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Philip Petrov and Barry R. Weingast: Adam Smith’s Alternative to the Social Contract

Date and Time: 
Thursday, October 29, 2020. 12:00 PM
Meeting Location: 
Zoom
Workshop: 
History of Political Thought
Meeting Description: 

Political theorists typically characterize Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau (“HLR”) as belonging to the early modern social contract tradition in European political thought. The primary argument of this essay is that, although few political theorists have noted it, Adam Smith outlined an alternative to this tradition. More specifically, like HLR before him, Smith sought to explain the emergence of liberal social order, but he replaced HLR’s abstract and hypothetical approach to this task with a more empirically and historically informed analogue. Smith’s alternative to the social contract tradition utilized the logical structure of HLR’s explanation of liberal social order but gave it empirical and historical content. Both HLR’s and Smith’s explanations have the same three-step logic: (1) a description of a bad state of the world; (2) a description of how people at some point exited this bad state and transitioned to a better society; and (3) normative proposals about how to structure the new society. However, the two explanations have different contents: while HLR’s relies on abstract content built around a fictive social contract, Smith’s uses historical content built around the transition of certain northwestern European towns from feudalism to a commercial society. More specifically, where HLR posited a state of nature and a hypothetical agreement for exiting it, Smith described feudal Europe and a historical process of political-economic development for escaping it. Understanding Smith’s place in the social contract tradition helps us to see that both he and HLR could not take liberal social order for granted and thus sought to account for its emergence, albeit in importantly different ways.

Philip Petrov is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Stanford, studying political theory.

Barry R. Weingast is the Ward C. Krebs Family Professor, Department of Political Science, and a senior fellow, Hoover Institution. He served as Chair, Department of Political Science, from 1996 through 2001. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Weingast’s research focuses on the political foundation of markets, economic reform, and regulation. He has written extensively on problems of political economy of development, federalism and decentralization, legal institutions and the rule of law, and democracy. Weingast is co-author of Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (with Douglass C. North and John Joseph Wallis, 2009, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) and Analytic Narratives (1998, Princeton). He edited (with Donald Wittman) The Oxford Handbook of Political Economy (Oxford University Press, 2006). Weingast has won numerous awards, including the William H. Riker Prize, the Heinz Eulau Prize (with Ken Shepsle), the Franklin L. Burdette Pi Sigma Alpha Award (with Kenneth Schultz), and the James L. Barr Memorial Prize in Public Economics.

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