Of all the great teachers of mankind, can any have lived a duller life than Adam Smith? Between his birth in 1723 and his death in 1790, he seems to have done nothing but read, lecture, travel once to Europe as tutor to a young duke, work as a customs commissioner, and (of course) write.
Of all the great teachers of mankind, can any have lived a duller life than Adam Smith?
It’s a sadly missed opportunity. How Adam Smith came to think as he did is a question that probably never mattered more than it does now. Not since the original publication of The Wealth of Nations in 1776 have so many countries attempted the painful transition from statism to freedom as in our day. More than ever before, Adam Smith must be reckoned the most influential political thinker of the modern world. At the same time, he retains the distinction of being the most reviled one. From the halls of the French bureaucracy to the seminar rooms of Midwestern universities, from the mosques of Qom to the mansions of Sir James Goldsmith, Smith stands accused of a litany of monstrous crimes: destroying revered ways of life and oppressing women, ignoring God’s law and imposing an allegedly near-totalitarian monopoly of “neo-liberal” thought. Almost every grievance our world contains sooner or later turns into an indictment of this gentle Scotsman.
What has offended critics, past and present, about Smith is not his supposed defense of selfishness and egotism; proponents of much more extreme and violent egotism—Friedrich Nietzsche, the pop psychologists of the 1960s and 1970s—elicit nowhere near as much dislike. Smith has been regarded as obnoxious, not because he advocates egotism but because he takes it for granted as an inescapable fact of human character, and then suggests the means by which a virtuous society can put that fact to use. Smith, in a sense, falls between two camps. Those who dream of a harmonious social order, like feminists and Marxists, are affronted by his appraisal of human nature as unavoidably self-interested. On the other hand, those willing to accept a darker reading of human nature, such as Michel Foucault and other students of Nietzsche, loathe Smith’s prim vision of an invisible hand subduing the individual will and leading free individuals toward mutual cooperation. Smith is both anti-utopian and anti-Promethean; his work rebukes the loftiest of dreams and the most desperate of desires. It’s a wonder, really, that there’s anybody willing to buy a necktie with his profile on it.
Some eyebrows may rise at the suggestion that the author of The Wealth of Nations should be considered a political philosopher. Smith’s masterwork devotes most of its energy to an attack on British commercial policies abandoned a century and a half ago. It’s packed with frequently dry discussions of what seem to be technical issues. Smith scarcely bothers to address all sorts of questions that might be considered fundamental to his argument, including the most fundamental of all: why is wealth good? And as a result, like many of the philosophers who have written in English— such as Locke and Madison, Dicey and Hayek—Smith has usually been considered something less than salonfähig by the directors of admissions to the departments of political theory. Smith, like his Scottish and English colleagues, seems so commonplace and contented, so unwilling to grapple with the dark and morbid aspects of human personality, so hostile to the lofty and the adventuresome, so readily accessible to the casual reader, and so uninterested in metaphysics. Nietzsche and Heidegger, Machiavelli and Hegel—those are the thinkers worthy of attention and respect.
And this attitude is by no means confined to ideological opponents of liberal democracy. The disciples of Leo Strauss express, if anything, an even more patronizing attitude toward the authors of the political system that they as citizens wholeheartedly endorse. It’s dangerously easy to forget that the real test of a political thinker is not the complexity and ingenuity of his reasoning, but the effect of his ideas when applied in practice. If you wouldn’t care for a moment to live in the sort of world imagined by Plato or Heidegger, what on earth does it mean to say that you regard those two men as more substantial thinkers than sensible old Smith?
Judge by results. Smith deserves to be taken seriously, not just as a guide to public policy but as a thinker about politics. In order to take him seriously, though, we must first take seriously the questions that mattered to him. And it is here that we could have used a little more help from his biographer.
Smith was born in a poor country that had only recently been annexed by a vastly wealthier one. On both sides of the Anglo-Scottish border, most of the wealth belonged to people who either descended from successful practitioners of violence or courtiers who had been rewarded by enormous gifts from the Crown. It was a world that most of us now would regard as a horribly unjust one, and in at least one way, it seemed to be getting worse. Over Smith’s lifetime, Europe, and especially England, enjoyed a huge growth in trade and prosperity. Some of that new wealth did indeed trickle down to the people who needed it most, but pathetically little. Inspired by the example of their social betters, the growing class of merchants figured out that the fastest and safest route to wealth lay through government favoritism; in the name of national security, they demanded and received a barrage of monopolies, tariff exclusions, and special favors at the expense of the consumers of their products. We call this system of organized plunder “mercantilism,” and it is not without its apologists even today.
