Saturday, September 16, 2006

A Welcome Trickle of Re-Appraisals of Adam Smith

We are in the British season for party political conferences where the party leaders parade their policies and their internal party concerns, and the public looks on, if inclined, increasingly, so we are told, with disdain for politics in general.

The spin hacks are already hard at work, doing what they do, and aspirants within each party jostle for attention, some to seize a public mood, others to put markers down as a ‘big ideas’ politician. The problem with the first gambit is that moods among the public are fickle; the problem for the second gambit is that there are not many people in or out of politics who have mindsets conducive to intellectual enthusiasm.

One of the latter kind caught my eye this week from David Lidington MP (Conservative) issued a press release of his speech on ‘Social Enterprise and Government’. Among other things he opined:

But too often we talk about the central political challenges of how best to create wealth and relieve poverty in terms of models of how society works which are intellectually coherent but which also present a misleadingly simple picture of how people organise their individual and collective lives.

On the one hand, there are those who argue that all that needs to be done is to break the fetters of free market capitalist enterprise and all manner of things shall be well. The beneficent "invisible hand" of the market will ensure not only that virtue and hard work are fairly rewarded but that the benefits will trickle down to everyone in society. Capitalism will inevitably harness to the common good the natural propensity of men and women to seek reward and profit for the work that they do. There is a great deal of truth in this analysis. But, as Adam Smith himself recognised, human beings are motivated by more than just the hope of material gain. You have to read the "Wealth of Nations" in the light of Smith's other great work, "The Theory of Moral Sentiments". There is such a thing as society. Capitalism is the best means that human beings have so far discovered to create wealth and spread prosperity, but there are and always will be people who, for a variety of reasons, find it difficult or impossible to thrive amid the rigours of the market. If we are serious as a country or as a city about the aim of life, liberty and happiness for all, then we have to find ways of doing politics which take those people into account

Ignore the myth of the ‘beneficent “invisible hand” of the market’ and focus on ‘human beings are motivated by more than just the hope of material gain’. That is a step forward.

All references, and there have been many recently (and long may that continue) to the need to read Wealth of Nations and Moral Sentiments are most welcome at Lost Legacy. It’s as if the past focus solely on Smith as a political economist has been widened by a proverbial ‘trickle down’ effect from the, as yet small, stream of re-appraisals of Adam Smith published in the past few years, such as:

Andrew S. Skinner. 1996: A System of Social Science: papers relating to Adam Smith, Clarenden Press, Oxford (and his Introductory essays, 1999, to the Penguin Edition of Wealth of Nations, 1999. volume I and II);
Emma Rothschild, 2001. Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorset, and the Enlightenment, Harvard;
Jim Otteson, 2002. Adam Smith’s Market Place of Life, Cambridge
Eli Ginzberg, 2002 [1934]. Adam Smith and the Founding of Market Economics, Transaction
Sam Fleischacker, 2004. On Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: a philosophical companion, Princeton
Gavin Kennedy, 2005. Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy, Palgrave
Jerry Evensky, 2005. Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophical: a historical and contemporary perspective on markets, law, ethics, and culture, Cambridge
James Buchan, 2006. Adam Smith and the Pursuit of Liberty, Profile Books
Ian McLean, 2006. Adam Smith Radical and Egalitarian: an interpretation for the 21st century, Edinburgh University Press

Readers of the books, plus readers of the reviews, plus readers of press articles that include single lines picking up on the themes in the books (if only ‘Smith wrote Moral Sentiments as well as Wealth of Nations’), gradually creates a different environment to the monolithic ‘Chicago Adam Smith’ that has dominated campus comment for so long.

Readers who are interested in following the reappraisal of Adam Smith that is now underway should start with the books on the above reading list.


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