The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals would not only load himself with most unnecessary attention but assume an authority which could safely be trusted to no council and senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of man who have folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it… Adam Smith


Adam Smith is far more often quoted – almost always out of context – than read and is credited with being the eternal advocate of capital and self-interest to guide the market which, as a deus et machina, drives the affairs of all mankind. He is the darling of conservatives who blithely ignore his pronouncements such as, It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion, or, No society can surely be flourishing and happy of which by far the greater part of the numbers are poor and miserable, and thereby miss his warning, Wherever there is great property there is great inequality. For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many. The affluence of the rich excites the indignation of the poor, who are often both driven by want, and prompted by envy, to invade his possessions.

The difference between a moral theologian and a moral philosopher is that the theologian applies principles of moral law to specific problems and arrives at specific solutions. Thus from Paul we can learn not only what the Romans or  Thessalonians were dealing with but we can learn what solutions they were offered two millennia ago that still apply today. Unfortunately for his adherents Smith held, with most of his enlightenment counterparts, that Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition, and he would have certainly dismissed Paul as a representative of both.

The core of his science – which would be picked by Kant, Hegel and Marx – was that Man is an animal that makes bargains: no other animal does this – no dog exchanges bones with another, and here we can also hear the whisper that will become the roar of Darwinism that MAN IS AN ANIMAL! To his credit Smith, the man, would probably be appalled by where his adherents have taken his thought and Ross offers a fine portrait of a man who did not believe economics should be a dismal science. Unfortunately his only defense was sentimentality and his thoughts remoulded by the frigidity of Gallican logic and the realpolitik of  the Teutonic iron fist would help shape modern materialism that almost makes the capitalism that he advocated seem benevolent.

 

The life of Adam Smith Ian Simpson Ross Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2010 Hardcover. 2nd ed. xxxii, 589 p. : ill. (chiefly col.) ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. [491]-555) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

Few would argue that Adam Smith was one of the great minds of the eighteenth century. He is perceived through his best-known book, The Wealth of Nations, as the founder of economics as a science, and his ideas about the free market and the role of the state continue to influence modern economic thought. Yet Smith achieved even more as a man of letters, as a moralist, historian, and critic.

The Life of Adam Smith, the first full-scale biography of Smith in a hundred years, is a superb account of Smith’s life and work, encompassing a career that spanned some of the defining moments in world history, including the American and French Revolutions.

Here author Ian Simpson Ross examines Smith’s family life, education, career, intellectual circle (including David Hume and Francois Quesnay), and his contemporaries (the likes of Immanuel Kant, Voltaire, and Thomas Jefferson), bringing to life this great thinker and author.

Readers will meet Smith as a student at a lively Glasgow University and at a sleepy Oxford; a freelance lecturer delivering popular classes on rhetoric; an innovative university teacher; then a tutor travelling abroad with a Duke; an acclaimed political economist; a policy advisor to governments during and after the American Revolution; and finally, if paradoxically in view of his strongly held tenets, a Commissioner of Customs coping with free traders in the smuggling business.

But it his impact as a writer that continues to set Adam Smith apart today. The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, as the British Parliament was deep in debate about the American colonies, continues to influence modern economic theory throughout the world. Ross paints a vivid portrait of Smith’s personal life, revealing a man of singular generosity of spirit, who believed that with wit and logic and sensitivity, we might aspire to virtue rather than wealth, and so become members of a truly civil society.

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