Adam Smith (1723–90) is perhaps best known as one of the first champions of the free market and is widely regarded as the founding father of capitalism. From his ideas about the promise and pitfalls of globalization to his steadfast belief in the preservation of human dignity, his work is as relevant today as it was in the eighteenth century. Here, Ryan Hanley brings together some of the world's finest scholars from across a variety of disciplines to offer new perspectives on Smith’s life, thought, and enduring legacy.
Contributors provide succinct and accessible discussions of Smith’s landmark works and the historical context in which he wrote them, the core concepts of Smith’s social vision, and the lasting impact of Smith’s ideas in both academia and the broader world. They reveal other sides of Smith beyond the familiar portrayal of him as the author of the invisible hand, emphasizing his deep interests in such fields as rhetoric, ethics, and jurisprudence. Smith emerges not just as a champion of free markets but also as a thinker whose unique perspective encompasses broader commitments to virtue, justice, equality, and freedom.
An essential introduction to Adam Smith’s life and work, this incisive and thought-provoking book features contributions from leading figures such as Nicholas Phillipson, Amartya Sen, and John C. Bogle. It demonstrates how Smith’s timeless insights speak to contemporary concerns such as growth in the developing world and the future of free trade, and how his influence extends to fields ranging from literature and philosophy to religion and law.
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About the Author
Ryan Patrick Hanley holds the Mellon Distinguished Professorship in Political Science at Marquette University. He is the author of Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue and the editor of the Penguin Classics edition of Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
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His Life, Thought, and Legacy
By Ryan Patrick Hanley
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2016 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
THE BIOGRAPHY OF ADAM SMITH
The life of the philosopher Adam Smith offers small incident to the biographer. Smith passed much of his life in masculine institutions, such as Glasgow and Oxford Universities and the Scottish Customs Board. He came to London first in his late thirties, traveled abroad just once, to France and Geneva, and did not marry. His chief attachment was to his mother, whose death at a great age prostrated him. Yet this existence, which Smith once called "extremely uniform," has come to fascinate our age. A trickle of biographical studies began to flow at the beginning of the twentieth century and in the past fifty years has become a river.
Smith stands at the point where history changes direction. During his lifetime, between 1723 and 1790, the failed kingdom of drink, the Bible, and the dagger that was old Scotland became a pioneer of the new sciences. God was dismissed from the lecture hall and the drawing room. The old medieval departments of learning disintegrated. Psychology became a study not of the soul but of the passions. Political economy was separated out of moral philosophy and began its progress to respectability and then hegemony. Smith was at the heart of those changes.
Because Smith did his thinking before the French Revolution of 1789 and the division of the political house into left and right, he appeals to both sides: on the left, to Tom Paine, Karl Marx, and Mary Wollstonecraft, on the right to Margaret Thatcher and every business club from Boston to Shanghai. The left Smithians like their hero's devotion to the laboring poor and his contempt for colonialism, the right Smithians his scorn of big government. In the course of the twentieth century, as new biographical materials turned up in the attics of Scottish country houses, each side looked for ammunition to launch at their political rivals.
From this battle, the economists held themselves aloof. Because, in the words of J. S. Mill, modern political economy concerns itself not with the whole of human nature but "only such phenomena of the social state as take place in consequence of the pursuit of wealth," Smith's adventures and exploits were to most economists as uninteresting as the events of any other single life. Even J. M. Keynes, who had a taste for biography, showed little curiosity about Smith's life and times. The revolution in Smith's biography since the publication of his lectures on jurisprudence in 1896 has proceeded without troubling the great mass of economists.
Above all, Smith's life is intertwined with modern biography itself, as inaugurated by James Boswell in his Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D (1791). Boswell had been Smith's pupil at Glasgow University and was entranced one day by a remark of Smith's in lecture that, in the life of a great man, even the smallest detail is of interest. Yet efforts by some authors (including this one) to Boswellize Smith have, for dearth of evidence, been unsuccessful.
These are the facts of Smith's life. Adam Smith was born in the early summer of 1723 in Kirkcaldy, a small port across the estuary or firth of the River Forth from Edinburgh, the ancient capital of Scotland. He was the son of Adam Smith, a commissioner of customs (who had died), and of Margaret Douglas. He was baptized on June 5, 1723. His birth date places him at the heart of a circle of Scotsmen known (since the early twentieth century) as the Scottish Enlightenment. A protégé of the philosophers Henry Home (b. 1696) and David Hume (1711), he was friend and colleague to the literary critic Hugh Blair (1718), the historian William Robertson (1721), the social philosopher Adam Ferguson (1723), and the natural scientists James Hutton (1726) and Joseph Black (1728).
