March 05, 2013

Enlightenment Economics and the US constitution

What did the writers of the US constitution think about the major issues of economic policy? The question has a vital political importance in America because it is tied to an argument about the legitimate sources of law. Some judges and scholars argue that the original writers' interpretation of the text that they wrote must take precedence over any later interpretation: consequently they argue Americans should refer to the past in thinking about their institutions. I'm not interested in that argument today. What I am interested in is another argument- which is what did the writers of the constitution actually think about economics. 

Renee Lettow Lerner has written an exceedingly short article in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy on exactly this issue. She basically argues that in the eighteenth century Europeans in general were moving from one theory of economics- in which national wealth was crucial and mercantilism was axiomatic- to another in which the free market promoted the wealth of all. She sees Adam Smith as the crucial influence in this movement and argues that British power rested on a swift adaptation of Smith's ideas. Furthermore she suggests that the framers of the US constitution came to their task with a copy of Smith in one hand and a draft in the other. She argues that luckily Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were away from Philadelphia and consequently the framers were able to draft a Smithian document. 

Professor Lerner's characterisation of European history is a caricature at the least. There were plenty of people in Europe in 1800 who did not believe in the free market- plenty who held to Rousseauian ideals of Republican liberty as opposed to Smith's view of a self sustaining market. This caricature is not the centre of her argument though: that revolves around the individuals at Philadelphia. It is significant that Professor Lettow cites almost no historians of the political thought of the period- no John Pocock, no Bernard Bailyn, no Gordon Wood. Although she derides Jefferson as an agrarian, she fails to mention that many of his attitudes were shared by others at the convention: James Maddison for example derided paper money and despaired of easy credit. For many Americans, Machiavelli and Cicero were as key to the revolution as Locke and Hobbes.

Professor Lerner's views are obviously part of a current legal argument- and in that argument I have no stake. However there is a historical question as well as a legal question at the heart of this argument. The historical question is did the people who framed and the people who ratified the US constitution (the people who granted it authority were those who ratified it, not those who framed it!)- did those people believe universally in the economics of Adam Smith. Given that so many of them believed in a different kind of economics and elected an agrarian (to use Lerner's words- I would prefer Republican) Thomas Jefferson as President 13 years later- I think that case is uncertain to say the least.


edmund said...

It'a pretty / very bad article though to be fair she does use McDonald whose probably the world expert on the political thought of the Framers .I'd also say agarian is quite a good term because it cuts more closely to Jeffersonians economic Ironically some of the best argument for some of her constitutional position can be based on historical realities she glosses over e.g there's good arguments that control of trade was given to the federal government precisely because of the power of 'mercantalism' - it allowed barginiang with the Uk , France etc. s. To further bash the . also disagree it's really short it seems a bit padded to me not least the rant for 2 pages at the end on contemporary politics. If you want a much more sophisiticated set of arguments along these lines read Epstein-who actually trys to deal with the ways the Framers and amenders were not classical liberals.