The first American edition of the Wealth of Nations, printed by Thomas Dobson in Philadelphia, 1789.

The first American edition of the Wealth of Nations, printed by Thomas Dobson in Philadelphia, 1789.

Book Project: Inventing the Invisible Hand: Adam Smith in American Thought and Politics, 1776 - Present

Adam Smith is best known as the "father of economics," and his ideas--especially "self-interest" and "the invisible hand"--are often associated with American neoliberalism and conservative economics.  Decades of revisionist scholarship has largely overturned this narrow, often politicized image of Smith by demonstrating how his moral philosophy and jurisprudence  in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and Lectures on Jurisprudence were formative to his economics in The Wealth of Nations.  However, few scholars have asked how and why this popular caricature of Smith arose in the first place.  

This book combines extensive archival research, historical, and contemporary sources to how Smith's ideas were read, taught, and politically appropriated in America from the eighteenth century to today. Broadly speaking, this book shows how the idea of Adam Smith as the “father of economics” and icon of a familiar political creed centered on rational self-interest and the power of free markets is an historical invention. More specifically, I show how substantive claims about Smith’s contribution, legacy, and importance are the products of continual contestation, shaped by the political demands of national identity formation, policy making, and intellectual legitimation throughout history.

The economist George Stigler. Photo courtesy of Stephen Stigler.

The economist George Stigler. Photo courtesy of Stephen Stigler.

“Rethinking the Chicago Smith Problem: Adam Smith and the Chicago School, 1929-1980” Modern Intellectual History.

Repudiating interpretations of Smith “as if he were a co-conspirer of Chicago-style thinking,” and attempting to “free [him] from a ‘reputation’ as a Chicago-style economics professor avant la lettre” continues to fuel much of revisionist Smith scholarship. This article challenges the idea that the “Chicago Smith” is simply a misinterpretation of Smith’s ideas.  To that end, it reexamines the role that the Chicago School of economics played in developing and propounding a distinct vision of Adam Smith, not only within the profession of economics, but also for the broader American public in the twentieth century.  My claim is that the readings, teachings, and interpretations of Smith from Chicago economists across different generations amount to more than just superficial symbolism, claims of intellectual authority, or rhetorical window-dressing.  Rather, Chicago’s engagement with Smith’s ideas constitute important interpretative and substantive arguments about the essence of Smith’s contribution to economics and the role that Smith’s ideas could play in shaping public policy. 

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"'The Apostle of Free Trade:' Adam Smith and the nineteenth-century American Trade Debates. History of European Ideas vol. 44 no. 2 (2018), 210-223. 

This paper examines the diversity of uses of Adam Smith’s ideas in nineteenth-century American debates about the tariff.  Legislative debates about American trade policy ran almost uninterrupted from the 1820s to the end of the century; as a result, they provide an abundance of examples of the ways in which legislators marshaled economic ideas to shape political discourse and influence policy. Smith’s causal ideas about free trade and its effects were referenced in policymaking, and Smith’s intellectual authority was often invoked as a legitimating device for partisan ideology.  These uses, I argue, contributed to the sloganizing of Smith as the “apostle of free trade” and his enduring popularity as a political icon in American politics.


"Deriving 'General Principles' in Adam Smith: The ubiquity of equilibrium and comparative statics analysis throughout his works" (With Barry Weingast) Forthcoming-- The Adam Smith Review, vol. 12. 

This paper contributes to the debate over the unity in Smith's corpus by emphasizing his pervasive use of an analytic method. Specifically, Smith consistently relies on equilibrium arguments to explain why a given pattern of economic, political, or social interaction is stable; and comparative static arguments to explain how a stable pattern changes. Our paper focuses on several examples central to his work: the political economics of development in the Wealth of Nations and the Lectures on Jurisprudence; the learning and of and adherence to moral norms in the Theory of Moral Sentiments; and the development and evolution of language in Smith’s essay on the “First Formation of Languages.” We argue that Smith’s analysis of patterns of central tendencies and “general rules”—equilibria—and the conditions under which those rules change are defining features of his “science of man.”  Not only do they anticipate analytic modes in modern social science, Smith’s use of equilibrium and comparative statics arguments demonstrates how his approach to social science was exportable and applicable to many realms of human behavior beyond economics.

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Working Paper: "Economic Ideas and Trade Policy." (with Judith Goldstein and Robert Gulotty)

This paper examines the conditions under which certain frameworks for understanding the nature of trade become salient in politics.   Using computer-assisted natural language processing techniques, we analyze a large corpus of "texts"--over half a million Congressional floor speeches directly related to trade and tariffs--across three key periods: 1870-1900, 1947-1960, and 1979-1991.  Our findings suggest that the overwhelming majority of political discourse about trade falls into at least one of our three ideational frames: a market efficiency frame, a distributional frame, or an international competition frame.  The changing weight of these frames over time illustrates how policy changes (i.e., towards greater trade liberalization) are not wholesale switches from policy to the other, but the result of the gradual adoption of one frame over time. 


Working Paper: "What's the Matter with 'Inequality?' Evidence from Survey Experiments." 

The notion that Americans are highly tolerant of inequality, or that their preferences for redistribution are ill-informed, ambivalent, or contradictory has gained longstanding acceptance in public opinion research.  This paper challenges standing notions of American public opinion on inequality and fairness by contending that Americans do care about inequality, but often for reasons that are not necessarily egalitarian in nature.  I leverage the conceptual work done by normative political theorists to distill and disentangle several objections to inequality that find their grounding in distinct moral values: a sufficientarian objection (people at the bottom of a distribution have too little), a limitarian objection (people at the top have too much), and what I call an opportunitarian objection (there is not enough opportunity for upward mobility).

To evaluate these claims empirically, I employ two different experimental designs to study public perceptions of inequality and fairness.  Both experiments enable us to evaluate the independent effects of different features of inequality---the position of those at the bottom, the position of those at the top,  the distance between the two, and the chance of upward mobility--- and their relation to fairness.  My findings suggest that the primary dimensions on which Americans form their views about inequality are less egalitarian in nature, and more sufficientarian and opportunitarian in nature.  In other words, what many Americans believe is wrong with inequality is not that it is unfair for some people to have more than others; rather, what is unfair about inequality is that some people have too little, or they don't have the opportunity to move up in society.