Saturday, March 17, 2007

Department of A Breath of Fresh Air: read this lively piece on Adam Smith

If you read nothing else this week-end I recommend you to read a newspaper article on Adam Smith, warts and all, in Saturday’s ‘Herald’ (Glasgow), entitled “Adam Smith is worth £20 of anyone’s money”.

No, its not a eulogy, and no, I wouldn’t have written it in the style adopted by its author, Ian Bell (and no, I don’t know anything about him), but it is written in a splendid voice so different from the average newspaper article written by space-fillers that pass for serious journalists nowadays.

Here’s a sample (sorry it’s almost all I may risk because the proprietors of The Herald have stuck a serious copyright notice on the piece (‘© All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited’), suggesting the early attentions of Messrs. McSue & Partners, should they catch any transgressors:

Adam Smith had big teeth and bad French. He never used the words laissez faire and he never made a bundle playing stocks. When he talked of the "invisible hand" of the ineffable global market he was being ironic, even "witty". He thought he was a philosopher, not a share-picker, and he would have blanched at our private equity pirates.

The fatherless son of Fife wanted government off people's backs. That's true. In the eighteenth century he threw the word "liberty" around with the best of them. The idea that the state could ensure anyone's prosperity by fixing the trade rules, or fiddling with the tax tables, made him angry. Businessmen - transnationals, please note - who used their muscle to ensure that government performed precisely this counterproductive trick made him angrier still. Smith said they were wasting everyone's time

The style is a bit like O’Rourke’s recent book on Adam Smith, but Ian Bell gets closer to the real Adam Smith from Kirkcaldy than does the cardboard imitation imagined in Chicago and taught across the world to unsuspecting students who go on to teach the same version to upcoming generations.

I would prefer readers new to Adam Smith to start with Ian Bell’s short article than what is usually on offer from some serious scholars who leave a lot to be desired in the department of historical accuracy.

[Read Ian Bell's piece at:]


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