Maiden Aunt

Colin Kidd

  • Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life by Nicholas Phillipson
    Allen Lane, 345 pp, £25.00, August 2010, ISBN 978 0 7139 9396 7
  • Adam Smith and the Circles of Sympathy: Cosmopolitanism and moral theory by Fonna Forman-Barzilai
    Cambridge, 286 pp, £55.00, March 2010, ISBN 978 0 521 76112 3

‘I’m sometimes told that the Scots don’t like Thatcherism,’ Margaret Thatcher told the Scottish Conservative Conference in 1988. ‘Well, I find that hard to believe – because the Scots invented Thatcherism, long before I was thought of.’ The Scot she meant was Adam Smith, a figure popularly identified as the founder of economics, an apostle of capitalism and honoured prophet of the new right. It was exasperating for Thatcher, and a pleasing irony for her opponents, that the nation of Adam Smith should so decisively and repeatedly reject the lessons of Thatcherite economics. Yet at the root of her puzzlement, by a further irony, was her own misunderstanding of Smith. It was not simply that the electorate north of the border had betrayed its free-marketeering heritage, but that Thatcher’s hero was far from the proto-Thatcherite she and her advisers assumed him to be.

All great thinkers are misunderstood by posterity, at least in some measure. Ideas which remain relevant beyond the context in which they were framed inevitably undergo a process of distortion. Readers can’t help but lose sight of the particular circumstances which brought these ideas into being, and become insensitive to nuance, rhetorical strategies and carefully targeted responses to the (now unread) hinterland of debate which lies beyond the canonical works in question. Few thinkers, however, have experienced the curious posthumous fate of Smith, with his name taken in vain by a profession to which he never belonged and his legacy fought over by political creeds to which he did not subscribe, and could scarcely have imagined.

Undergraduates experience a jolt when they are told that Adam Smith was not an economist. Rather, as we know from his body of work and from the chance survival of lecture notes taken by his students, he was a moral philosopher and analyst of statecraft for whom The Wealth of Nations was only one – albeit crucial – component in a broader science of man. Economists have also been slow to absorb this message. Yet the growing literature on Smith’s ethics, politics and jurisprudence – notwithstanding its debt to professional economists such as Donald Winch – has emerged during a period when the history of economics has become at best semi-detached from economics as a discipline. Nevertheless, there remain some historically inclined economists with a keen nose for anachronism who question whether it is appropriate to associate Smith with laissez-faire or the Industrial Revolution or with capitalism itself. Did he know these terms or the phenomena to which they came to refer?

While Smith remains an icon for the right, the last decade has seen a number of attempts, by politicians as well as by scholars, to liberate him from the monopolistic embrace of conservatism and big business. Emma Rothschild’s subtle and erudite study of Smith and the wider contexts of late 18th-century political economy, Economic Sentiments (2001), showed that political economy emerged in the decades before the French Revolution as an anti-establishment ideology of liberation from the Ancien Régime. More particularly, she demonstrated that Smith’s very occasional use of the phrase ‘invisible hand’ – the now well-worn metaphor for the self-regulating capacity of the free market – was playful rather than integral to his message. The co-architect of New Labour, Gordon Brown, went a few steps further, attempting to rehabilitate Smith, not without some plausibility, as a proponent of ‘the helping hand’. In part this manoeuvre was prompted by local piety, for Brown was brought up and has his constituency in Smith’s home town of Kirkcaldy, but it was also a product of his distaste at the reductive reading of Smith by those on the right, and his need to find historical inspiration for a non-conservative, communitarian engagement with the inevitabilities of global capitalism. Smith was, for example, committed to public education as a remedy for the narrowing of horizons consequent on the division of labour, though it is a large step from this position to enlisting him as a champion of the welfare state, even when reorientated towards ensuring equality of opportunity rather than of outcomes. Nevertheless, even if Brown’s reading is exaggerated, it remains a much needed corrective to a right-wing hagiography which tends to iron out Smith’s anti-elitist wrinkles. ‘All for ourselves, and nothing for other people,’ he wrote in The Wealth of Nations, ‘seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.’ It takes an especially gifted casuist to convert such sentiments into Thatcherspeak, though it can be done.

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