Morality, Political Economy and American Constitutionalism

Morality, Political Economy and American Constitutionalism

Timothy P. Roth

The Founders of the American Republic set up a remarkable experiment in self-government. Today, debates rage as to the philosophical legacy of this ongoing experiment. In this fascinating study, Timothy Roth offers a critical analysis of modern liberalism and the economic theory to which it is conjoined – social welfare theory.

Chapter 2: The Commercial Republic

Timothy P. Roth

Subjects: economics and finance, political economy, public choice theory, politics and public policy, political economy, public choice


2.1 The Smithian Influence The argument developed in Section 1.2 need not be reprised. It is useful to recall, however, that, from the Founders’ perspective, federal ‘encouragement of particular manufactures’ is a constitutional issue, and that the choice of an economic system is a political and, therefore, a moral issue. While the constitutionality of federal ‘species of encouragement’ will be considered in later chapters, immediate interest centers on what I shall characterize as the ‘Smithian influence’ on the Founders’ thinking about commercial policy and, more generally, about postconstitutional, conflictual politics. I begin by noting that, ‘Despite all the recent scholarship on the impact of Scottish thought on the American founding, curiously little attention has been paid to the influence of Adam Smith’ (Fleischacker, 2004a, p. 1).1 This is true, despite the fact that we know that the Founders read both The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments.2 All of this has basic relevance because the Founders’ views on commerce were either reflective of, or shared with, Adam Smith. The influence of, or congruence with, Smith’s view of human nature – articulated in its essentials in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) – has already been discussed (Chapter 1). Of immediate interest is the Founders’ embrace of ideas articulated in The Wealth of Nations (WN). While WN has been widely characterized as a paean to self-interest, this is demonstrably not the case. It is true, of course, that the ‘invisible hand’ metaphor, employed only once in WN and once...

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