Speaking of Smith

What Makes a Human?

Amy Willis for AdamSmithWorks
Part 1 of a #ReadWithMe of Adam Ferguson’s An Essay on the History of Civil Society.
I confess I know more about Adam Ferguson from secondary sources discussing his relation to and influence upon Adam Smith than I do from his own work. Happily, this summer’s Online Library of Liberty Virtual Reading Group is affording me the opportunity to enjoy a cover-to-cover read of his History of Civil Society. In this and in posts to follow, I’ll share my reading journey with you. (And, by the way, if you've not participated in one of our VRGs, you’re missing out on a super rewarding-and fun!- opportunity.)
The first part of the Essay explores the “General Characteristics of Human Nature.” I see the shadows of Smith, Montesquieu, and the American Founders most clearly in this section.
Ferguson’s project here obviously closely parallels Smith’s in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He is explicit about his “science” of man project. Looking for universal tendencies in human nature, Ferguson also adheres to a stadial theory of history. What constitutes progress for Ferguson is something I would like to learn more about. He rejects the state of nature other than an imaginary construct, and focuses his discussion of human’s inherent sociality on interest, self-love, the common good, and dissension (which also includes war). Ferguson’s taste for virtue runs toward the martial, as opposed to the commercial bent of Smith, and especially Hume. That said, Ferguson acknowledges that moral sentiments prevail even in commercial societies, or even when contrary to one’s material interest. Love and compassion, he insists, are more powerful, if less constant, than (self) interest. (Note: nowhere in the text have I thus far found Ferguson using the term “self-interest,” but only “interest,” hence my parenthetical.)
Ferguson spends a good bit of time on the concept of happiness, noting that despite its ubiquity, it is a relatively unexamined concept. Indeed Ferguson seems to believe that people are “happy” most all the time- even while they’re complaining. We think we more often experience pain and unhappiness, all as we whistle while we work. (Yes, he does use that as an example.) I’m not sure how many behavioral economists reference Ferguson, but now I want to find out. One idea that particularly struck me was Ferguson’s suggestion that we pursue happiness through planning. (p 46) Hayek of course came to my mind here. I will be interested to see if Ferguson draws a distinction between micro- and macro-level planning later in the text.
In the meantime, here are some of the questions this section left me with, and which we were able to explore in the first session of our VRG. 
  1. What should we expect from a study of the character of man?
  2. How does Ferguson define (self) interest compared to self-love?
  3. How would you characterize Ferguson’s impression of commercial societies?
  4. Ought the prime focus of moral sentiment be the individual or the community? What constitutes the common good, or public utility, for Ferguson?
  5. Ferguson tells us the most important function of virtue is “to communicate and diffuse itself.” (p. 42) This to me suggests an educative function for virtue. Does it follow then that virtue can be taught? If not, how does the individual acquire virtue?
  6. What does Fergsuon see as the best way to pursue happiness, and what is an end state of happiness like for the individual? For society?
  7. Politics for Ferguson is the realm of rivalry. (p. 62) How can we reconcile  politics with what he deems the foundations of “national felicity”- peace and unanimity?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below. Whether you couldn’t make this VRG, you didn’t hear about it in time, or you just weren’t sure it was for you, we’d love to open up the conversation with you here.
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Free Trade in Language: Adam Smith on Words and Wine

Sarah Skwire for AdamSmithWorks

Since Smith was clearly at peace with the idea of importing French wines, why does he object to importing French words?

FDR versus Liberalism: Quotations from David Green, 1987

Daniel B. Klein for AdamSmithWorks

In this post, economist Daniel B. Klein unpacks the relationship between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the meaning of the word "liberalism," drawing on David Green's 1987 book, The Language of Politics in America: Shaping Political Consciousness from McKinley to Reagan.

Adam Smith in the Narrow Corridor

Shanon FitzGerald for AdamSmithWorks

Adam Smith understood that freedom is not the natural order of things. Do we?

Adam Smith's Lost Loves

Enrique Guerra-Pujol for AdamSmithWorks

Did Adam Smith know what it was like to be in love? Here's a law professor's primer on the evidence.

Smith on Rousseau

Daniel B. Klein for AdamSmithWorks
May 3, 2021

In this video, Daniel B. Klein speaks about the historical and intellectual relationship between Adam Smith and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 

Adam Smith and the Market for Kidneys for Transplantation

Walter Castro and Julio J. Elías for AdamSmithWorks

Could the kidney transplantation system benefit from an injection of Adam Smith's ideas? Authors Castro and Elias, drawing on research published with Gary Becker, share their analysis below. 

Adam Smith y Política Fiscal

Thelmo Vargas-Madrigal for AdamSmithWorks

Costa Rican economist Thelmo Vargas-Madrigal explains the relevance of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations to modern discussions of public policy and the provision of public goods. 

Adam Smith on Fiscal Policy

Thelmo Vargas-Madrigal for AdamSmithWorks

Costa Rican economist Thelmo Vargas-Madrigal explains the relevance of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations to modern discussions of public policy and the provision of public goods. 

Adam Smith on the Interests of Labor and Business

Alex Aragona for AdamSmithWorks

According to Smith, to understand business economics we need to see that both labor and business should be recognized as classes, and that both pursue separate interests and agendas that sometimes conflict.

Adam Smith on Political Parties

Max Skjönsberg for AdamSmithWorks

Smith had both understanding of and insight into political parties, and while he spoke candidly about their harmful effects, he also believed that they could play an important role in reforming abuse and securing tranquility and happiness in the state.

