Speaking of Smith
AdamSmith: Myths and Realities
August 3, 2020
Often enough one may hear that the Wealth of Nations is about markets, about the marvels of free markets, about how markets are able to harmonize different interests in a peaceful way.
The sneaking arts of underling tradesmen are thus erected into political maxims for the conduct of a great empire. […] By such maxims as these, however, nations have been taught that their interest consisted in beggaring all their neighbours. Each nation has been made to look with an invidious eye upon the prosperity of all the nations with which it trades, and to consider their gain as its own loss. Commerce, which ought naturally to be, among nations, as among individuals, a bond of union and friendship, has become the most fertile source of discord and animosity. […] the impertinent jealousy of merchants and manufacturers […] the mean rapacity, the monopolizing spirit of merchants and manufacturers, who neither are, nor ought to be the rulers of mankind […] originally both invented and propagated this doctrine […] and they who first taught it were by no means such fools as they who believed it. Their [merchants and manufacturers] interest is, in this respect, directly opposite to that of the great body of the people. (WN IV.c.9-10)
were addressed by merchants to parliament, and to the council of princes, to nobles and to country gentlemen, by those who were supposed to understand trade, to those who were conscious to themselves that they knew nothing about the matter. […] The merchants knew perfectly in what manner it enriched themselves. It was their business to know it. But to know in what manner it enriched the country, was no part of their business. (WN IV.i.10)
Not only the prejudices of the publick, but what is much more unconquerable, the private interests of many individuals, irresistibly oppose [the potential decrease or elimination of the privileges special interests achieved]. Were the officers of the army to oppose with the same zeal and unanimity any reduction in the number of forces, with which master manufacturers set themselves against every law that is likely to increase the number of their rivals in the home market; were the former to animate their soldiers, in the same manner as the latter enflame their workmen, to attack with violence and outrage the proposers of any such regulation; to attempt to reduce the army would be as dangerous as it has now become to attempt to diminish in any respect the monopoly which our manufacturers have obtained against us. This monopoly has so much increased the number of some particular tribes of them, that, like an overgrown standing army, they have become formidable to the government, and upon many occasions intimidate the legislature. The member of parliament who supports every proposal for strengthening this monopoly, is sure to acquire not only the reputation of understanding trade, but great popularity and influence with an order of men whose numbers and wealth render them of great importance. If he opposes them, on the contrary, and still more if he has authority enough to be able to thwart them, neither the most acknowledged probity, nor the highest rank, nor the greatest publick services can protect him from the most infamous abuse and detraction, from personal insults, nor sometimes from real danger, arising from the insolent outrage of furious and disappointed monopolists. (WN IV.ii.43)
This is an important conceptual re-framing of a book that many readers of this site probably feel they have more or less figured out--at least on the level of what Smith was up to. But as you point out, his purposes weren't necessarily our own, and the economic paradigm he was writing so "violently" against certainly is alien to us in the modern world. It is important we know that so we may approach Smith with the proper historical humility, recognizing that the past remains for us a foreign country.
One question I'm grappling with regarding the longest quotation is, are private interests still the greatest obstacle to a more sound economic policy, or have public (economic) prejudices come to play a more important role given the spread of democracy since Smith's time?
Shanon, that's a great question, and one I'm not sure Smith addresses- whether because he thought private interests were more significant or hadn't considered public, I don't know. He has things to say about public opinion elsewhere, particularly in TMS, but I'm not sure how that helps with your question. Anyone else?
Shanon, that is a good question indeed. Democracy is not in Smith's view, as you pointed out.
For Smith, special interests are able to influence and shape those public prejudices. Take WN IV.iii.c.10: "in every country it always is and must be the interest of the great body of the people to buy whatever they want of those who sell it cheapest. The proposition is so very manifest, that it seems ridiculous to take any pain to prove it; nor could it ever have been called in question, had not the interested sophistry of merchants and manufacturers confounded the common sense of mankind".
On Gulliver, Swift, and Adam Smith
July 27, 2020
Part 1 of a #ReadWithMe Series
The Sympathetic Businessman
July 17, 2020
Maugham's story is worth a read for entertainment, but it also highlights an important aspect of commerce: the necessity of sympathy.
Farming in the time of Coronavirus: Do I CARE Anymore?
July 5, 2020
The taxman shadows the showman, and it is the humble, the middling, the sweating, worrying, mincing business owner and his working clientele that will pay for such comfort.
Adam Smith and the Costs of the Division of Labor
July 3, 2020
One shouldn’t be satisfied with any discussion of the division of labor that leaves consideration of the costs off the table.
The Hopeful Vision of Saint Augustine and Adam Smith
June 22, 2020
Here I use Tertullian’s formula to ask a different question, “What has Glasgow to do with Hippo?”
"Saving Adam Smith" Saves My Economics Class
June 19, 2020
Saving Adam Smith hit the bullseye for my most recent search for a book that not only covers a number of my state’s standards, but demystifies the broader understanding of Adam Smith’s economics.
