Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Irwin Stelzer on Adam Smith

Irwin Stelzer, director of economic policy studies at the Hudson Institute and the author of Neo-conservatism, writes a racy piece today in The Guardian (UK), “In the showdown of David and Gordon, there's only one Goliath”. ‘David’ is David Cameron, the front-runner to be the new Leader of the Conservative Party and ‘Gordon’ is Gordon Brown, labour’s Chancellor of the Exchequer.

This paragraph is a little gem:

Then there is the question of just what kind of society we would like Britain to become. My own preference is for the society described by Adam Smith, but the Adam Smith of The Theory of Moral Sentiments as well as The Wealth of Nations - perhaps best described as a nation that achieves the efficiencies of free trade and competition without sacrificing the moral sensibility that must underlie those policies. The Tories are very well versed in The Wealth of Nations, but my impression is that the majority are less sensitive than the chancellor to the strictures of the Smith of The Theory of Moral Sentiments.”

I am not so sure that the Tories are ‘well-versed The Wealth of Nations” because they are as liable to be selective in their quotations as politicians elsewhere, have never read the book itself, and usually have bought into the wholesale distortion of Smith’s legacy as laissez-faire capitalism.

Nor am I sure that the chancellor needs to adhere “to the strictures of the Smith of The Theory of Moral Sentiments”, as if this will ‘correct’ something he might read in “Wealth of nations”. His two books are not in opposition to each other. “Wealth of Nations” is not about a naked market economy, somehow separate from “Moral Sentiments”. They both follow a common theme and adhere to a common historical, evolutionary process.
It is not a case that “Wealth of Nations” is devoid of moral issues – in all cases where the interests of the labouring poor are jeopardised by monopoly and employer ‘combinations’, Smith comes down in favour of a moral stance and not an acceptance of blind market forces, and his whole approach to the growth of wealth is to favour it because in part of its beneficial affects on the households of the labouring poor. That Tories have not read “Wealth of nations” means they do not know about the moral compass of Smithian growth this work contains.

That very few Tories and Labour supporters have read both books accounts for the ignorant hostility to Adam Smith’s ideas and the distortions of his reputation.
However, that Irwin Stelzer has taken Adam Smith’s legacy so positively in today’s Guardian, is an excellent sign of changes in the public image of Adam Smith and for that ‘Lost Legacy’ is grateful.

Read Irwin Stelzer’s article at:,16473,1653695,00.html


Post a Comment

<< Home