Adam Smith: Radical and Egalitarian : an Interpretation for the 21st Century

Adam Smith: Radical and Egalitarian : an Interpretation for the 21st Century

Adam Smith: Radical and Egalitarian : an Interpretation for the 21st Century

Adam Smith: Radical and Egalitarian : an Interpretation for the 21st Century


Foreword by the Rt. Hon. Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the ExchequerThis book aims to show that Adam Smith (1723-90), the author of The Wealth of Nations, was not the promoter of ruthless laissez-faire capitalism that is still frequently depicted. Smith's right-wing reputation was sealed after his death when it was not safe to claim that an author may have influenced the French revolutionaries. But as the author, also, of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which he probably regarded as his more important book, Smith sought a non-religious grounding for morals, and found it in the principle of sympathy, which should lead an impartial spectator to understand others' problems. This book locates Smith in the Scottish Enlightenment; shows how the two books are perfectly consistent with one another; traces Smith's influence in France and the United States; and draws out the lessons that Adam Smith can teach policy makers in the 21st Century. Although Smith was not a religious man, he was a very acute sociologist of religion. The book accordingly explains the Scottish religious context of Smith's time, which was, as it remains, very different to the English religious context. The whole book is shot through with Iain McLean's love for the Edinburgh of his birth, and for the Scottish Enlightenment. It begins and ends with poems by Smith's great admirer Robert Burns.


In 2002 I had the privilege to chair public lectures in the 'Enlightenment Series' at Edinburgh University, on the theme 'Can Both the Left and Right Claim Adam Smith?'. I asked whether Adam Smith would feel more at home in the right-of-centre Adam Smith Institute or in the leftof-centre (John) Smith Institute, named after my good friend John Smith, the leader of the Labour Party, who died suddenly in 1994. I am delighted that Iain McLean has responded to my challenge. In this book he sets out why Adam Smith deserves to be seen in a new light.

Adam Smith had a good start in the world – he was born in Kirkcaldy. He went to study, and later teach, at Glasgow University. He spent time in Edinburgh, in London and in France. But for his deepest thoughts, he returned to Kirkcaldy. It was in Kirkcaldy that he worked tirelessly on what became the Wealth of Nations, taking long solitary walks on the foreshore as he thought through his great plan. He observed the jarring effects of the union of 1707 both on Kirkcaldy (which did badly out of it in his time) and on Glasgow (which did very well out of it).

For most of the time since his death in 1790, Smith has had the reputation of an apologist for 'laissez-faire' at its most heartless. In one of the lectures I introduced in 2002, Emma Rothschild showed that this reputation was born in the shadow of the French Revolution, where it was not safe to admit that Smith's work could be interpreted in any other way. In this book, Iain McLean brings the story forward to the present day. He argues that Smith was not opposed to all government, but merely government by vested interests. In book five of theWealth of Nations, Smith – according to McLean – sets out the proper roles of the state and the market in a way that sounds almost contemporary. In the same book, Smith also sets out some famous canons of taxation which – as I told the audience in Edinburgh that day in 2002 – I kept beside me while preparing my budgets.

Adam Smith also published The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759. Many people have argued that Smith's two books contradict one another: the Moral Sentiments advocating altruism and the Wealth of Nations assuming that everybody is selfish. Like many, I challenge this interpretation.

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