Thursday, July 13, 2006

P. J. O'Rourke on Moral Sentiments - an excellent review

P. J. O’Rourke reviews Adam Smith’s ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’, his first and less well-known book compared to his second and last, ‘Wealth of Nations’, and what a cracking good review it is (brought to my attention by Tim Worstall today on his Blog which is never short of good writing:

I found much in the review about Smith with which I agree (a few quibbles too, but nothing major). If P. J. O’Rourke is a typical reader, Smithian studies are moving into good shape. Indeed, the position regarding understanding of Smith’s legacy is a lot better than it was some years ago. The drip-drip affect of good books on Adam Smith recently, and wider reading of his books too, is breaking down the old consensus around the ‘Chicago’ Adam Smith and restoring the ‘Kirkcaldy’ Adam Smith in its place. ‘Economic Man’ heads towards retirement.

O’Rourke writes: ‘His secret was to be an idealist without taking that impertinent and annoying step of being a visionary.’

Smith took the long view, backwards not forwards. He was interested in what the past showed of the full range of what human society to be capable off. Not all of those who walked the earth before the 18th century were deliberately malign; many were unintentionally malign, because of the unintentional outcomes they brought about under the illusion that they were doing the ‘right thing’.

This is why Smith did not have a general law that if people followed their self-interest it would always work for the benefit of society (the so-called ‘invisible hand’). It could easily, and often more regularly did, work out bad for society. It depended on what they chose to do. But what they did, even when bad, only delayed the possibility of opulence, sometimes reversing it as the detritus of past civilisations shows, but so far it has not destroyed the prospect of that long-term outcome somewhere on planet earth. Human propensities in a positive direction run too deep for that to happen (‘there is a lot of ruin in a nation’).

Not being a visionary meant that Smith was not in a hurry, so to speak. He was not animated by the sense of urgency so often found in ‘men of system’. He cast the role of philosopher to ‘do nothing, but observe everything’, in contrast to the fanaticism of Marx which led him to think he should ‘change the world, and in the event, for the worse.

O’Rourke brings to his review a memorable sense of his biting humour (and allusions to contemporary Americanisms that this Brit does not quite follow). He quotes Smith on ‘the vilest and most abject of all states, a complete insensibility to honour and infamy, to vice and virtue’ and offers a typical devastating aside: ‘It is a state that Smith might also have described as “running for political office” ’! Can one ever get too much of such O’Rourke-isms?

I recommend you read O’Rourke’s review (in The Weekly Standard at of Smith’s ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’.

Better still read the review and the book:

'Theory of Moral Sentiments' from Cambridge University Press, 446 pages, $70 from Amazon


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