Smith never knew his father, who had practiced as an attorney, supported the Union of the Scottish and English Parliaments in 1707, and was appointed comptroller of customs at Kirkcaldy in 1714. The family thus belonged to the "Whig" interest, supporters of the Protestant faith, a constitutional or limited monarchy under the House of Hanover, and political Union with England and Wales. During Smith's lifetime, the Whigs triumphed over their principal rivals, the "Jacobites," adherents of the Roman Catholic House of Stuart and old notions of absolute or divine-right monarchy. Much of Scotland fell to a Jacobite insurrection in 1745 before the rebellion was broken up the following year.
From the age of seven, Adam attended the two-room Burgh School in the town (which survives as Kirkcaldy High School) and passed, in 1737, to the University of Glasgow as a stage on the way to Oxford. He was fourteen years old, an age then thought more than ripe for university. At that time, the merchants of Glasgow were beginning to prosper from trade with the British colonies across the Atlantic, including the tobacco states of Virginia and Maryland. At the college, Smith was exposed to several teachers of the first order, including the liberal philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746), the mathematician Robert Simson (1687–1768), and the natural scientist Robert Dick (d. 1751).
Oxford, in contrast, which Adam Smith attended from 1740 on a forty-pound exhibition or bursary at Balliol College, left no discernible impression. Adam stayed without interruption from July 7, 1740, to August 15, 1746. There is no sign that he made friends at Oxford, and he commemorates not a single of his professors. Years later, in his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Smith wrote of certain ancient universities as "sanctuaries in which exploded systems and obsolete prejudices found shelter and protection, after they had been hunted out of every other corner of the world" (WN V.i.f.34). That caused great offense among alumni of Oxford University, such as Dr. Samuel Johnson.
In August 1746, Smith rode back to Scotland. His bursary had destined him for the Episcopalian church, but according to his first biographer, the philosopher Dugald Stewart, Smith had no taste for the "ecclesiastical profession" for which he had been supported in his study. Scotland was still reverberating from the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Edinburgh was under a cloud for surrendering to the rebels without firing a shot. Smith returned to Kirkcaldy and passes out of view.
He reappears in 1748, with his first published work, an unsigned preface to a collection of verses by a poet in Jacobite exile. Later that year, under the patronage of the lawyer and philosopher Henry Home, he delivered a series of lectures on rhetoric and jurisprudence in the capital. The lectures, which brought him a hundred pounds (or as much as some college professors), he repeated over the next two winters. He made his most important friendship, with the philosopher David Hume. The popularity of the lectures ensured that when the chair of logic and rhetoric at Glasgow University fell vacant in late 1750, though he was but twenty-seven years old, Smith was elected. He then, in 1752, transferred to Francis Hutcheson's old chair of moral philosophy.
Smith was to spend thirteen years in Glasgow and later described those years "as by far the most useful, and therefore, as by far the happiest and most honourable period of my life" (Stewart V.10). At first, his mother kept house for him, and she was later helped by an unmarried cousin, Janet Douglas, of whom Smith became fond. He engaged himself in university business. In the intervals, he worked up his notes from his ethics course into the first of his two main philosophical works, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which was printed in London in April 1759.
It was a success, praised by David Hume and Edmund Burke, among others, ran through six British editions and one Irish printing in his lifetime, and was translated into French and German. Though eclipsed by the Wealth of Nations in the eighteenth century, and neglected by the nineteenth century, the Theory has enjoyed a revival.
The Theory ended with a promise, which Smith could not keep but never abjured, that he would provide in a forthcoming work a historical "account of the general principles of law and government ... not only in what concerns justice, but in what concerns police, revenue, and arms, and whatever else is the object of law" (TMS VII.iv.37).
One consequence of the Theory's success was that Smith was asked to accompany as tutor a young nobleman, Henry, Duke of Buccleuch, on a tour of the European continent. The young man's family offered terms that few Scotsmen of that era would have refused: a salary of three hundred pounds per year, traveling expenses, and a pension of three hundred pounds for life. (For modern values, add two zeroes.) Though he was not required to do so, Smith resigned his chair at Glasgow and set off for France with the seventeen-year-old duke in February 1764.
