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Abstract

Adam Smith is generally viewed as a great optimist about commerce and commercialism. Consistent with this assessment is the conventional view that Smith believed in progress: he had an optimistic view of history. On the other hand, occasionally over the last thirty years commentators, such as Heilbroner, have suggested that Smith actually had a very pessimistic view of history and the prospects of commercial society. Can we explain Smith's apparent inconsistencies? One solution is that Smith "changed his mind" during his lifetime. Another suggestion, proposed by Muller, is that Heilbroner (and others holding similar views) failed to understand Smith's rhetoric. Muller is correct in suggesting that there is exaggeration in some of Smith's pessimistic statements. Nevertheless, Smith's vision has a darker tincture than Muller acknowledges: much of Smith's pessimism about commercial society remains a reality which cannot be neatly explained away as "rhetoric."

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