Benevolence, Beneficence, and Beneficialness

Daniel B. Klein for AdamSmithWorks
March 15, 2021

What do these "three B's" have to do with the sentiment of gratitude? Daniel B. Klein explains. 

How to Read a Book Inspectionally

Art Carden for AdamSmithWorks

Inspectional reading is a tool that can make us better readers, scholars, and lifelong learners.

Devoured by Wild Beasts or Drowned Like Puppies? With Markets, Neither

Maria Pia Paganelli for AdamSmithWorks

Adam Smith understood that prosperity decreases desperation and spares the lives of many infants, older persons, and vulnerable others who cannot participate directly in production. Have today's critics of markets forgotten this lesson?

Smithian Exchange Among Non-Human Animals

James E. Hanley for AdamSmithWorks

Smith wrote about the human propensity to "truck, barter, and exchange," but the modern science of animal behavior suggests that we are not exactly alone in this capability. 

The Moon Phase Watch and Adam Smith’s Philosophy of History

Graham McAleer for AdamSmithWorks
Does Smith's philosophy of history give in to the apocalyptic temptation to "immanentize the eschaton"? A clue it does not is the moon phase watch. 

Adam Smith, Francis Fukuyama, and the Indignity of UBI

Thomas Koenig for AdamSmithWorks

UBI does not speak to the demands of dignity, nor to the Smithian needs to be seen and respected. 

Bargaining with the Butcher, Baker, and Brewer: A New Look at Smith’s Most Famous Sentences

Jacob Sider Jost for AdamSmithWorks

Our desire to persuade each other is not reducible to our pursuit of self-interest in a narrow material sense; it is rather a deep feature of human nature, one we share with the men and women whom we rely on for our food.

Profitable Business: Adam Smith’s Moral Assessment

Gregory Robson for AdamSmithWorks

What we get in Smith is not a utopian view of profitable business, but a humane and realistic assessment of the power of firms and the markets in which they operate to do good in the world.

What Adam Smith Ate: Christmas Punch

Renee Wilmeth for AdamSmithWorks

Smith would have enjoyed his favorite claret, what we would call Bordeaux today, as well as, perhaps, a Christmas punch. 

Adam Smith Wishes You a Mereology Christmas

Graham McAleer for AdamSmithWorks

Aristotle’s proposition that individuals belong more to the republic than to themselves folds the part (individual) into the whole (polity). This mereology collapsed, argues Strauss, when people adopted the Christian belief in a personal transcendent destiny and a loyalty to a kingdom beyond this world.

Happiness in Times of Crisis

Garret Edwards for AdamSmithWorks

By François Topino-Lebrun - Public Domain

"In highlighting the anecdote of Pyrrhus and Cineas, Smith moves away from an answer to the happiness question that is merely economic or material."

Adam Smith Wants you to ENJOY the Holidays

James E. Hartley for AdamSmithWorks

...the holidays are coming and the goose is getting…dropped from the menu. Multiply that by all those things you used to do and will not be doing this year, and it all seems rather bleak. But, why? Why aren’t you excited that your forthcoming celebrations are going to be novel and different?

Adam Smith’s Readers in Eighteenth-Century Libraries

Max Skjönsberg for AdamSmithWorks

One way to investigate the broader impact of Smith’s writings is through the lens of eighteenth-century subscription libraries. 

Adam Smith on the Emergent Meaning of “Stuff”

Lauren Hall for AdamSmithWorks

While it’s not in the nature of Smith to wax too philosophical over human meaning, I think his treatment of property, combined with the themes of spontaneous order and emergent meaning that thread their way throughout his work, can help us come to terms with and understand the role that property or “stuff” plays in our lives and why it matters.

Adam Smith: Myths and Realities

Brianne Wolf for AdamSmithWorks

LF capitalist.jpg 36.33 KB

August 31, 2020 

The Sympathetic Businessman

Jon Murphy for AdamSmithWorks

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. 

Adam Smith and the Costs of the Division of Labor

Alex Aragona for AdamSmithWorks

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

Kenly Stewart for AdamSmithWorks

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

Leah Kilfoyle for AdamSmithWorks

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.

Joseph Banks

Carl Oberg for AdamSmithWorks

June 15, 2020

"...Banks, perhaps instinctively, knew more about economic change than his educational and scientific background let on."

Adam Smith and Jane Austen

Renee Wilmeth for AdamSmithWorks

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.

The East Asian economic miracle: An iron hand, or an invisible one?

Rob York for AdamSmithWorks

May 18, 2020

A great leader isn’t necessary for great results, and an invisible hand beats an iron one any day. 

Fighting COVID-19 with Pretty Machines

Rachel Lomasky for AdamSmithWorks

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.

The 18th Century and Social Networking

Carl Oberg for AdamSmithWorks

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.”

Pro-Slavery, Anti-Smith

Timothy Sandefur for AdamSmithWorks

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?

Nathanael Snow for AdamSmithWorks

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.

Adam Smith in the Car and in the Classroom

Andrew Smith for AdamSmithWorks

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

Paul Schwennesen for AdamSmithWorks

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 Imitative Arts: Some Fun with Adam Smith’s Artistic Opinions

Maryann Corbett for AdamSmithWorks

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.

Adam Smith and Slavery

Matthew Lowenstein for AdamSmithWorks

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? 

Can We Become the Impartial Spectator?

Nir Ben-Moshe for AdamSmithWorks

November 11, 2019

To what extent did Smith believe we can become the impartial spectator?

A Modern Lawyer and Smith’s Lectures on Jurisprudence, Part 2

Clark Neily for AdamSmithWorks

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.