Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2003
  • Online publication date: September 2009

4 - Passions, interests, and society


The power and sagacity as well as labor and care of the politician in civilizing the society has been nowhere more conspicuous than in the happy contrivance of playing our passions against one another.

Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees (1732)

A peculiar feature of Adam Smith's thought is the absence of the political argument in support of capitalism that Montesquieu in France and Sir James Steuart in England had expressed most forcefully: the idea that the development of commerce was the most effective safeguard against arbitrary and despotic government. The “Montesquieu–Steuart doctrine,” as Hisrchman calls it, consisted essentially in saying that motives of self-interest would restrain the behavior of rulers who would otherwise succumb to their passions (lust for power, vanity, greed, etc.) and seek to govern tyrannically. Adam Smith, instead of arguing that interests can usefully be pitted against passions, seems to erase the distinction between passions and interests.Understanding the reasons why Smith chose not to adopt the Montesquieu–Steuart doctrine is an essential aspect of understanding the genealogy of economic science.


The Montesquieu–Steuart doctrine combines two intellectual traditions: reason of State theory and the Augustinian principle of countervailing passions. Reason of State theory provides the notion that self-interest is a reliable rule of conduct. The countervailing passions principle states that passions can be checked by other passions or even check themselves.