Nobody's Perfect, Not Even Adam Smith

Shal Marriott for AdamSmithWorks

January 27, 2020

" 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."
When you find a piece of writing that speaks to you, it is easy to become consumed by it--to admire it with such enthusiasm, that it becomes idealized. When we encounter works like this, they become touchpoints that we revisit frequently, that we enter into a dialogue with, and that fascinate us endlessly with the questions they inspire.

For many of us, some of those cherished pieces of writing are written by Adam Smith. But 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. This becomes more true the more time we spend studying him and the more his works speak to us. As we become increasingly invested in the works we spend our time with, we become more partial to them and that can affect our judgement. That bias in their favor can lead us to the temptation to overlook their imperfections, to make excuses at times when we should be critical, and to let things go that in other cases we would question. We fail when we forget that an author’s flaws are just as important as their achievements.

Thus the fiercest defenders of Adam Smith and his legacy ought also to be among his harshest critics. It sounds contradictory, in a way. Why should we be critical of the person we are trying to defend? Because that’s the very purpose of inquiry. Good scholarship is not about assuming we are right, but testing to see if we are wrong. That applies from the principles of physics right through to the Theory of Moral Sentiments

When it comes to Adam Smith, it’s crucial that our conversations are not simply about how lovely his world is, but about the ways in which it is not. Even if we don’t always like the answers we might find, we need to take the time in our considerations to play the part of the critic. We also need to remember when introducing people to his work  that we cannot ask them to be open minded and consider changing their minds about him if we ourselves are not willing to do the same.  

Adam Smith is a thinker who has inspired many, and it hasn’t always been out of love. Consider the ways in which Smith influenced one of his greatest critics, Karl Marx. He has also had a positive influence for many people, who see a lot of good within the writings he has left behind. For many here on this site, Adam Smith really has changed our lives for the better (Russ Roberts even wrote a book about it). 

But I write as someone who is already in love with Smith’s work, who has been convinced of his ideas. For those who are not, for those who think he has gotten a lot wrong, or that he should be merely a footnote in history, come join the conversation and explore those ideas. Help me be a better critic, and hopefully I can help you to see some good in what he has to offer.

Reading Smith means entering into a dialogue with him and all those who have explored his thoughts. It means exploring different sides of his arguments, different perspectives on his principles, and different ideas about how they apply to our world. That kind of dialogue also allows us to connect to one another, a thought Smith would have been fond of I imagine. 

* Readers may also be interested in Pedro Schwartz, What Karl Marx Did and Did Not See in Adam Smith.