Magazine article The American Conservative

Adam Smith, Communitarian

Magazine article The American Conservative

Adam Smith, Communitarian

Article excerpt

Adam Smith's Pluralism, Jack Russell Weinstein, Yale University Press, 341 pages

Legend has it that at the age of four, Adam Smith was kidnapped from his Scottish home by a travelling band of gypsies. A gentleman passing the gypsies on the road noticed the crying baby and alerted town officials, who rescued young Adam hours later. Of this near tragedy, Smith's 19th-century biographer John Rae sardonically commented that it was very fortunate because Smith "would have made ... a poor gipsy."

This story is where Jack Russell Weinstein begins a fascinating examination of Smith's moral philosophy. He is convinced that in a way Smith's philosophy continues to be held hostage by political pundits and intellectuals on the right and the left. In his academically rich study, Weinstein argues that the significance of Smith's sweeping exploration of human virtue has been eclipsed by countless oversimplified readings of his economics. Weinstein believes, however, that in the modern world of diversity and multiculturalism it is Smith's moral philosophy that we need more than his economics.

Ever since 1776, the first year of its publication, The Wealth of Nations has proved more popular than Smith's first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith's emphasis on free markets, his colorful metaphors like the invisible hand, and his farsighted expectations for the industrial revolution have made Wealth of Nations essential reading in our market-based, technologically-driven world.

This favoritism for Wealth of Nations has made Smith a "widely misunderstood" thinker, according to Weinstein. Smith is too often positioned as the godfather of "unfettered markets, libertarian governments, interactions solely for the purpose of satisfaction, and atomistic cosmopolitanism." What has been lost is Smith's "clarion call for personal relationships" as the basis for human society and his advocacy for a functioning pluralism--though Smith did not use the term--that is at the heart of Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Adam Smiths Pluralism is the first volume in a trilogy Weinstein intends to write on Smith. Here he proposes a "Smithian shift" in contemporary liberal theory, emphasizing Smith's key principle of sympathy and his efforts to find a method of achieving harmony in the disparate motives and passions of individuals. The book pays particular attention to the roots of Smith's moral philosophy found in the works of Thomas Hobbes, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Bernard Mandeville, and David Hume. With this context and his own mastery of Smith's writings, Weinstein hopes to rescue Smith's moral philosophy from a host of abductors and put it to work for the 21st century.

After briefly bemoaning the deformation of Smith's philosophy at the hands of political pundits, Weinstein offers a critical assessment of previous literature on Smith. Many scholars have investigated what is known now as the Adam Smith Problem, which pits the altruism of Theory of Moral Sentiments against the self-interest of Wealth of Nations, demanding from Smith's thought a singular, overarching cause to explain human action. This oversimplified perspective, Weinstein contends, fails to see Smith's promotion of "multiple motives," which Smith believed were not only "essential" for society but also consistent with human nature.

Weinstein also takes issue with philosophers like John Rawls and Alasdair MacIntyre who, in their different ways, "badly misrepresent Smith." For Weinstein, however, the greatest impediment to a thorough appreciation of Smith's moral philosophy is the specter of Immanuel Kant. Weinstein points to Kant as an unfortunate addition to liberalism's intellectual framework:

   many of liberalism's shortcomings
   are the product of its Kantian
   foundation. The conceptions of
   autonomy and universal reason
   that Rawls and others build on do
   not allow for complex notions of
   identity, political consideration of
   affection for individual persons,
   the importance of subjectivity, the
   emotions in moral and political
   commitments, and variations in
   human reason. … 
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