Sunday, September 24, 2006

New Book on Adam Smith

We have been talking about Adam Smith in ec 10. So it is timely that I now learn about a new biography of him. Tim Worstall reviews the book by James Buchan in today's Philadelphia Inquirer. Here is an excerpt from the review:

The Authentic Adam Smith

Here is a quite delightful little introduction to the life, times and work of Adam Smith. We are reminded early on that the Smith we think we know, lauded as the ultimate free marketeer, was in fact a philosopher seeking the eternal verities, not just doing the vulgar calculations of business and markets....

Buchan places Smith, as he was, firmly at the heart of the Scottish Enlightenment. In addition to his great friend David Hume, he knew James Watt the engineer, and was a childhood friend of Robert Adam, who did so much to create Bath and thus influence the Edinburgh New Town. He taught at the University of Glasgow and became a professor there in 1752.

The first of Smith's two major works, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, appeared in 1759, and Buchan not only takes us through the book's main points but also provides us with the background to the debates within it -- where an argument came from, and how it was answering or developing a point proffered by another.

We are also given a series of more personal details about Smith that help us to understand the man himself. Certainly he was of the utmost probity concerning money: In 1764 he became tutor to the young Duke of Buccleugh for the, at the time, remarkable fee of 300 pounds a year and a pension of the same for life after three years. On leaving the university, Smith insisted on returning the lecture fees to his students, and when they protested, "seizing by the coat the young man... he thrust the money into his pocket, and then pushed him from him."...

The value of this book is in precisely those moments and pieces of background. There will be those who have only heard of Smith as the intellectual basis for some assumed free market economic methods, but he was far more subtle than that. Both of his great works are mentioned and discussed, the above Theory and of course The Wealth of Nations. But, by placing him in his time, discussing the surrounding debates and events, Buchan is able to make a much more important point. Smith was not, in fact, attempting to provide a moral basis for a specific form of economic organization, in the way that perhaps Marx was a century later. Rather, he was interested in morals first; the economic thoughts grew from his research into them.