The Problems and Promise of Commercial Society

Adam Smith's Response to Rousseau

By (author) Dennis C. Rasmussen

Paperback - £21.95

Publication date:

10 March 2009

Length of book:

208 pages


Penn State University Press

ISBN-13: 9780271033495

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 Smith’s sympathy with Rousseau’s 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 Smith’s view that, all things considered, commercial society offered more benefits than the alternatives.

Just because of this pragmatic orientation, Smith’s 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.

“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 also evinced a surprising degree of sympathy with it. By reviving Smith’s dialogue with Rousseau, Rasmussen examines an important episode in the history of political thought and engages a debate over the benefits and drawbacks of commercial society that continues today.”

—John T. Scott, University of California, Davis