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The Paradox of Progress: Decline and Decay in the Wealth of Nations

by Robert L Heilbroner
Journal of the History of Ideas ()


Adam smith's "wealth of nations" contains an unexamined paradox. The economic growth model terminates in long-Run decline. The existential condition of the workers is shown to deteriorate in a system of "perfect liberty". Thus, The economic tendencies of the model cannot be "justified" in terms of social improvement, And the social degradation of the working class cannot be justified in terms of long run economic improvement. This contradiction arises from the constricted vision of the enlightenment with respect to the limits of social change.

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