Smith was a man of the Enlightenment, an intimate of David Hume’s and a friend of Voltaire’s. (A new paper by Professor Samuel Fleischacker of Williams College demonstrates that he was also a major intellectual influence on Immanuel Kant.) He shared that too-often-maligned era’s hatred of unnecessary suffering. At the same time, he understood its disdain for empty sentimentality, a disdain as alien to our time as the era’s powdered wigs. He observed in the Theory of Moral Sentiments that
The Wealth of Nations likewise represents itself as concerned not with the suffering and happiness of the individual but with the strength of the state. “In modern war the great expence [sic] of fire-arms gives an evident to the nation which can best afford that expence …” Money, says Smith, wins wars. In a misguided attempt to obtain this war-winning money, nations have heaped restrictions on trade—incidentally impoverishing their poorest citizens. But the truth is that it’s freedom of trade that produces national wealth and thus national security; and, incidentally, relieves want and raises wages.
Smith will concede, when confronted -- with a particularly stubborn mercantilist prejudice (such as England’s Navigation Acts, which—like the still-surviving Jones Act in the U.S. -- required goods carried between English ports to be carried on English ships) that “defense is more important than opulence.” But the concession, even if sincere, is quickly withdrawn. Smith deftly discredits old-republican fantasies that it’s anything other than “opulence” that determines the strength of a nation’s defenses. Smith observed in one of his lectures on jurisprudence, cited by Ross, that “in the year 1745 four or 5 thousand naked unarmed Highlanders took possession of the improved parts of this country [Scotland] without any opposition from the unwarlike inhabitants. They penetrated into England and alarmed the whole nation, and had they not been opposed by a standing army they would have seized the throne with little difficulty.” But of course, the Highlanders were opposed by a standing army, because rich nations can afford to raise them.
What rich nations can also afford to do— what they cannot help doing—is to distribute the benefits of wealth ever more widely. Smith noticed economic growth’s possible ills, but he firmly believed in its happy effects. When we read accounts of the first impact of the Industrial Revolution in England, when we see the same process unleashed in Colombo or Shanghai, we are naturally appalled. Our horror, though, testifies principally to our ignorance of the even more hideous poverty that prevailed beforehand. The benefits that the English poor earned by moving from the countryside to the slums of the new cities are heartbreaking in their humility -- earthenware plates instead of wooden, underwear, tea, and sugar—but they aren’t any less real for their littleness. Neither are the scarcely less humble acquisitions of the toiling poor of East Asia and Central America. A bicycle, a radio, a package of aspirin, some pork with their rice, shoes rather than sandals: for these things, villagers worldwide are delighted to shatter what has been glamorized as “the world we have lost.” Good riddance, they say with Smith. Who can find it in his heart to disagree with them?
Smith noticed economic growth’s possible ills, but he firmly believed in its happy effects.
Some contemporary critics of Smith’s economics complain that the economic freedom liberates a destructive acquisitiveness. Smith was no apologist for greed. His teaching at Glasgow University had brought him into contact with the merchants of that town, and he didn’t care for them one bit. He much preferred the company of landowners. But Smith also knew that acquisitiveness was an indelible human characteristic. That’s what he meant by his celebrated observation that “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner.” He would not have been impressed for a moment by the argument, floated by some contemporary adherents of what’s euphemistically called “communitarianism,” that we eliminate greed by diverting the focus of acquisitiveness from productive enterprise to bureaucratic machinations.
Smith’s great insight was that self-interest can be put to use by a virtuous society. Others had made similar points before— Mandeville in his “Fable of the Bees” for example—but with a crucial difference of emphasis. Smith’s predecessors argued that the profusion and waste of the rich brought a living to the poor. They might be described as proto-Keynesians. Smith’s message was less cynical. If you reduce the number of opportunities to accumulate wealth through exploitation of the political system, you can confine acquisitiveness to the realm where it can do the most good: the elaboration of the principle of the division of labor.
Jerry Z. Muller, in his interesting book Adam Smith in His Time and Ours,2 contends that Smith presupposed certain social virtues as a prerequisite for an effective and just market economy. But one can equally well take the opposite point of view: a society committed to a market economy can—without ever consciously meaning to —promote other social virtues by in advance proscribing the unjust enrichment that pervades statist regimes: regimes like those that Smith observed throughout Europe. Smith chopped to pieces the classical cliché that wealth inevitably led to corruption and decadence. He showed that the same rules that led to economic growth could also inculcate civic virtue by inoculating the body politic against the corruption and injustice of monopoly—while raising to decency and dignity the impoverished poor for whom classical political philosophy cared so little.
The Ross biography does not show us Smith’s thought in progress; how his attention was directed to economic problems and the steps by which he developed the analysis that governs the world still. We do learn from it who the dons of Balliol College were when Smith was in attendance there, and I suppose somebody will want to know that. We learn a great deal about the building activities of Smith’s father’s friends, and I’m sure that information also answers some crying academic need.
But who and what Smith really was, why he thought as he did and how he formed the generous and serene philosophy that makes the late twentieth century, for all its faults, such an agreeable place to live for hundreds of millions of human beings—the answers to those questions, it seems, must wait a while longer.
1Adam Smith in His Times and Ours, by Jerry Z. Muller; The Free Press, 272 pages, $22.95.
2The Life of Adam Smith, by Ian Simpson Ross; Oxford University Press, 495 pages, $35.