Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Very Best Short Summary of Adam Smith's Life and Work (Longish Post)

Chris Berry, Professor of Political Theory at University of Glasgow is a leading expert on the life and work of one of the University of Glasgow's most famous academics, Adam Smith.

He has created a 10 minute talk (HERE), published by the University of Glasgow, that describes the making of the man, the global significance of his writing and explains why Smith's work still resonates with us today:

Adam Smith was born in Kirkcaldy in 1723. He entered Glasgow University at the early - but for the time not unusual - age of fourteen.

He studied logic, metaphysics, maths and later Newtonian physics and moral philosophy under some of the leading scholars of the day. In 1740 Smith was awarded a Snell Scholarship (which is still in existence today) to study at Balliol College, Oxford. Smith preferred Glasgow, however, because Oxford’s curriculum was antiquated and he thought the teachers were lazy since, in contrast to Glasgow, their salary did not depend on the number of students taught.

After a period of freelance lecturing, Smith returned to Glasgow University, first as Professor of Logic in 1751 and then a year later as Professor of Moral Philosophy, a post he held until he left academia in 1764.

The mid-eighteenth century saw a period of intense intellectual activity, known as the Scottish Enlightenment. Universities were key players in this outburst of enquiry, with Glasgow a major force. Smith himself is of course the figure of overwhelming historical significance. But he was not alone. Smith’s fellow professoriate included pioneering chemists William Cullen and Joseph Black, as well as engineer and inventor James Watt who also worked at the University). Another historically important figure is a pupil of Smith’s, John Millar. Who became Professor of Jurisprudence and the author of a key work in what we would call historical sociology.

The seeds of Smith's two great books were sown in his professorial years. The Theory of Moral Sentiments appeared in 1759 and drew on his lectures. It went through six editions in his lifetime. Smith’s intellectual range as a lecturer was extensive. Beyond courses in philosophy and jurisprudence he also discussed history, literature and language. He maintained his interest in science and wrote an essay on the history of astronomy. This is notable not only for the breadth of Smith’s knowledge but also as an attempt to link the development of different astronomical accounts to a basic human propensity to seek order.

Although his second great book the Wealth of Nations was published in 1776 we know that he had already considered many of its leading themes at Glasgow as he lectured on as he put it: 'those arts which contribute to subsistence, and to the accumulation of property, in producing correspondent movements or alterations in law and government'. In 1787 Smith was elected Rector of the University and in a letter of thanks remarked that he remembered is professorial days as 'by far the most useful and therefore as by far the happiest and most honourable period of my life'.
If Smith of popular repute is the ‘father of capitalism’, the advocate of ‘market forces’, the enemy of government regulation and believer in something called the ‘invisible hand’ to produce optimum economic outcomes then he would be a disappointed parent. All his work is deeply steeped in moral philosophy. Indeed the simple fact that the final edition of the Moral Sentiments containing extensive revisions appeared in 1790, the year of his death, tells us is that Smith’s commitment to the moral point of view endured alongside and beyond the publication of the Wealth of Nations.

The Moral Sentiments is a leading example of a particular approach to moral philosophy – one that regards it not as sets of rationally or Divine ordained prescriptions but as the interaction of human feelings, emotions or sentiments in the real settings of human life. In many ways it is a book of social and moral psychology. What we can call economic behaviour is necessarily situated in a moral context. But more than that the key theme of the book is an opposition to the view that all morality or virtue is reducible to self-interest. Indeed his opening sentence declares that everyday human experience proves that false, he writes: "How selfish soever a man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derive nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it".
Our morality is founded on certain truths about human nature. Everyone is capable of sympathy, or fellow-feeling, and that ability enables us to imagine what we would feel if we were in the situation of another and, once we have made that imaginative move, we can then judge whether those feelings are appropriate. We have to learn about ‘situations’ but Smith believes that happens because humans are social creatures.

Smith illustrates the natural fact of human sociality by likening society to a mirror. It is this responsiveness to others - pleasure in their approval, pain in their disapproval - that Smith used to explain why the rich parade their wealth while the poor hide their poverty. The rich value their possessions more for the esteem they bring than any use they get from them and it is this disposition to "go along with the passions of the rich and powerful" that establishes the foundation for distinctions of status. And it is this desire for esteem that explains the incentive, we all possess, to better our condition. This is one of the links between the Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of Nations. In many ways the moral interactions Smith describes in Moral Sentiments bear on the practices that characterise his contemporary commercial society. The very complexity of that society meant that the bulk of inter-personal dealings were with strangers.

