Adam Smith and the idea of free government

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This article reconstructs Adam Smith’s contribution to the conversation on the nature and value of free government in the eighteenth century. Smith contributes to this conversation in two ways. First, by embedding the idea of free government in a narrative of the progress of government, which traces the interplay between natural progress and social circumstances, and culminates in the establishment of modern free government in Britain. Second, by offering a theory of the form of free government fit for modern commercial states. Drawing on the “rational system of liberty” established in Britain, the Smithian model of free government is based on a “happy mixture” of republicanism and monarchism. Looking beyond the rational system, it merges the traditional concern for constitutional security against arbitrary power with a new science of policy intended to moderate the oppressive inclinations of legislators. The article contests Duncan Forbes’ reading of Smith as questioning the relation between individual liberty and free government, and brings Smith closer to Quentin Skinner’s work on the neo-Roman understanding of liberty. It suggests that Smith’s work may offer insight into some of the ways in which neo-Roman ideas were being creatively reformulated in the eighteenth century.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)691-707
Number of pages17
JournalIntellectual History Review
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2022


  • Adam Smith
  • Skinner
  • liberty
  • neo-Roman
  • republicanism

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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