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A New Vision of Liberty

1.

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 is not concerned to “rescue” Smith and Condorcet from their critics, rather to show that they were engaged in something other than their later critics suppose. This demands rather different tactics in each case, of course. To put it rather crudely, she makes Smith’s aims much more political and in the modern sense of the word less economic than conventional criticisms of the Enlightenment would do. In Condorcet’s case, nobody has ever supposed that he was a central figure in the development of modern economics; in Joseph Schumpeter’s monumental History of Economic Analysis, for instance, he is yoked with Auguste Comte as the progenitor of a particularly shallow form of “intellectualist” evolutionary sociology, and his economic writings dismissed as devoid of interest. But what Emma Rothschild shows is that when he did write about economics, it was from a profoundly political and non-utopian perspective, and that when he wrote his notorious Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, he embraced the creative role of moral and political conflict with as much enthusiasm as Benjamin Constant in the 1820s and Isaiah Berlin in the 1950s. Indeed, it was from Condorcet that Constant learned the distinction between “the liberty of the ancients” and “the liberty of the moderns” for which he is remembered.

This, however, raises the question of what was “enlightened” about the Enlightenment. If it was not a matter of looking for elegant models of human interaction such as underpin modern economics and are thought to have their origins in Smith’s discovery of the “invisible hand,” what was it? If it was not a matter of seeking universal moral and political principles that could be grasped by the light of reason alone, and adopted in every society and at all times, what was it? And if we can answer those questions, can we also understand why Smith and Condorcet acquired the reputations they did?

What is in question is not simply how they came to be saddled with evil reputations by their detractors. Smith’s admirers have always seen The Wealth of Nations as one of the founding documents of classical economics, and liberals who have any use for the concept of progress have a great deal of respect for Condorcet. Robespierre denounced him as a “timid conspirator,” and the triumph of the Jacobins sent him first into hiding, and then to his death; but a century later John Stuart Mill and Gladstone’s friend and biographer Lord Morley revered him. “Mill,” says Rothschild, “told John Morley ‘that in his younger days, when he was inclined to fall into low spirits, he turned to Condorcet’s life of Turgot; it infallibly restored his possession of himself.’”

2.

To establish her view of what enlightenment meant to Smith and Condorcet, and what the Enlightenment might mean to us, Emma Rothschild takes the reader through a series of exemplary episodes in their ideas and in the creation of their posthumous reputations; and she accompanies those episodes with some wider reflections on what enlightenment—and therefore “the Enlightenment”—can mean to the twenty-first century. It is an elegant as well as a persuasive way of making her point about the political impact of the thinking of Smith and Condorcet. Historically, she begins with the question of how governments ought to respond to the periodic food shortages that plague almost all agricultural societies.

The pre-revolutionary French state, built around a passion for detailed regulation, and animated by what even its critics were ready to regard as a genuine desire for the welfare of its subjects, responded by further regulation of the trade in “corn,” i.e., grain, and attempts to regulate its price. But Turgot, whose political disciple Condorcet became, implemented policies to defeat famine in the Limousin that took free trade in grain as their starting point, and used government intervention to make the grain mar-ket work, not to supplant it. Because Turgot urged government measures against famine, his opponents accused him of inconsistency, as if a belief in laissez faire somehow entailed a belief in laissez mourir. Not so, Rothschild writes:

At the height of the scarcity, he insists on royal ordinances to reaffirm the freedom to transport and store corn. But he meanwhile implements a remarkable series of public policies against famine. They include a program of public employment; support for food imports; selective reductions—and some increases—in taxes; and special regulations on land tenure relations.

Tax reductions left the poor with more income to spend on food; tax increases drew on the resources of the rich to finance public works.

This is the policy that Condorcet defended in his Réflexions sur le commerce des blés. As Emma Rothschild describes the argument: “In such a case, the government must act. But it should not expropriate or subsidize grain, thereby harming the establishment of commerce.” It should instead “assure the poor work and wages in proportion to the cost of commodities; and it will always be cheaper for the Treasury to put the poor in a position to buy corn, than to bring the price of corn down to within reach of the poor.” To argue, as Turgot and Condorcet both did, that it made good sense not only to allow a free trade in grain but also to find work for the poor so that they could buy the grain that their money would bring onto the market is to side with economists of the late twentieth century. Instead of sending the agents of government in search of hoarded supplies and coercing the hoarders to part with them, governments could let the purchasing power of the otherwise too hard up do the job instead.

Retrospectively, we see this as a question of efficiency, answering only one question—how do we get food into the mouths of the hungry? Seen from the perspective of Turgot and Condorcet, it is a much more political question. The argument for relying on free trade in corn is not simply embedded in a theory of markets in food, though it is that; more importantly, it is embedded in the politics of freeing producers and consumers from the arbitrary and vexatious superintendence of officialdom. Indeed, part of the fascination of seeing the debate from this new direction is just how unconcerned with efficiency in the modern sense Turgot and Condorcet and Smith all turn out to be.

They were certainly concerned with welfare or well-being in a basic, common-sense sense of the word, and especially with the welfare of the poor. But they were not in the modern sense concerned to maximize the utility of a whole society. This is a crucial point. It is a commonplace objection to Jeremy Bentham that his defense of the principle of “greatest happiness” for the greatest number leaves it open to governments to maximize the total happiness of a society by means that violate the rights of minorities, humiliate individuals, and might involve any degree of oppression so long as their effects are seen as good enough.

No doubt, it is in general true—so Bentham would argue—that less coercion is better than more because people dislike being coerced, and other things being equal, they are happier if subject to less of it. But Bentham’s chilling defense of his perfect prison, the Panopticon, gives the game away. In the Panopticon prisoners were subject to constant surveillance and their behavior manipulated by any means available. Bentham saw no problem with this: “Call them soldiers, call them monks, call them machines: so they were but happy ones, I should not care.”

That is the true maximizing spirit, in which notions like justice, or a care for individual dignity and self-respect, have at best a subordinate place. It is, also, exactly what Condorcet and Smith did not think. For them, it is justice toward the poor that demands that their welfare take priority over all else; it is not the principle of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Nor is this because they did not understand what was at issue; they both thought that it was the task of government to secure justice, and that within the limits of just, predictable, minimally obstructive laws, individuals must then make what they could of their own lives in their own way. Both deplored enthusiasts for systems, the sort of men who treated their fellow creatures as sheep to be organized into a docile happiness.

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