Sunday, April 16, 2006

Good Reception to Buchan's Book on Smith

James Buchan’s new book, Adam Smith And The Pursuit Of Perfect Liberty, (Profile Books, London) was published on 13 April and it has received a number of good reviews in the Sunday papers today. One such is by Paul Stokes in Scotland on Sunday (15 April): “Invisible hand just out of reach”. Its opening paragraphs caught my eye for obvious reasons:

Adam Smith is a philosopher more written about than read these days. In the past few years, a veritable industry has grown up, revealing what the works of this great Scottish thinker actually say. Of course, this is something of which the man himself could only approve. As a firm believer in the individual's right to pursue his own interest he could hardly do other than applaud the emergence of a thriving trade in ideas about his ideas.

Smith would be flattered that, more than 200 years after his death, people still care enough about his writing to dispute its meaning so often in print, although, he might also feel perplexed that his prose apparently allows so much room for disagreement.
Last year saw the publication of Adam Smith's Lost Legacy, a brief, accessible work by the Edinburgh economist Gavin Kennedy, which argued that Smith's ideas had been hijacked and misused by modern-day capitalists and adherents of the doctrine of laissez-faire. Now novelist and historian James Buchan offers a short, sharp, polemical biography of Smith which covers many of the same arguments, but in a style that is less scholarly, and with language that is considerably more robust

Paul Stokes exhibits familiarity with the work of Adam Smith in his review and is worth reading on those grounds alone. Of course, it is worth reading James Buchan’s book too, as he has some fresh ideas about Smith. Stokes picks up on one of them, for instance:

Buchan's big idea is that Smith's search for a guiding force in human relations, his famous invisible hand, was inspired by the death of his father before his birth. Here we enter the realms of psycho-history, and one person's view is as good as any other's. It is equally plausible that this significant event caused Smith to understand that life progresses best without direction from authority figures, which is what he actually said.”

I agree with Stokes that this assertion has the status of an ‘opinion’ – a conjecture, as Dugald Stewart, Smith’s first biographer (1793) would have put it – but it is from informed opinions such as Buchan’s that we make progress when sifting through the sparse details of Smith’s life.

On this occasion I would raise the issue that while Smith was brought up alone by his mother, she had a massive influence on his life because of her religious convictions. He was totally devoted for her throughout his adult years until she died in her 90th year. Such was his commitment to never upsetting her by his views on religion – he grew more and more dissatisfied with institutional Christianity as he grew older and witnessed the whinning behaviour of pompous Christian believers – he held back until she died from overtly attacking religion, except in coded language. I suggest if he was absent on authority figure, his father’s, he was very much aware of his mother’s authority towards whom he was devoted and which he regarded as a blessing.

This returns us to the single use in ‘Wealth of Nations’ of the metaphor of the invisible hand, which I have suggested in ‘Lost Legacy’ and this Blog many times, has been blown out of all proportion by commentators, scholars, journalists and politicians. Nevertheless, we should keep Buchan’s suggestion in mind.

Read the review at:


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