chapter  1
17 Pages

Moral rhetoric and political economy

Mid-eighteenth century England and France saw the emergence of the idea of the self-regulating market economy, autonomous and independent from the state. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was a decisive milestone in promulgating the concept of the self-regulating market. A central feature of Adam Smith’s economic theory was the concept that markets would provide for the material subsistence of society as long as they were left open to competition instead of being controlled by the state. Smith’s economic theory became the basis for the development of the current free-market gospel of a globalized economy, a development of market-based economic theory from Smith through the present I shall call liberal political economy.1 The advent of liberal political economy marked a revolution in economic thought, one that paralleled the political revolutions of 1776 and 1789 and the emergence of liberalism as an Enlightenment political philosophy of individual freedom.2 The concept of a naturally self-regulating market was revolutionary because it altered the way people had previously thought about problems in the distribution of material wealth, particularly with respect to the survival of the poor. With a self-regulating market, the relief of the poor would be achieved by the natural operation of the market rather than by deliberate action of church or state. As a result, Smith’s theory and its subsequent elaboration in liberal political economy led to a greatly reduced scope for public discussion of the justice of the distribution of wealth by assigning the question of subsistence in distributive justice to the natural operations of the market.3 There are a number of methods liberal political economy uses to persuade its audience to stop worrying about distributive justice and trust the market. As case studies, I examine Adam Smith’s (1759) Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) in Chapter 2, his (1776) Wealth of Nations (WN) in Chapter 3, and Milton Friedman’s (1962) Capitalism and Freedom (CF ) in Chapter 4. A common thread that I trace in all three works is the presence of a moral rhetoric: language of praise and blame used to portray character and ascribe motivations. This moral rhetoric, I argue, consists of more than colorful examples meant to keep the reader’s attention: the characterizations and implied narratives are saturated with moral judgments that are essential to the persuasive justifications for trusting the market, justifications that are fundamental to liberal political economy.