No, Adam Smith (1723-1790) is not the father of economic liberalism. An historian of economic ideas, Daniel Diatkine has dealt a new severe blow to this idea, which continues to have a hard time despite the work of specialists in his work. In "Adam Smith. The discovery of capitalism and its limits "(1), professor emeritus of the University of Evry-Val d'Essonne / Paris Saclay recalls that the liberalism of the British philosopher is political liberalism, that is to say the rejection of absolutism and the affirmation of free conscience. He also points out that economic liberalism, the doctrine that identifies the interest of capitalists in the general interest, only emerges from the second half of the nineteenth century. e century. As for the famous "invisible hand," Daniel Diatkine refutes the usual interpretation that Adam Smith believed in the self-regulation of markets for the great benefit of all. "The invisible hand," says the historian, who cites notably "The History of Astronomy" of the Scottish thinker, refers to "the unexpected beneficial consequences of human actions."
The refutation of Adam Smith's economic pseudo-liberalism is not the main object of Daniel Diatkine's work. It offers a less traditional reading of the Scottish philosopher and economist. Instead of enlightening the work of the latter in the light of those of the economists who preceded it, it is part of the approach of other historians of ideas who have "sought above all to reconstruct the philosophical questions" to which the author of the "Theory of Moral Sentiments" and the "Wealth of Nations" responds. The historian is interested in the philosophical debate of the time and the exchanges that Smith has with other thinkers, first and foremost David Hume, whom he is close to.
Daniel Diatkine notes that Smith thus shares with the latter the idea that law and institutions are "human productions (which) can and must be explained". For David Hume, they serve to "channel greed, the only" immediately destructive passion of society ". Adam Smith will go some way further, says the academic, showing that the law and institutions are "the products of the history of societies" and leaving "the field of morality to enter that of the economy and politics ". To "greed" Hume, Smith substitutes the economic process of "the accumulation of capital."
With the "Wealth of nations," Daniel Diatkine points out, Adam Smith shows that capitalism is the fruit of a historical process. "The alliances between princes and urban bourgeoisies, united by their common struggle against local seigneuries" led to the advent of "commercial society" and the emergence of a political system, the "mercantile system".
In his book, the author also demonstrates that Adam Smith is not only the discoverer of capitalism, but that he is also probably the first critic. He recalls that "capitalism implies, according to Smith, a society made up of social classes". There are three of them (the class of merchants, that is, the capitalists, the landlords, who live on rent, and the class of the workers) and have different interests.
In this context, the Scottish thinker reproaches the "legislators", that is to say the government, their "partiality", fruit of the connivance between prince and urban bourgeoisie at the origin of the "mercantile system". Adam Smith thus considers capitalism as "unfair", not, Daniel Diatkine explains, because he distributes wealth unequally, but by "confusing the interest of a social class (that of merchants and manufacturers) with the general interest ".
Adam Smith points out the deleterious effects of this confusion. The defense of commercial interests has led to the establishment of a colonial empire, the maintenance of which generates a permanent state of war that proves expensive and absorbs a significant portion of wealth. But above all, Daniel Diatkine argues, Adam Smith is worried that the "Constitution" resulting from the revolution of 1688 which consecrates the advent of the parliamentary monarchy will suffer the same fate as the Roman Constitution of which it is close. As if the extension of the colonial empire of Britain could drag it into tyranny in the way that the Roman Empire had brought about the end of the Republic.