June 15, 2020
"...Banks, perhaps instinctively, knew more about economic change than his educational and scientific background let on."
Exploiting the Good Earth
June 8, 2020
The word exploit has now come to be synonymous with theft, which is a pity because it allows so much of what works in the world to be lumped in with what doesn’t.
Adam Smith and Jane Austen
June 5, 2020
The similarities in Smith’s descriptions of moral weakness and Austen’s descriptions of people were undeniable. It was as if I could assign a different character in the book to each of Smith’s passages on moral philosophy.
Empathy, Exchange, and the Dangers of Demonization
June 1, 2020
Modern Society Allows Appreciation of Frontline Workers
May 29, 2020
"...modernity, whatever its flaws, can’t take the blame for this shortcoming. If anything, it positions us to remedy it."
The East Asian economic miracle: An iron hand, or an invisible one?
May 18, 2020
A great leader isn’t necessary for great results, and an invisible hand beats an iron one any day.
Being Me Being You
May 15, 2020
"...we are all creatures who are constantly trying to feel as other human beings do."
May 11, 2020
Despite fervent claims that we are currently undergoing an “unprecedented” calamity, however, we’ve been here before. While the Covid-19 crisis is stunning in modern terms, it is a mere flesh wound in the annals of political turmoil.
Fighting COVID-19 with Pretty Machines
May 4, 2020
Today’s machines are even prettier than the cleverly rigged piece of rope Smith admires. They are robots that help enable the prosperity of modern society. And during this time of global epidemic, their result is more than mere diversion.
Cromwell and the Chiseling of the Court
May 1, 2020
“It is hard to determine what a monarch may or may not do.”
The 18th Century and Social Networking
April 27, 2020
“...The mirth of … company is highly agreeable to him, and he regards this correspondence of their sentiments with his own as the greatest applause.”
A Sense of How to Respond
April 24, 2020
Part of what makes a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic so unsettling is that the established rules have to go out the window... Luckily, we have more than an inflexible list of rules. We have our moral sentiments.
Institutional Competition and the Scottish Enlightenment
April 20, 2020
Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely
April 17, 2020
Politics, Education, and Ideology
Adam Smith: Myths and Realities
April 13, 2020
Myth 2: Adam Smith argued that the welfare gains from free trade among nations were limited to countries’ exploitation of their production cost advantages.
Adam Smith: Myths and Realities
April 6, 2020
Myth 1: Adam Smith argued that markets are activated exclusively by people’s self-interest.
Educating for Character at Home: Adam Smith and John and Abigail Adams
March 30, 2020
As difficult as our current circumstances are, we can teach our children the importance of being good citizens attuned to the needs of others during these troubled times.
Diderot and the Art of Thinking SOCIALLY
March 27, 2020
Are you reading with me???
Sympathy and Social Isolation
March 23, 2020
How do we practice sympathy in a time of social isolation?
Wash Your Hands. Stop an Earthquake.
March 20, 2020
It is a coincidence that today’s health crisis began, like Smith’s earthquake, in China. It is not a coincidence that Smith’s discussion of human behavior during a crisis remains as pertinent today as it was in the 18th century.
On Transitioning to Online Teaching
March 13, 2020
I’m one week in and have learned a few things and implemented many of the skills I learned...
March 16, 2020
It’s unlikely that Burke imagined, when sneering at “economists” in his Reflections, that his defense of feudal hierarchy would later serve as the foundation for a bloody rebellion aimed at perpetuating chattel slavery.
What Would Adam Smith Say About Fasting?
March 9, 2020
To become willing to share bread with the hungry and to enter into solidarity with the suffering of others requires the activation of what Adam Smith calls sympathy, the ability to enter into another person’s sentiments through imagining one’s self in her place.
Smith on Rhetoric: Dangerous Clarity
March 2, 2020
...Smith was--as have been so many writers--both impressed by and wary of the power of good writing and rhetoric
Adam Smith in the Car and in the Classroom
February 24, 2020
“Dad, what if there were no money? What if we could have everything we wanted and not have to pay for it?”
The Future of Farmers – Adam Smith Weighs In
February 17, 2020
The ailment, clearly, is not affecting farming, but farmers, historically understood. Our issue is a social one, not a technical one.
The Ambivalent Mr Smith
February 10, 2020
How can we ensure our youngest both learn the primary skills they need to navigate the world successfully and maintain their sense of Wonder?
Adam Smith and International Relations
February 3, 2020
In true liberal fashion, Adam Smith commenced his analysis of international politics with his view on human nature, which includes the idea that people are bound to quarrel and fight and are often guided by emotion rather than reason.
Nobody's Perfect, Not Even Adam Smith
January 27, 2020
"...no matter how much we love his work, no matter how worthy of our admiration and praise that work is, we need to be careful not to become blinded by our fondness and enthusiasm for it."
Adam Smith and Stadial Theory
January 20, 2020
Not only was this Stadial Theory of civilization helpful for understanding history and the past, it also allowed Smith to make sense of Scotland’s political, economic, and social transformations in the 18th century.
