Risk and Trouble: Adam Smith on Profit and the Protagonists of Capitalism

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To better account for deepening global inequalities, political theory could greatly enhance empirical and normative work by answering a fundamental question: What is profit? When engaging political-economic questions, however, theorists often begin thinking from the concept of private property. This, I argue, has obscured the central role of profit as an organizing category for capitalist societies since the eighteenth century. Grounded in the dynamic and uncertain processes of production and accumulation, profit displaces the proprietary citizen and subject of natural rights and gives rise to new social protagonists, who lay claim to increasingly asymmetric rewards. In particular, the article calls attention to a dangerous contemporary sensibility, which sees profit as inherently unlimited. As a viable, robust alternative, it presents Adam Smith's idea of profit as a regular, uniform rate that acts as a productive constraint on business activity, shapes character, and safeguards against risk by widely distributing its costs.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)166-179
Number of pages14
JournalAmerican Journal of Political Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2021
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
©2020, Midwest Political Science Association

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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