Sunday, July 08, 2007

Good Review from Stuart Kelly of O'Rourke's Book on Adam Smith

Stuart Kelly writes a review of P. J. O’Rourke’s recent book on Adam Smith’s Wealth Of Nations (reviewed on Lost Legacy, Atlantic Books, £14.99) in Scotland On Sunday (Edinburgh) (8 July), “Helping with inquiries”.

It is a lively review, well written and measured. I agree with much of it because Stuart Kelly correctly describes Adam Smith in words I could use myself. However, his opening paragraph could be confusing as Stuart correctly uses the Scottish phrase ‘son of the manse’ (a person who’s father was a Church Minister and lived in the Church’s house – the manse) in reference to Gordon Brown, Britain’s new Prime Minister, who’s father was the Kirkcaldy Church of Scotland Minister.

But Adam Smith was not from the Manse, but the son of a solicitor/lawyer and ‘Writer to the Signet’ (a Scottish legal status), and, latterly, from 1714, a Comptroller of Customs at Kirkcaldy (details are from the excellent and definitive, The Life of Adam Smith, 1995, Oxford University Press, by Ian Ross).

Stuart writes:

A son of the manse from Kirkcaldy, with a reputation for prudence and a rigorously philosophical approach, who believed that trade could eradicate slavery and reconcile nations... no, it's not our new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, but Adam Smith, a true scion of the Scottish Enlightenment and the founder of modern economics.”

O'Rourke summarises the central aspects of Smith's thinking neatly. As Smith said, "consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production". … Smith never uses the word "capitalism" (it came about 64 years after his death), or "libertarian" (130 years later). He never saw the Industrial Revolution, or the Service Sector or the Knowledge Economy.

Well, he makes a fine fist of it. First and foremost, O'Rourke grasps one fundamental thing about Smith's magnum opus: the importance of its title. Usually abbreviated, its full title is An Inquiry Into The Nature And Causes Of The Wealth of Nations. The key word is inquiry. It wasn't a Theory of, or a Last Word on, or a Dogmatic Manifesto about. Like any good Enlightenment thinker, Smith circled his topic.

O'Rourke is blessed by Smith's failure to be prophetic. Since he didn't have the word "capitalist", he used "a system of perfect liberty" as not a synonym, but an aspiration. Who'd quibble with flawless freedom? Smith. "To expect... that the freedom of trade should ever be entirely restored in Great Britain is to expect an Oceana or Utopia should ever be established in it."

Overall, however, this is a judicious, finely written book. O'Rourke writes especially well about the connections between Wealth Of Nations and Smith's prior work, The Theory Of Moral Sentiments. His precis is precise: in Moral Sentiments Smith urged us to love our neighbour as ourselves; in Wealth Of Nations he urged us to love ourselves. Or, as in his most famous quote: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

In this last paragraph O’Rourke (not Stuart Kelly – the messenger) spoils what was until then a pretty good summary of Smith’s work. O’Rourke’s presentation of Smith’s ideas on the last topic is glib, silly and absolutely wrong. But, what’s a paragraph too bad and too far, in an article that Lost Legacy would publish if I that business.


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