Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Phillipson, Adam Smith

Back when I received the galleys of this book I wrote a post entitled “Who Was Adam Smith?” Now that Nicholas Phillipson’s Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life (Yale University Press, 2010) is being officially released today it’s time to revisit the book.

First, for those who care about such things, it’s a handsomely produced book—from the coated dust jacket to the color plates to the sewn binding. Second, and of course much more important, the work is skillfully crafted. Phillipson not only explores the interconnectedness of Smith’s moral, political, and economic ideas; he also demonstrates that the Scottish Enlightenment was far more than a backdrop for Smith’s work.

Adam Smith is a compelling, albeit difficult, subject for an intellectual biography. He viewed himself as a philosopher. He had wide-ranging interests: ethics, aesthetics, rhetoric, jurisprudence, history, politics, and economics. And yet, as one reviewer noted, we tend to disregard his “far greater and nobler … intellectual goals” and reduce him to “the hard-nosed high priest of self-interested capitalism.”

Admittedly, Adam Smith defended the Humean principle that “Till there be property there can be no government, the very end of which is to secure wealth, and to defend the rich from the poor.” (p. 174) But this principle is not as crass as it appears. Just as virtue is the goal of morality so opulence is the goal of political economy. In both cases Smith invoked the idea of improvement “which lay at the heart of the culture of enlightened Scotland….” He showed that “commerce and improvement were natural to human beings, a function of their natural indigence, their need for society and their love of the satisfactions improvement brings.” (p. 179)

Smith bemoaned the slow progress of opulence in Europe. “For Smith the root cause of the slow progress … was the feudal system. As he had shown in his lectures on jurisprudence, the feudal system had encouraged landowners to extend rather than improve their estates, reducing their tenantry to a state of dependency and even slavery—always in Smith’s reckoning the least productive form of labour. What is more, it was a system that had been artificially preserved by means of primogeniture and a system of tenures and entails which were as offensive to a people’s sense of natural justice as to the cause of economic efficiency.” (p. 223)

Colonial America, with its rapid progress, stood in stark contrast to Europe. In The Wealth of Nations he explained that “the root cause of the American colonies’ progress was simple enough: ‘plenty of good land, and liberty to manage their own affairs their own way.’ American land was cheap, and inheritance—in some colonies at least—was unencumbered by primogeniture, entails and high taxes. The colonists themselves appeared educated, frugal, tractable and hardworking. They were natural Smithian improvers who invested their stock in agriculture and simple manufactures and, because labour was relatively scarce, paid their labourers high wages, which encouraged them to set up on their own. Above all, they possessed a spirit of equality that encouraged a ‘republican’ attitude to government.” (p. 228)

I have teased but a single thread from Phillipson’s sympathetic yet balanced portrait of Adam Smith the man and the thinker. It’s an opulent biography.

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