Inventing the invisible hand : Adam Smith in American thought and politics, 1776 - present
- Glory Maria Liu.
- [Stanford, California] : [Stanford University], 2018.
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- The ideas from Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations are often synonymous with American political values and capitalist doctrine—ideas such as "the invisible hand, " "laissez-faire, " and "self-interest." Smith is often hailed as the "father of free-market economics" and a dogmatic supporter of selfishness over benevolence in order to promote the public good. However, this image, pervasive in both public and political discourse, not only misrepresents the Scottish moral philosopher, but has promoted a popular vision of capitalism that neglects pro-social behavior, behavior which Smith himself explicated in his other works, The Theory of Moral Sentiments and his Lectures on Jurisprudence. Despite decades of revisionist efforts to overturn the narrow, popular image of Smith and his ideas, few scholars have tried to understand the following question: how, when, and why did this image of Smith emerge in the first place? Using a combination of historical, archival, and contemporary sources, I chart the various ways in which Smith's works were read, taught, and appropriated in America from the eighteenth century to today. I argue that throughout American history, the demands of political contestation stifled the reception of Smith's normative ideas and instead, privileged a narrow, "sloganized" version of his positive project in The Wealth of Nations—such as turning him solely into the "apostle of free trade, " or the scientist of rational self-interest. This process of reducing a small subset of Smith's causal ideas into political tropes has taken place in different historical contexts and has involved a diversity of actors. By highlighting parochial historical and intellectual forces in different contexts, I explain how and why Smith—rather than other thinkers—has become an American political icon, and why Smith's Wealth of Nations has become a gospel of American capitalism. The dissertation proceeds as follows. In Chapter 2, I show how in the Early National period, Smith's Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments provided the Founders with an array of conceptual tools that could be applied to a range of issues at the forefront of politics at the time: from development of American financial institutions to moral consequences of commercial growth. In Chapter 3, I show how the national salience of the tariff debates in the nineteenth century enabled the narrowing of Smith's ideas onto a single ideological dimension, namely, free trade. In Chapter 4, I argue that economists of the so-called Chicago School of Economics in the twentieth century invented the interpretations of Smith's concepts of "self-interest" and "the invisible hand" now commonly associated with methodological individualism and modern neoliberalism. In the latter two contexts, frequent appeals to Smith's intellectual authority as the "father of political economy" or "father of economics" legitimized political ideologies. Moreover, such appeals reaffirm the notion that politics demands certain forms of ideas that privilege material considerations over moral ones. Chapter 5 concludes with an assessment of how political theorists, political scientists, and economists have tried to recover a more authentic reading of Smith today. Contemporary readings often recast Smith as an economist who sympathized with the welfare of the poor, or as an egalitarian philosopher concerned with equal social standing. I argue that such readings are deliberate attempts to reclaim Smith's intellectual authority as a moral philosopher, but moreover, they are attempts to reintegrate moral considerations alongside—if not above—material ones in political discourse today.
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- Submitted to the Department of Political Science.
- Thesis Ph.D. Stanford University 2018.
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