- The Life of Adam Smith by Ian Simpson Ross
Oxford, 495 pp, £25.00, October 1995, ISBN 0 19 828821 2
In Book IV of The Wealth of Nations, a vantage at which you have already left the economists shivering and huddled in their sleeping bags a thousand feet below, there is a sentence that lets you peer right into Adam Smith’s world. He is talking about Cameron of Lochiel, whose decision, against his better judgment, to come out for Prince Charles Edward Stuart in 1745 won the clans for the Pretender and doomed the ancient culture of the Highlands to extinction. ‘That gentleman, whose rent never exceeded five hundred pounds a year, carried, in 1745, eight hundred of his own people into the rebellion with him.’
Vol. 18 No. 1 · 4 January 1996
As one of the Glasgow economists not involved in editing the Glasgow collection of Adam Smith’s works, perhaps I may be allowed to point out the absurdity of James Buchan’s comment that ‘to an extent all the editors of the Glasgow edition regard The Wealth of Nations as scripture’ (LRB, 14 December 1995). One of those most closely involved in the meticulous editing of Smith’s writings was Ronald Meek, a Marxist economist who did not regard any economist’s writings, including his own, as scripture. I suspect I am now one of the few living persons, including recent prime ministers, who have actually read The Wealth of Nations. It is especially valuable to those interested in economic history, even more to those, like myself, interested in the history of Scottish agriculture. A large part of its economic analysis is rubbish and much less relevant to today than the works of Karl Marx, which certainly should not be regarded as scripture, even by Marxists.
University of Glasgow
Vol. 18 No. 2 · 25 January 1996
I am intrigued by the remark of your reviewer of Ian Simpson Ross’s Life of Adam Smith, James Buchan (LRB, 14 December 1995), that he has ‘absolutely no propensity to barter, truck, or exchange one thing for another’. It is as though a reviewer of a biography of Freud were to claim to have ‘absolutely no propensity’ to engage in any form of sexual activity. Does James Buchan never negotiate royalties with his publisher, respond to the offer of a discount when he goes shopping, or relate the value of services he pays for to what he pays for them? There may be such people in the world, but I find it hard to believe that he is one of them.
Incidentally, I am hardly less puzzled by his assertion that the exchange of armour between Glaucus and Diomede in Book VI of the Iliad is ‘the locus classicus for the clash of money and heroism’. What happened is that the two champions agreed not to fight when they discovered that through their respective grandfathers they were ‘guest-friends’. They then exchanged armour, and Homer says that Zeus ‘deprived Glaucus of his wits’ because he exchanged golden armour for bronze. The passage has always given difficulty, but so far as I know is generally interpreted as a joke. Walter Leaf, in the 1900 edition of his Commentary, called it ‘an outbreak of conscious and deliberate humour, which is only so far isolated that it appears among men and not, as elsewhere, among the gods’; and G.S. Kirk, in his 1990 Commentary, agrees that ‘the action and its implications are self-evidently intended to be humorous in some way.’
There is, I agree, a serious issue about the practice of gift-giving in the context of theories of rational choice. But for a light-hearted yet illuminating discussion of it, I would recommend your readers to leave Glaucus and Diomede in their mythical past and look up instead Samuel Brittan’s article ‘Glad Tidings of Dear Joy’ in the Financial Times for 16/17 December. Suppose you paid £10 for a bottle of wine which now sells for £50, and you give a bottle to a friend. Do you agree that you are costing yourself £50? It’s the correct economist’s reply, but apparently not the one that most readers of an American wine newsletter gave – which perhaps gives your reviewer a point after all.