The Imitative Arts: Some Fun with Adam Smith’s Artistic Opinions
January 13, 2020
In his essay on the arts, Smith says much that now looks wrong, but his questionable claims might be the most interesting things he has to say.
The Unexpected Joy in Sharing Sadness
January 6, 2020
There are many lessons to be taken away from The Theory of Moral Sentiments... Yet an unexpected but important takeaway, is that we all should take a little bit more time to be sad.
Why Adam Smith Belongs in The Good Place, Part 3
December 23, 2019
“Holy Mother Forking Shirtballs” (Michael’s Gambit)
Why Adam Smith Belongs in The Good Place, Part 2
December 16, 2019
“That trauma? It can explain away a lot of behavior.” Eleanor Shellstrop, “Mindy St. Claire”
Why Adam Smith Belongs in "The Good Place"
December 9, 2019
In a show about what it means to become morally good, Adam Smith’s absence is conspicuous. I’d like to suggest that Schur put Smith on his reading list, both because Smith is part of the larger philosophical conversation in which the show is engaged, and because Smith provides an explanation for the characters’ dilemma, as well as a way out.
Adam Smith and Slavery
December 2, 2019
...is he right on the economics? That is, are there instances when slave labor could, at least conceptually, more effectively mobilize and accumulate capital than free labor?
Isn’t It Odd? The Project on Smith, Hume, Liberalism and Esotericism
November 22, 2019
Can We Become the Impartial Spectator?
November 11, 2019
To what extent did Smith believe we can become the impartial spectator?
Guns, Foreigners, and a Twist Ending
October 28, 2019
Clark Neily for AdamSmithWorks
How to Get Rich by Not Influencing People
October 21, 2019
Clark Neily for AdamSmithWorks
The Liberty Producing Institution
October 14, 2019
A Modern Lawyer and Smith’s Lectures on Jurisprudence, Part 2
October 7, 2019
Ensuring justice in a complex world is a daunting task. But it is the fundamental duty and the true raison d’etre of every sovereign, every elected body, and every legitimate political regime of whatever character or constitution.
A Modern Lawyer and Smith’s Lectures on Jurisprudence, Part 1
September 30, 2019
Adam Smith on the Country-City Debate
September 23, 2019
by Sarah Skwire for AdamSmithWorks
Eastern Science, Individualism, and Adam Smith
Smith’s unique belief in the individual results in a surprisingly modern assessment of Islamic contributions to astronomy.
September 16, 2019
On First Looking into The Wealth Of Nations
May 20, 2019
Smith and Superheroes
May 6, 2019
What Makes Man Sociable?
April 29, 2019
What makes people naturally sociable? How do we come to together as a community or society?
There's No Such Thing as Deregulation
April 8, 2019
“Deregulation” frequently conjures up the image of rich CEOs freed to do as they please without restraint or punishment like some sort of corporate Wild West. The regulation/deregulation dichotomy creates the impression that regulated markets are stable and orderly whereas deregulated markets are chaotic and wild – the “anarchy of production” as Karl Marx might have described it.
Smith's Scientific Milestones
March 25, 2019
Adam Smith and the Presumption of Liberty
March 11, 2019
Adam Smith was no anarchist. Smith did have a strong presumption of liberty, but this presumption was not absolute. Under certain conditions, a jural superior (such as a sovereign or magistrate) could violate this presumption of liberty and impose a policy that would break the rules of justice.
Drama versus Data- Adam Smith on Description
February 25, 2019
Is love ridiculous???
with Professor Spyridon Tegos
February 11, 2019
Ridicule does not seem to be an indifferent topic for Adam Smith. In this respect, he dedicates two of his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, (numbers 9 and 10) in which we read that while we admire the grand and beautiful and show contempt to what is mean and little...
Art's Important Moral Work
January 28, 2019
Adam Smith had a life-long interest in the arts. He was surely a man of taste. However, his biographer, Dugald Stewart, suggests Smith’s interest in the arts and fashion was primarily “on account of their connexion with the general principles of the human mind” (Essays on Philosophical Subjects, 173). Smith, it seems, was ever the theorist.
Beauty and Language in Adam Smith
January 14, 2019
The 18th century is generally cited as the birthplace of modern aesthetic thought. Whatever the veracity of this claim, there is little doubt that aesthetic topics were central to the intellectual projects of Enlightenment in a way that was unprecedented in the immediately preceding centuries. Philosophers and critics writing during this period addressed themselves to a variety of aesthetic questions: What is the nature of taste? How are aesthetic judgments made and what justifies such judgments? What is the nature of the beautiful and how does it relate to other aesthetic qualities, such as the sublime or the picturesque? What is the nature of artistic representation and how does it relate to the beauty of the natural world?
Adam Smith is no exception to this trend. Although he produced no systematic treatise on aesthetics (or “criticism” as it was called among Eighteenth century Brits), Smith touches on these issues at a number of places in his work. In the following series of blog posts, I want to examine some of Smith’s most insightful and interesting comments on aesthetic topics.