Two Theories of Economic Liberalism

The Adam Smith Review 10:189-214 (2017)
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Within the Anglo-American world, economic liberalism is generally viewed as having only one progenitor—Adam Smith—and one offspring—neoliberalism. But it actually has two. The work of G. W. F. Hegel was also very influential on the development of economic liberalism, at least in the German-speaking world, and the most powerful contemporary instantiation of economic liberalism within that world is not neoliberlaism, but ordoliberalism, although this is generally unknown and certainly unacknowledged outside of Continental Europe. Accordingly, what I am going to be doing in this piece is trying to bring ordoliberalism more directly into the light—I will argue that by comparing and contrasting the views of Smith and Hegel or at least between how Smith and Hegel tend to be currently (mis)understood, we can better understand both the roots and the nature of these two contemporary incarnations of economic liberalism, and the light this sheds, in turn, brings some interesting and important features of these two contemporary theories into view. From Smith, for example, neoliberals took the idea of the invisible hand, although I am going to argue that contemporary advocates of invisible hand theory have largely misconstrued or at the very least overstated the significance of this metaphor. From Hegel, in contrast, ordoliberals took the idea of the civil society, and I will argue that the civil society is a much better metaphor not only for Hegel's but also for Smith's views. Indeed, I will argue that ordoliberalism, not neoliberalism, is a better and more coherent instantiation of economic liberalism than neoliberalism could ever be.
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