Wednesday, July 11, 2007

James Buchan's New Book on Adam Smith is Excellent Value

Profile Books, London, has published the paperback edition of James Buchan’s, Adam Smith and the pursuit of perfect liberty, first published in hardback in 2006. I said then (April 2006) and I say again that James Buchan’s book is:

An excellent and authoritative read, it is an excellent route into Adam Smith, absent specialist jargon, and, as far as I can discern on a first reading, absent any of the grosser errors associated with Adam Smith and his legacy.”

My second reading has not found anything major too.

At 198 pages (including the Index) and in its compact size in paperback it is easily transportable for convenient reading throughout the day and moving about. It stands a second or third reading (most books on Adam Smith don’t) because it is packed with the author’s eye for telling detail in revealing contexts.

Smith had a complex character which the scant knowledge we have about him can easily be lost in the heavier, and more controversial, books published about him over many years (I know because my research has required me to read them).

When Smith’s claims to fame, usually in isolated quotations from the book the writers never read, are transferred into articles, including sometimes in the professional journals, though mainly in the world’s media, the picture that emerges is mainly a false one. Authors ascribe ideas (laissez-faire; invisible hands’; and small government) to Smith that often are the reverse of what he actually wrote or thought about. For a selection of the grosser errors, look through the earlier posts in the archives of Lost Legacy.

He is both claimed by the Right and the Left and denounced in equal measure by them both. Anarcho-libertarians don’t care too much for him either. Those that claim him as their unlikely icon, smear others for their association with his recommendations in Wealth Of Nations (few of these critics have read his Moral Sentiments or his essays, let alone Wealth Of Nations).

Buchan’s readable and lively prose (I wish I could write half as well) is a great corrective for the mass of misinformation about him. Not a single page is absent something revealing about Adam Smith, the man or his ideas.

I opened his book randomly, just now, at page 117, and found Buchan crowding in delicate sentences, in his fast moving style, mentions of [Hugh] Blair; ‘the pugnacious Ferguson’; the ‘Hellenist Lord Monboddo’; Alexander Caryle [in my view an irritating social voyeur]; the captious and pedantic Governor Pownall’; [Isaac] Newton; Edmund Burke; Sir James Steuart; Karl Marx; Lord Kames; and [William] Robertson. I defy anybody to write a 27-line piece mentioning this galaxy of ‘names’ (all worthy of long articles and books about them in their own right) and keeping it interesting, relevant and entertaining about Adam Smith.

To write sensibly about Adam Smith you have to be familiar with all the above people – and many, many more too. Few besides James Buchan have managed it, and it usually requires major biographical space to do so. Buchan manages to do it all in under 200 fairly small pages. Amazing.


Blogger Tim Worstall said...

I reviewd the hardback for one of the American papers and enjoyed it immensely. Not all that often you get paid to have fun....

5:44 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...


I agree about its quality. But sadly, I seldom (er, make that never) get books on Adam Smith to review, let alone earn money for doing so.

Nice to hear from you (though in a fashion I do each day as your Blog is third on my list for a daily read)

6:31 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home