Monday, March 01, 2010

Adam Smith: the nuanced thinker

Added to our quotations page, after stumbling across a nice New York Times article from 2001.

'When the regulation, therefore, is in support of the workman, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters.'
- Adam Smith.

This is from an article reviewing Emma Rothschild's book Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet and the Enlightenment, which points out, as we did not so long ago:

"Ms. Rothschild argues that Smith has been reinvented as a narrow, unyielding defender of unfettered free enterprise. Yes, he emphasized the motivating force of self-interest and gains from free trade, but he also viewed freedom in a broader sense than economic freedom and championed the disadvantaged. The real Adam Smith was a complex thinker, capable of holding and exploring ideas even when they were in conflict. To understand Smith, Ms. Rothschild says his contributions must be viewed in light of 18th-century institutions.
. . .
Smith worried about the encroachment of government on economic activity, but his concerns were directed at least as much toward parish councils, church wardens, big corporations, guilds and religious institutions as to the national government. . . Smith was sometimes tolerant of government intervention, ''especially when the object is to reduce poverty."

And further quotations have been picked out, such as:

"Smith was a Rawlsian before the philosopher John Rawls, proclaiming: ''No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, clothe and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed and lodged."

We already noted this, on progressive taxation:

"Smith did favor low taxes and argued that subjects ''ought to contribute toward the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities.'' But he also argued, ''It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expence, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.''

And in summary, despite the claims of the Adam Smith Institute and many others to claim Smith as the defender of a libertarian, low-tax, small-government world view:

Ms. Rothschild says she does not want to ''claim Adam Smith from the right for the left.'' Her point is that Smith was a nuanced thinker with an unafraid mind, not an ideologue. ''The only real sense in which I am a proselytizer,'' she said, ''is to encourage people to read Adam Smith for themselves.''

"The beauty of Adam Smith -- why he is still worth reading and debating after 225 years -- is that he saw economics as deeply intertwined with human nature, with people's feelings, emotions and thoughts. He eloquently reported what he observed firsthand or learned from history without prejudice or fear."


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