After a period of inaction in Toulouse, where Smith worked on his next book, they traveled to Geneva and met Voltaire, and then Paris where Smith proved an unlikely success in the salons. Armed with introductions from Hume, he met several philosophers interested in questions of commerce, banking, public credit, and agriculture, such as the tax farmer Claude-Adrien Helvétius, André Morellet, and Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, who was to become controller general of French finances in the 1770s. He also consorted with a sect of agricultural theorists, led by the royal physician François Quesnay, known as the économistes or, nowadays, physiocrates.
This pleasant and productive life came to an end in October 1766, when the duke's younger brother, Hew, who had joined them, fell ill. Quesnay could not save the young man. In great dejection, the party returned to England in November. Smith spent six months in London, reading commercial texts and supervising a third edition of the Theory, which also contained a fair copy of one of his rhetoric lectures, "A Dissertation on the Origin of Languages." Smith then returned to his mother and Miss Douglas in Kirkcaldy, where he worked on what was to become the Wealth of Nations.
Distracted by a banking crisis in western Scotland, which affected the Buccleuch interests, and tension with the colonists in North America (where Smith supported colonial taxation), progress was slow. His friends despaired that Smith would ever complete what Boswell called his "Jurisprudence." Yet on March 9, 1776, in the midst of the crisis in America, there appeared in London in two volumes quarto An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith, LL.D. and F.R.S. (Fellow of the Royal Society), Formerly Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Glasgow.
The work was a success. While some critics carped at the book's length and repetitions, or took issue with Smith's views on money and the corn trade, many recognized that Smith had broken new ground. Smith seemed to be laying foundations for a new style of government based not on force, the royal prerogative, religious enthusiasm, or sectional interest but on the impulse of all free men and women "to better their condition." The Inquiry was, as Burke put it, "a compleat analysis of society" in respect to not just arts and commerce, but finance, justice, police (public policy), "oeconomy of armies," and public education. The book went through five London editions in Smith's lifetime, and was also printed in Dublin and Philadelphia.
With his Inquiry out in the world, Smith could attend to his friend Hume, who was dying. Notorious for his skepticism in matters of religion, or "infidelity" as it was known, Hume died without recourse to clergy in August 1776. Even before his friend's death, Smith was preparing an account of Hume's last illness and of his calm and un-Christian demeanor in the face of extinction.
Smith's eulogy of his friend, written in the form of a letter to their publisher William Strahan and dated from Kirkcaldy on November 9, 1776, cast Hume as a sort of modern Socrates, "approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit" (CAS 178). The letter infuriated the English Christians. Boswell, who under Dr. Johnson's influence had turned against his old teacher, suggested Johnson "knock Hume's and Smith's heads together, and make an ostentatious infidelity exceedingly ridiculous." Smith himself affected to be baffled that such a "very harmless Sheet of paper" had put the revolutionary message of the Inquiry in the shade (CAS 208).
Despite misgivings on the part of Smith, the Letter did not prevent his public employment. In 1777, death created a vacancy among the five commissioners of the Customs Board in Edinburgh, responsible for collecting duty on imported goods and suppressing smuggling in Scotland. Both the Treasury in London and the historian Edward Gibbon teased the philosopher for applying for so very modest a position. Now "affluent" if not rich on a salary of six hundred pounds per year, Smith tried to give up the Buccleuch annuity, but his pupil, who had more than absorbed The Theory of Moral Sentiments, refused. (The present duke once told me that Smith had shaped the history of his family, turning it away from the temptations of London and back toward Scotland.)
Smith moved his mother, Miss Douglas, and his boy cousin and heir, David Douglas, to Panmure House, an old-fashioned building (which survives, much damaged) in the Canongate of Edinburgh. In the next twelve years, Adam became an institution of the Scots capital. As he walked each morning up High Street to the Custom House (which still stands), he was sketched by the barber turned caricaturist John Kay. In one of the pictures that were engraved, Smith is dressed in a coat, wig, and hat, a posy of flowers in his left hand against the stench of the Edinburgh High Street, his cane like an infantry musket at the right shoulder.
