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Does “Bettering Our Condition” Really Make Us Better Off? Adam Smith on Progress and Happiness

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 August 2006

DENNIS C. RASMUSSEN
Affiliation:
Bowdoin College

Abstract

Adam Smith is almost certainly history's most famous advocate of commercial society, but he frankly admits that the relentless pursuit of wealth is a major obstacle to tranquility and contentment and hence that, at first glance, the higher living standards that people “enjoy” in commercial society seem to come only at the cost of their happiness. I argue that the solution to this apparent paradox can be found in Smith's account of the positive political effects of commerce: dependence and insecurity are the chief obstacles to happiness and have been the hallmarks of most of human history, and so the alleviation of these ills in commercial society constitutes a great step forward. Money really cannot buy happiness, but the liberty and security that commercial societies tend to provide help to assuage the greatest sources of misery.

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© 2006 by the American Political Science Association

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