Reconstructing Adam Smith's Politics

51 Pages Posted: 31 Jan 2018 Last revised: 16 Sep 2018

See all articles by Barry R. Weingast

Barry R. Weingast

Stanford University, Department of Political Science

Date Written: September 6, 2018


I divide this introduction to my book in progress, Reconstructing Adam Smith's Politics, into three parts. In Part 1, I give an overview of Smith's politics and how it fits together. This analysis shows that Smith anticipated many of the central questions that animate modern political science; notably, why are some countries rich and developed while others not? How do we explain different regime types across countries, including dictatorship and representative democracy? What accounts for different patterns of trade policies? And how do we account for the different behavior of empires; in particular, why were the British Colonies so rich? As I show, Smith's approach to politics and the answers he provides are surprisingly modern.

I intend Part 2 to be the heart of the analysis with a systematic, in-depth discussion of a dozen or more political-economic topics covered by Smith. As the book remains in early stages, I concentrate in this draft on four of Smith's separate discussions that, in toto, provide a powerful explanation of the centuries-long lack of development of feudal Europe.

In part 3, I discuss several general theses that emerge from Smith's politics; namely: the role of liberty as the foundation of an economy; the importance of violence in his political-economics; the central role of concepts of credible commitment and political exchange; why some countries are rich while most are poor; and methodological issues, such as the use of equilibrium and comparative statics as well as dynamics.

Keywords: Adam Smith, Political-economics of development, Lectures on Jurisprudence, politics, violence trap, feudal equilibrium

JEL Classification: B12, H11, N4, N43. O1, P5, R5

Suggested Citation

Weingast, Barry R., Reconstructing Adam Smith's Politics (September 6, 2018). 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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