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Was Adam Smith an individualist?

Denis, A. (1999). Was Adam Smith an individualist?. History of the Human Sciences, 12(3), pp. 71-86. doi: 10.1177/09526959922120351


Smith is generally regarded as an individualist without qualification. This article argues that his predominantly individualist policy prescription is rooted in a more complex philosophy. He sees nature, including human nature, as a vast machine supervised by God and designed to maximize human happiness. Human weaknesses, as well as strengths, display the wisdom of God and play their part in this scheme. While Smith pays lip-service to justice, it is really social order that preoccupies him, and, within that, the defence of property. Individuals are valued as bearers of property. As persons, individuals are deceived by nature into acting in a socially beneficial way. In different ways Smith systematically denies the autonomy of the individual with respect to the whole of which he or she is part. For Smith, individual liberty is not the end, but the means, of sustaining social order and property.

Publication Type: Article
Publisher Keywords: Adam Smith, individualism, invisible hand, justice, order, property
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HB Economic Theory
Departments: School of Policy & Global Affairs > Economics
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