One of the many virtues of Economic Sentiments is that it provides exactly what its subtitle says: an investigation of “Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment.” Another, even more attractive than an unusual degree of truth in advertising, is that it casts an extraordinarily revealing light on many other writers and many other moments in history. It is a book that does with great success two things that are usually thought to be wholly antithetical; certainly they are rarely attempted by the same writer. On the one hand, it takes us back into the last third of the eighteenth century, and shows us what economic thinking was like before it became modern economic theory; on the other, it complicates the image of the Enlightenment in ways that are intended to make the political discussions of the twenty-first century more sophisticated, nuanced, and self-conscious than they often are.
The design of the book is artless; its implementation is anything but. In the demonology of the critics of the Enlightenment, Smith and Condorcet are blamed for two of its most frequently reviled outcomes. On the one hand, Adam Smith, particularly in his Wealth of Nations, is seen as the theorist of the society held together by nothing stronger than the callous cash nexus of Marxian folklore, an alienated world where human relationships are reduced to self-interested bargaining and the worth of every man is the price at which his services can be bought. On the other, the Marquis de Condorcet, the author of A Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, who died in a revolutionary jail in 1794 after a dazzling career in mathematics and politics, is portrayed as the theorist of universal civilization, leaving behind the vision of a world where perfectly rational moral judgments inform perfectly efficient policy, and a moral and political consensus reigns in much the way that a theoretical consensus reigns in physics or chemistry.
The first indictment focuses on the bleakness of a society constituted on the basis of market relations, the second focuses on the totalitarian potential of utopian rationalism. The two have been yoked by the enemies of the Enlightenment from their own time to the present. Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France was the precursor of many later assaults. Contemplating the attempted assassination of Marie-Antoinette, he wrote:
I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.
Before the outbreak of the French Revolution, Burke accounted himself something of a disciple of Smith; once battle was joined, he backed tradition against reason, the ancien régime against the Enlightenment. Some of the contemporary diatribes against globalization are the direct inheritors of Burke.
Economic Sentiments does something more subtle than merely demolish these hostile reactions to Smith and Condorcet. Emma Rothschild…
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