The “Wisdom of the State”: Adam Smith on China and Tartary

RYAN PATRICK HANLEY
AMERICAN POLITICAL SCIENCE REVIEW 108.2 (2014): 371-382

Abstract: Adam Smith’s engagement with China and Tartary is a central yet underappreciated element of his economic and political thought. This article reconstructs this engagement and demonstrates its broader significance, arguing that it focuses on three themes: the economic institutions that promote domestic growth in a manner that alleviates the material conditions of the poorest, the social and political conditions that minimize the dependence of the poor on the wealthy, and the ethical values and civic institutions that guarantee the existential survival of the state. This treatment is significant for three reasons: It offers useful insight into the contested issue of Smith’s conception of legitimate state action; it clarifies Smith’s vision of a commercial order that promotes human dignity; and it reveals the depth of his participation in a specific contextual debate.