Thursday, March 15, 2007

Adam Smith’s Ideas as They Were Intended by Adam Smith

Visitors to university student associations come in all formats and their variety is part of student life. Some are passing politicians, some are ‘heavy hitters’ from Parliament, many are just, well, politicians, a few are 'nutters'.

The Birmingham University Conservative Forum had a remarkable visitor this week in the person of Dr Madsen Pirie, President of the Adam Smith Institute, who gave a talk on Adam Smith (who else?) that in my view, judging from the reports of the talk, ‘told it like it is’, and presented the authentic voice of the man in terms that were both arresting (the kind that makes you sit up and take notice) and authoritative. His audience may not realise it, but their speaker gave an exceptionally gifted summary of what Adam Smith stood for.

Consider this account from the BUCF Blog:

“The President of the Adam Smith Institute, Dr Madsen Pirie, visited both CF and Adam Smith Society members yesterday to tell us how the father of modern economics, Adam Smith, conquered the world. Unlike Alexander and Julius Caesar, who’s empires fell, Adam Smith’s empire was not advanced by the use of armed force but by ideas. Smith’s legions were not composed of men and armour, but of the self interest, competition, the division of labour and of wealth creation. These have produced something quite rare in human history; simply, wealth. Poverty is the norm, wealth is the exception, and Smith in his Wealth of Nations observes how it’s done. And his ideas are just a real now as they were 231 years ago. Madsen went on to bust a few fallacies, including the argument that countries like Britain have a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth, and that rich countries make other countries poor. He also contested how much good Fair Trade does accept for making certain individuals feel more virtuous.”

[Read it for yourself at:]

To which Dr Masen Pirie added a couple of paragraphs on the ASI’s Blog:

Among Smith's crucial ideas is that the market is not preconceived and directed, but the spontaneous product of human actions. It is self adjusting and self-correcting. Famously, Smith understood that a rational and legitimate self-interest can lead us to provide goods and services of value to others. We might not make this our first motive, but it is what happens.

I was careful to give prominence to Smith's notion in his Theory of Moral Sentiments that the most striking human characteristic is our capacity to empathize with each other. Far from being selfish, our trade with each other is an exercise in co-operation to mutual advantage. Finally I made the point that Smith's empire has been benign, and lifted much of humanity clear of the old adversaries of hunger and disease. Smith's own life might have been uneventful, and the man himself modest; but he conquered the world.”

[Read Dr Pirie at:

I think you may agree that this uses a striking contrast to emphasise the originality and uniqueness of Adam Smith. Compared to Julius Caesar, himself a major influence in European politics towards the end of the Roman republic, Smith brought a simple message of the power of Perfect Liberty (in Natural Rights, not in laissez-faire). Caesar left a million or more dead after his invasion of Gaul, and sent a million more into slavery; Smith’s ideas penetrated the world’s economies, and helped to free millions from destitution, and he stood against slavery and Wilberforce quoted Wealth of Nations(though Smith was pessimistic privately of its abolition ever being voluntarily achieved, which is often quoted by opponents of abolition, thus conceding the moral ground to Smith).

[I should declare that I have never spoken or met with Dr Pirie and only know of him from reading his Blog; hence the above is not a 'friendly' plug.]


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