Smith had, as he told a French correspondent in 1785, "two other great works upon the anvil; the one is a sort of Philosophical History of all the different branches of Literature, of Philosophy, Poetry and Eloquence; the other is a sort of theory and History of Law and Government. The materials of both are in a great measure collected, and some Part of both is put into tolerable good order. But the indolence of old age, tho' I struggle violently against it, I feel coming fast upon me, and whether I shall ever be able to finish either is extremely uncertain" (CAS 248).
What leisure remained him from his four days a week at the Scottish Customs Smith employed instead in producing a new and cheaper edition of the Wealth of Nations. It appeared with the printer Strahan in 1784 and included a new section attacking the trade monopoly and government of the British East India Company in the subcontinent. Smith traveled twice in this period to London, where at some point he sat for the portrait medallion by James Tassie that can be seen (in two states) in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. Later that year, he was appointed lord rector of his alma mater, the University of Glasgow. The deaths of his mother (May 23, 1784) and Janet Douglas (1788) left him desolate. His last work was a revision and expansion of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which was printed in early 1790.
Excerpted from Adam Smith by Ryan Patrick Hanley. Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Abbreviations x i i i
Notes on Contributors xv
I . INTRODUCTION: TEXTS AND CONTEXT
1. THE BIOGRAPHY OF ADAM SMITH James Buchan 3
2. THE LECTURES ON RHETORIC AND BELLES LETTRES Vivienne Brown 17
3. THE THEORY OF MORAL SENTIMENTS Eric Schliesser 33
4. THE LECTURES ON JURISPRUDENCE Knud Haakonssen 48
5. THE WEALTH OF NATIONS Jerry Evensky 67
6. THE ESSAYS ON PHILOSOPHICAL SUBJECTS Craig Smith 89
7. SMITH AND THE SCOTTISH ENLIGHTENMENT Nicholas Phillipson 105
II. SMITH’S SOCIAL VISION
8. ADAM SMITH ON LIVING A LIFE Ryan Patrick Hanley 123
9. ADAM SMITH: SELF-INTEREST AND THE VIRTUES Leonidas Montes 138
10. ADAM SMITH ON EQUALITY Elizabeth Anderson 157
11. ADAM SMITH ON JUSTICE AND INJUSTICE Nicholas Wolterstorff 173
12. ADAM SMITH AND THE SYMPATHETIC IMAGINATION Remy Debes 192
13. ADAM SMITH ON FREEDOM David Schmidtz 208
III. SMITH AND ECONOMICS
14. ADAM SMITH AND MODERN ECONOMICS Agnar Sandmo 231
15. ADAM SMITH AND THE HISTORY OF ECONOMIC THOUGHT: THE CASE OF BANKING Maria Pia Paganelli 247
16. ADAM SMITH AND EXPERIMENTAL ECONOMICS: SENTIMENTS TO WEALTH Vernon L. Smith 262
17. ADAM SMITH AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT Amartya Sen 281
IV. SMITH BEYOND ECONOMICS
18. ADAM SMITH AND RELIGION Gordon Graham 305
19. ADAM SMITH AND POLITICAL THEORY Lisa Hill 321
20. ADAM SMITH AND MODERN ETHICS Lisa Herzog 340
21. ADAM SMITH AND FEMINIST ETHICS: SYMPATHY, RESENTMENT, AND SOLIDARITY Jacqueline Taylor 354
22. ADAM SMITH’S JURISPRUDENCE: RESENTMENT, PUNISHMENT, JUSTICE Chad Flanders 371
23. ADAM SMITH AND RHETORIC Stephen McKenna 387
24. ADAM SMITH’S NARRATIVE LINE Karen Valihora 405
25. ADAM SMITH AND THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY Michaël Biziou 422
26. ADAM SMITH AND ENLIGHTENMENT STUDIES Fredrik Albritton Jonsson 443
V. SMITH BEYOND THE ACADEMY
27. ADAM SMITH: SOME POPULAR USES AND ABUSES Gavin Kennedy 461
28. ADAM SMITH AND THE LEFT Samuel Fleischacker 478
29. ADAM SMITH AND THE RIGHT James R. Otteson 494
30. ADAM SMITH IN CHINA: FROM IDEOLOGY TO ACADEMIA Luo Wei-Dong 512
31. ADAM SMITH AND SHAREHOLDER CAPITALISM John C. Bogle 525
32. ADAM SMITH AND FREE TRADE Douglas A. Irwin 542