Das Capitalist

George Scialabba recently offered a review of Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life by Nicholas Phillipson in The American Conservative.  The piece gives greater context to the life of Adam Smith, though not without acknowledging the inherent difficulty in so doing:

He was shy, destroyed most of his letters, and did not seem to relish giving brilliant performances, either in print or in conversation. He never fell afoul of civil or religious authority, had no mistresses, and engaged in no public quarrels.

It further helps elucidate the nuances of Smith, who in his prolific ideology has often been himself caricatured  into a polemic rambler:

Everyone knows, of course, what Adam Smith stood for: free trade, the division of labor, the minimal state, the invisible hand, the illimitable growth of wants and needs. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” “Every individual … intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.” “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice; all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.” Case closed.

What everyone knows is seldom altogether wrong; but often it is not altogether right, either. As Emma Rothschild notes at the outset of Economic Sentiments, her superb study of Smith and Condorcet, “They think and write about self-interest and competition, about institutions and corporations, about the ‘market’ and the ‘state.’ But the words mean different things to them, and their connotation is of a different, and sometimes of an opposite, politics.” It is far from obvious that Smith would have entertained cordial feelings toward Alan Greenspan or Margaret Thatcher.

Do you agree with this portrayal of Smith?  Do his writings match up? does it change your opinion of him?  feel free to leave any comments below.

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