, to sum up Smith’s finest contribution to political economy. Rothschild, by contrast, maintains that it should be viewed ‘as a mildly ironic joke’. Comparing Smith’s method to Thucydides, whom Smith admired for showing that ‘nothing gives greater light into any train of actions than the characters of the actors’, she aspires to something similar. A literal reading of the Invisible Hand, she suggests, would not just be inconsistent with Smith’s vision of the moral independence of reflective economic agents, but also would ignore the irony Smith liked to direct at the all-seeing philosopher or wise statesman. The ‘invisible hand of Jupiter’—Smith’s first use of the term, in his ‘History of Astronomy’—is clearly subject for mockery, in the credulity of polytheistic societies able to ascribe natural disasters to the gods but not the ‘ordinary course of things’.