Adam Smith's Constitutional Theory

29 Pages Posted: 28 Dec 2016 Last revised: 14 Feb 2017

See all articles by Barry R. Weingast

Barry R. Weingast

Stanford University, Department of Political Science

Date Written: February 14, 2017


To become an engine of sustained economic growth, markets require various market-supporting infrastructure from the government, such as justice (including property rights and contract enforcement), security, public goods, and, importantly, liberty or the freedom from government predation. Adam Smith’s developed his constitutional theory as part of his Lectures on Jurisprudence. This theory answers a critical question. If liberty, commerce, and security provide the road to opulence, what incentives do political officials have to sustain them? Smith's constitutional theory provides the answer.

Despite several excellent treatments (see, e.g., Evensky 2005, Haakonssen 1981; Hont 2015; Kennedy 2005, and Winch 1978), Smith's constitutional theory remains relatively unknown, especially outside of the literature on Smith. Smith's impressive contributions to this theory parallel those of Locke in his Second Treatise (1689), Montesquieu in his Spirit of the Law (1748), and Madison in the Federalist Papers (1787-88). In many ways, Smith's focus on institutions and incentives is superior to that of the other political theorists who are far more well-known for work on this topic. Topics include Smith’s theory of sovereignty, the separation of powers as a system of mutual monitors, the right of resistance, and, generally, the incentives facing political officials to adhere to the constitutional rules.

Keywords: Constitutions, Adam Smith, self-enforcing constitutions, separation of powers, Lectures on Jurisprudence

JEL Classification: B12, B15, B31, H11, K10, P1, P16

Suggested Citation

Weingast, Barry R., Adam Smith's Constitutional Theory (February 14, 2017). Available at SSRN: or

Barry R. Weingast (Contact Author)

Stanford University, Department of Political Science ( email )

Stanford, CA 94305-6010
United States
650-723-0497 (Phone)
650-723-1808 (Fax)

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