Smith on Smith

Last but by no means least here is an extract from Vernon’s Smith’s foreword.

This book is a welcome addition to the resurgent scholarly and practical interest in Adam Smith’s contributions to market economics and its antecedents in the social order of human culture. In Smith, propriety concerned the rules that govern human sociability by mutual consent in local group interactions. Out of this experience were fashioned the rules of property, justice and the liberal order of political economy, and thence to economic prosperity. It is a grand narrative alive with meaning for the contemporary world in which side-by-side with markets the demand for sociability has found new expression in the social media companies. No wonder that in a seminar Kenneth Boulding could refer to Adam Smith as the first great post-Newtonian scientist.

I was a candidate for an MA in economics at the University of Kansas in 1951 when I read Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776; hereafter WN) under the tutelage of Richard S. Howey, a leading scholar of the history of marginal analysis. My notes from that class make no mention of Smith’s first book, The Theory on Moral Sentiments (1759; hereafter TMS). Such was the state of economists’ knowledge of TMS, and of Smith’s lifelong interest in human sentiment—in his view the social foundation of our species’ very being. In retrospect, this was to be expected because TMS was a work in psychology, appearing a century and a quarter before psychology would be recognized as a field separate from philosophy. WN would be identified with the founding of economics by becoming an integral part of our understanding of the takeoff in the growth of material well-being in the 18th century at a time when the British defeat by the American colonies would lead to a reappraisal of British policy. Adam Smith set the intellectual stage for that change in his opposition to slavery, mercantilism, empire, colonialism and taxation without representation when such opposition was unpopular.

. . .

In no sense was Smith a champion of the unfettered profit motive. What it meant for the individual to pursue his own interest in his own way is exactly what the whole of TMS sought to explain. In this sense, Smith’s first book is essential in understanding the meaning of his argument in his second book. It was not his style to repeat that argument when he wrote WN.

The editors are to be congratulated in bringing these new and insightful papers to the task of understanding Adam Smith’s contribution to our modern world.

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