Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Fresh Air Blowing from Oxford

Nita Colaco writes in the Oxonian Review HERE:

“A cloud looms over Adam Smith’s legacy. The 18th-century scholar is best known as an unalloyed extoller of the market and an apologist for self-interest, a reputation stemming from two centuries’ mischaracterisation of his thought. In the last 50-odd years, this interpretation has been given new credence by economists of the Chicago School (George Stigler famously described his magnum opus, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, as “a stupendous palace erected on the granite of self-interest”), by libertarian champions like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and by myriad others who associate him solely with free-market capitalism and self-interest.

The narrow popular perception of Smith hides a simple truth: the putative father of modern economics had a complex understanding of human nature. Indeed, sympathy and societal relations, not rational self-interest, lie at the heart of a work Smith himself considered “much superior” to Wealth of Nations: his Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Smith has been misrepresented for so long that the mere range of his writings often comes as a surprise. After his education at Glasgow and Oxford, he lectured and wrote on subjects from rhetoric to logic to astronomy. But it is his moral philosophy, as articulated in Theory of Moral Sentiments, that presents the greatest challenge to traditionally myopic interpretations of his thought. Published almost two decades prior to Wealth of Nations, Theory of Moral Sentiments celebrated its 250th birthday last year. In recognition of this occasion, and perhaps hoping to restore Theory of Moral Sentiments to the glory of its better-known cousin, Penguin Classics is releasing a special anniversary edition of Smith’s forgotten treatise, featuring an introduction by the modern-day economist-cum-public intellectual Amartya Sen.

Based on lectures Smith delivered during his time as Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, Theory of Moral Sentiments is the bedrock of Smith’s intellectual project. Unlike Wealth of Nations, with its oft-quoted passage about the role of self-interest in commercial transactions, Theory of Moral Sentiments attempts to explain the motivations of human behavior, broadly construed. In characteristically lucid prose, Smith writes of people as inherently social creatures with a propensity for sympathizing with their brethren (a sharp break from the vision of mankind expounded by Hobbes, or even Rousseau, whom Smith admired). This natural human disposition leads to the formation of a moral sense: we approve of a person’s behavior to the degree that we sympathize with him.”

These opening paragraphs of Nita Colaco’s article are a gale of fresh air in the normal output on Adam Smith, particularly from US academe, regularly reviewed on Lost Legacy.

I recommend that you follow the link and read her article in full.

I do not quite agree fully with her references to the invisible hand metaphor, but I can say that she gets as close to my agreement as is possible.

Nita Colaco is reading for an MPhil in Economic and Social History at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. On this evidence, Adam Smith’s legacy will be in good, and safe, hands. (More please!)



Blogger Chris Brooke said...

Thanks for the link, which I wouldn't have seen otherwise. Nita was in my Adam Smith master's course in Oxford last year, and it's excellent to see her carrying her (eminently sensible) opinions to a wider audience!

5:17 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Hi Chris

I too was impressed with Nita's article. I hope it gets a wide circulation.


5:29 pm  

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