Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Eric MacGilvray's "The Invention of Market Freedom"

Eric MacGilvray is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Ohio State University. His first book, Reconstructing Public Reason, draws on the pragmatic theory of justification to explore the problem of political legitimacy in pluralistic societies.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Invention of Market Freedom, and reported the following:
Page 99 is the midpoint of The Invention of Market Freedom, coming halfway through the third and central chapter. The aim of this chapter, called "The Rise of Commerce," is to show how the language of freedom that was handed down from classical antiquity was used both to challenge and to celebrate the emergence of commercial societies in the early modern period.

The classical republicans associated freedom with the possession of a certain social status — above all, with not being a slave — and with the display of the kind of character, the virtue, that was expected from people holding that status. Markets, of course, are supposed to be blind to status distinctions, and the acquisitive habits of homo oeconomicus are anathema to the kind of virtue that was traditionally expected of the free man. And so we find that the classical language of freedom was used to oppose the rise of commerce, most notably (or at least most radically) by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

However, the language of freedom is now so closely associated with the market that the phrase "free market" sounds almost redundant to our ears. The aim of the book is to show how this reversal of usage came about. In chapter 3 we find that the early defenders of market society, thinkers such as Charles de Montesquieu, David Hume (both of whom make an appearance on page 99) and of course Adam Smith, were as indebted as Rousseau was to classical republican ideas about freedom, and that they used those ideas to develop a republican defense of commercial society — a defense that became one of the main building blocks of the market conception of freedom that's now so familiar.

Page 99 itself is a little unusual in that most of the words on it aren't mine. I've already mentioned that Montesquieu and Hume are quoted there, but I'll close with a passage from a less familiar figure: Alexander Carlyle, a Scottish churchman and friend of Hume and Smith, whose letter to the Duke of Buccleugh (1778) provides one of the earliest critical reactions to Smith's seminal book The Wealth of Nations (1776). "It is surely better," Carlyle writes, "to be a little less rich and commercial, than by ceasing to be men, to endanger our existence as a nation." He goes on to warn his fellow Scots that they must "guard with jealous vigilance the constitution of our country, lest, like the greatest empire that ever was, that of the Romans in their decadency, we become so luxurious or effeminate, as to leave the use of arms to strangers and mercenaries."

Carlyle's letter captures well the hopes and anxieties that were associated with the rise of commerce, and it's a mark of how important the debate in which he was engaged turned out to be that his hopes and anxieties are very much our own.
Learn more about The Invention of Market Freedom at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue