Academic journal article History of Economics Review

A Wealth of Notions

Academic journal article History of Economics Review

A Wealth of Notions

Article excerpt

It has been an interesting and bracing change for me, to go from a large body of scholarly endeavour, over many years, concerning William Petty and the formation of classical economics, a rather specialised field, to working on Adam Smith, where it can seem like almost everybody has an axe to grind.

For the first two or three years of the five or so years I spent researching for this book, I largely avoided the secondary literature, with a view to keeping my mind as clear as possible. But then, when subsequently traversing the vast secondary literature, I was sometimes drawn to the depressing conclusion that 'Adam Smith' is, or had become, a kind of intellectual Barbie Doll, who can be dressed up to conform to a wide range of intellectual predilections. There is libertarian Smith, neo-liberal-plus-strong-State Smith, left-liberal Smith, a Marshallian Smith--and even, on worker 'alienation', a Marxist Smith--and so on. Perhaps, one fears, there is no real Adam Smith 'out there'. But I am too much of a pre-postmodernist (that is, an old-fashioned Enlightenment rationalist) to embrace that conclusion. The reason for these multiple identities imputed to Smith is clear: he is not merely a key seminal figure in the history of an academic discipline; he is an iconic figure in the history of the modern West (and further afield as well, not least, since 1989). The Wealth of Nations is a foundational text of our civilisation and its self-understanding.

When I suggest that almost everybody has something to say about Smith, I mean almost everybody. It has been brought to my attention by the regular though anonymous columnist, 'J. C.' (2008), in the Times Literary Supplement, that even the Prime Minister of Great Britain has published extensive reflections on Smith. Thus. in a foreword to Ian McLean's 2006 book, Adam Smith, Radical and Egalitarian, Mr Brown opines: 'Coming from Kirkcaldy as Adam Smith did, I have come to understand that his Wealth of Nations was underpinned by his Theory of Moral Sentiments'. The TLS columnist echoes the bewilderment of a reviewer of McLean's book, as to how coming from Kirkcaldy could possibly assist one in understanding the relation between Smith's two books. Perhaps Adam Smith is still in the air around those parts of Scotland. Be that as it may, in the 2005 Hugo Young Memorial Lecture Mr Brown had further thoughts on Smith: 'Coming from Kirkcaldy as Adam Smith did, I have come to understand that his Wealth of Nations was underpinned by his Theory of Moral Sentiments'. Then, in an introduction to the first British edition of Gertrude Himmelbarb's The Roads to Modernity, we are offered the following additional reflections: 'Coming from Kirkcaldy as Adam Smith did, I have come to understand that his Wealth of Nations was underpinned by his Theorry of Moral Sentiments'.

The TLS column in which this information about the Prime Minister's reflections on Smith is provided, is aptly entitled 'Recycling Policy'. It ends with the delicious editorial comment: 'Having two arms and legs, as George Santayana did, we have come to understand that those who do not remember their own waffle are condemned to repeat it'.

In the name of balance and even-handed reporting, I should add, however, that a TLS reader leapt to Mr Brown's defence in a letter to the editor eleven weeks later (Times Literary Supplement. 25 April, p. 6). Mr Alasdair Gray of Glasgow writes that the now familiar Brown comment--'Coming from Kirkcaldy ...' etc.--is not at all meaningless. Smith's two books were two halves:

 
   of a view more easily seen by those growing up in a small, 
   partly self-supporting commercial town whose bosses were still 
   members of a local community. And I wish my friend J.C. 
   would stop mocking Brown for using the same words when 
   talking about the same thing. Authors and journalists are 
   expected to say the same thing in different ways. … 
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.