A Small Caveat About the Fine Harriman House Edition of Wealth Of Nations
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Recently, I advised readers about a new 656 page edition of Adam Smith’s Wealth Of Nations from Harriman House, UK, at the fine price of GBP19.99. My copy arrived today and in production terms it is excellent. It would make a fine one-volume present to initiate anyone about to start an economics course in October (northern hemisphere) or in March (Southern hemisphere), or for private reference.
It is based on the famous Edwin Canaan New York edition of 1937 , though it has dropped his interesting and well researched footnotes, more’s the pity. Canaan’s notes explain references, occasionally correct slight errors in Smith’s text, and generally add a good deal of insightful editorial comment. Nevertheless the book is well worth the low price.
Should you be used to reading the Glasgow edition from Oxford University Press (and the Liberty Fund edition), as most scholars are, you can find your way through the Harriman House version of Canaan’s edition by using the ‘Table of Corresponding Passages’ at pages 980-1055 in volume II of the Glasgow Edition.
However, I must make a critical comment of the Introduction by Jonathan B. Wight (University of Richmond), where he is Professor of Economics and International Economics and author of a forthcoming article: ‘The Treatment of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand’ in the Journal of Economic Education.
In a section headed ‘The Invisible Hand’ he writes:
‘One of Smith’s main contributions to economic theory is the concept of the invisible hand. He borrowed the phrase from Shakespeare, Daniel Defoe and others, but used the term sparingly – once in Moral Sentiments, once in Wealth Of nations, and once in an earlier essay. However, the idea behind the invisible hand appears throughout his works, namely, that there are hidden forces at work in human society (just as gravity and electricity work invisibly in the material world).’
There is much more in a similar vein, such as his equating the invisible hand to ‘human instincts’, analogously to the ‘instincts of birds when building a nest’, and require asserts the hands need supportive institutional settings, even in some people’s views, of a ‘benevolent deity’.
Professor Wight integrates his open acceptance that not all instincts of the kind he is interested in are sometimes other than ‘destructive’ in the ‘wrong institutional setting’. Now that’s interesting. If everything boils down to the ‘institutional setting’ what does the invisible hand amount to?
I could go on, but Lost Legacy has had plenty to say about the metaphor of the ‘invisible hand’ (check the archives) and will continue to say more too. I find Professor Jonathan B. Wight unconvincing on this subject.
He spoils, in my modest view, a good edition of Wealth Of Nations with this small part of his introduction. I shall look forward to his forthcoming article in the Journal of Economic Education, if I can access a copy.
In the meantime, if your are interested in reading my recent paper : ‘Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand: from metaphor to myth’, email me at negwebDoTcom,with with ‘gavin’ as the preface in the usual form of address, and I’ll send an electronic file of the paper I presented at the 34th annual conference of the History of Economics Society in June in Fairfax, Virginia at GMU.