The Problems and Promise of Commercial Society: Adam Smith's Response to Rousseau

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9780271033488: The Problems and Promise of Commercial Society: Adam Smith's Response to Rousseau

"Dennis Rasmussen has written a fine book on Adam Smith's defense of commercial society as a response to Rousseau. As Rasmussen demonstrates, Smith not only took Rousseau's critique of commercial society seriously, but evinced a surprising degree of sympathy with it. By reviving Smith's dialogue with Rousseau, Rasmussen not only examines an important episode in the history of political thought, but engages a debate over the benefits and drawbacks of commercial society that continues today."-John T. Scott, University of California, Davis

"We have hitherto lacked a systematic and sophisticated book-length analysis of the relation between Smith and Rousseau. These two near contemporaries addressed many of the same issues-such as the emergence of capitalism, the relation between the free market and morals, the relation of commerce to politics, the nature of sympathy or empathy, and the relation of the philosopher to the modern liberal order-and yet often came to opposing conclusions. Dennis Rasmussen's beautifully written book will be important reading for anyone concerned with these two figures, and more broadly the Enlightenment and its critics." Charles Griswold, Boston University

Adam Smith is popularly regarded as the ideological forefather of laissez-faire capitalism, while Rousseau is seen as the passionate advocate of the life of virtue in small, harmonious communities and as a sharp critic of the ills of commercial society. But, in fact, Smith had many of the same worries about commercial society that Rousseau did and was strongly influenced by his critique.

In this first book-length comparative study of these leading eighteenth-century thinkers, Dennis Rasmussen highlights Smithís sympathy with Rousseauís concerns and analyzes in depth the ways in which Smith crafted his arguments to defend commercial society against these charges. These arguments, Rasmussen emphasizes, were pragmatic in nature, not ideological: it was Smithís view that, all things considered, commercial society offered more benefits than the alternatives.

Just because of this pragmatic orientation, Smithís approach can be useful to us in assessing the pros and cons of commercial society today and thus contributes to a debate that is too much dominated by both dogmatic critics and doctrinaire champions of our modern commercial society.  

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About the Author:

Dennis C. Rasmussen is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Houston.

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