Adam, We Hardly Knew Ye


His Life and Ideas

By James Buchan

Atlas Books/Norton -- 198pp -- $23.95

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Editor's Review

Three Stars
Star Rating

The Good An engaging look at the often-misrepresented 18th century philosopher.

The Bad In this very brief volume, Smith's thinking is sometimes too condensed.

The Bottom Line Resurrects Smith as a moral philosopher whose interests went beyond mere economics.

For years, Adam Smith has been an icon, the Republican club-tie response to leftist students' Che Guevara T-shirt. Lionized by libertarians and Reagan White House operatives alike, the 18th century Scottish philosopher has been portrayed as a visionary advocate of laissez-faire. To Alan Greenspan, Smith was "a towering contributor" to the modern world for his "demonstration of the inherent stability and growth of what we now term free-market capitalism" -- all due to "an international version of Smith's invisible hand."

Problem is, says James Buchan, Smith was far from a doctrinaire free trader, favoring as he did "certain monopolies and restraints on trade, export subsidies and restrictions," and more. In his day, capitalism wasn't even a well-defined concept. And Smith's most famous turn of phrase, the "invisible hand," appears only three times in his million-odd words -- and not once in connection with global capitalist markets. In the insightful The Authentic Adam Smith: His Life and Ideas, Buchan frees Smith from current-day misrepresentations and resurrects him as a moral philosopher more concerned with ethical society than with pure economics. It's an engaging look at a man we thought we knew well.

Buchan is the author of several previous books, including an intellectual history of 18th century Edinburgh, Scotland -- the milieu that fostered Smith, biographer James Boswell, and philosopher David Hume. In the current book he takes note of the severe limitations of the place and period. "Smith was brought up in a backward corner of an unmechanized world," in which "wages were so low it was cheaper to knit stockings by hand than by machine." Born in 1723, Smith never married and lived with his mother until her death at age 90. He attended a two-room schoolhouse and then the University of Glasgow. There, he concentrated on "moral philosophy," a broad field that encompassed basic jurisprudence, religion, aesthetics, economics, and more. Following several unhappy years of study at Oxford University, Smith returned to Scotland, and by 1751 he was teaching moral philosophy at Glasgow.

It would be An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) that would make Smith's reputation, selling out five editions in his lifetime. But for Buchan, a previous book is the truest key to Smith's thinking. The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) was an inquiry into the psychology of moral judgments. Rather than drawing on divine law or an inherent moral sense, Smith asserted that each of us derives our ethics by evaluating other people's actions. Then, putting ourselves in their position, we make similar judgments about our own deeds. The resulting society was defined by millions of individual choices rooted in "sympathy or fellow-feeling."

Similar concerns about ethics and society impelled The Wealth of Nations, Buchan says, behind which "is the ghost of an old-fashioned inquiry into the moral character of luxury." The world had become prosperous, Smith observed, to the general benefit of mankind. How? The division of labor, combined with freedom of occupational choice, led to increased output and a surplus beyond basic needs. Individual self-interest ended up benefiting all.

The Wealth of Nations is a long and repetitive book that considers a host of topics, from prices and the nature of value to education. A revised 1784 edition had 13 new sections and 24,000 more words. And in 1789, a year prior to his death, Smith made further changes. While tending to justify the world as it was, he had reservations, particularly condemning any "conspiracy against the publick" that arises from the merchant class. He also worried over the "disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful." It may be inevitable that in such a sprawling work, adherents of a range of views will find sustenance. But Buchan makes a strong case that the just society was ever Smith's main concern.

By Hardy Green

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