A ‘society of strangers’ is a commercial society which Smith identifies in the Wealth of Nations as one where 'everyman is a merchant'. A commercial society's coherence - its social bonds - do not depend on love and affection. You can coexist socially with those to whom you are emotionally indifferent. As Smith famously said:

“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. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chuses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens”

Nothing in this means that Smith is denying the virtuousness of benevolence. When Smith came to write the Wealth of Nations he made it clear that the ‘wealth’ lay in the well-being of the people. This covered not only their material prosperity but also their moral welfare. Accordingly he thought to be in poverty is to be in a miserable condition and commerce is to be praised for improving human life.
The great achievement of the Wealth of Nations was to discern the principles of order in the seeming chaos of commercial or market behaviour – it wasn’t random, it could be reduced to some simple principles. It was for this reason that Smith was described as the Newton of political economy. It is no idle fact that the full title is Inquiry into Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

He identifies basic principles such as the human propensity to ‘truck, barter and exchange’ that he argues underlies the division of labour but says that this depends on a market and that requires some institutional structures like those that uphold justice such as government and how that in turn mutually relies on principles of public finance.

All of this is placed by Smith into a historical narrative. In his Glasgow lectures he had outlined an account of four stages of social organisation focused around the characteristic form of economic endeavour – hunter-gatherer, herder, farmer, commerce - and in the Wealth of Nations he gives a set-piece account of the transition from the farming to commerce. This process of social change was not brought about by deliberate human policy. This fact reveals for Smith a general truth about social life, namely, that it is pervaded by unintended consequences. This supports the widely-held view of Smith as an opponent of attempts to direct ‘the market’ but, in fact, what he really opposes is the attempt to direct individual’s activities, their ‘natural liberty’ to pursue their own ends in their own way. This is itself a ‘moral’ position and Smith never abandons that perspective.
In the opening chapters of the Wealth of Nations, he celebrates the productiveness of the division of labour with the example of pin-makers but later notes that those whose lives were spent performing a "few simple operations" were rendered "stupid and ignorant" and were incapable of "forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life". The 'morality' into which these individuals are socialised is defective; the 'mirror' in which they see themselves reflects back to them to their "mutilated" condition. This is the probable course of events, says Smith, unless "the public" takes remedial steps by instituting a subsidised system of elementary schooling. This example clearly illustrates how Smith's social and moral theories cannot be fully understood in isolation and must be seen as a whole.
Adam Smith’s legacy has had global impact and it is fitting that the work of a world-historical figure was forged in this world-class University.”

This short article is a measure of the quality Professor Chris Berry’s intellect and balance. He is without doubt the clearest scholar writing on Adam Smith today. He covers all of Smith’s scholarly range and shows its continuity and cross-linkages. What a breath of fresh-air is in Chris Berry's treatment of the "invisible hand"!

Professor Berry is the director of the Adam Smith Research Foundation at Glasgow University, which aims to promote and sustain research within the UK, European and international arenas. The Foundation promotes the engagement of staff in key policy debates and in shaping policy for the future. It provides the environment in which to foster further links between the Faculty's disciplines and supports the development of interdisciplinary research both within and beyond the University.

The Foundation seeks to honour the Enlightenment legacy of Adam Smith (1723-1790) with independent, original research that impartially advances utility and enhances social happiness or well-being in the Information Age.

The Foundation's five research themes are:
• Public policy, governance and social justice
• Work, ethics and technology
• People, places and change
• Macroeconomics, business and finance
• Legal and political thought

Professor Berry’s commitment to both the historical scholarship of the Scottish Enlightenment and to modern applications of moral and social science to contemporary issues, problems and situations,is a great credit to his and Scottish scholarship. If his approach and understanding of Adam Smith’s Legacy was the general approach across academia, and predominant among Smithian scholars, then Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy would have less to do.



Blogger michael webster said...

"How selfish soever a man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derive nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it"

That is a wonderful line!

We are built for team play.

2:13 a.m.  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Yes, Michael

It makes the moderneconomisys' image of Adam Smith completely at variance with the actual man.


7:44 a.m.  
Blogger AndrewBW said...

Thanks for the pointer. Really, really outstanding. In fact, one of the best pieces I've read about anything in I don't know how long - deserves a much, much wider audience.

2:42 p.m.  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...


Thanks for your comment.

Sorry but your comment 'disappeared' and is now back - mysteries of Blogger moderation!


8:09 p.m.  
Blogger entech said...

A marvelous presentation. Should be expanded and made a compulsory part of every economics course. Wealth is not gold and silver but the sum total of the peace, well being and liberty of the population.

2:52 a.m.  
Blogger cuauti said...

The description is wonderfully - stultifying. Smith with a homogeneous life style. In fact, Smith knew nothing about classical economics before being coached by the Économistes in Paris. Being bored in Toulouse for 18 month he started to write the promised book on Government which became the "Wealth". Later in Paris, Smith learned about macro-economics, about productive and unproductive labour. The Économistes tried to avoid the bankruptcy of feudal France and the French Revolution. The opening passage of the Wealth mirrors these ideas. Smith did not understand everything as even after 2,5 years in France his French was very poor. He thought to dedicate the Wealth to Quesnay had the latter not died earlier. But his Wealth is a muddle of his former ideas, before he became educated as a classical economist and classical economics.

10:15 p.m.  

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