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Adam Smith and the Conspiracy of the Merchants

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Original languageEnglish
JournalGlobal Intellectual History
Early online date2 Oct 2018
DOIs
Accepted/In press26 Sep 2018
E-pub ahead of print2 Oct 2018
Published2018

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Abstract

Adam Smith famously declared that ‘People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the publick, or in some contrivance to raise prices’. Although Smith’s hostility to the merchants and the mercantile system is well known, what has not hitherto been appreciated is the full extent to which Smith believed such a ‘conspiracy’ to obtain, how he believed that it came about, and why it would likely prove highly resistant to effective political control. To appreciate this, it is necessary to situate The Wealth of Nations in relation to Smith’s wider assessment of the origins of modern European commercial societies, connecting his critique of mercantilism to his history of law and government, as well as to his late interventions regarding the problematic centrality of political judgement to managing affairs of state. Once this is done, we see that the famous attack on mercantilism in The Wealth of Nations must ultimately be read as Janus-faced, given Smith’s wider assessment of modern European conditions as revealed in the student lecture notes of the 1760s, and the final edition of the Theory of Moral Sentiments.

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