I almost picked this up my local Borders Bookstore going out of business sale. Yuval Levin reviews Nicholas Phillipson, Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life. Here is a taste:
…Once he enters Smith’s most productive (and most public) period, Phillipson’s analysis is brilliant and clarifying. He demonstrates decisively the coherence and immense ambition of Smith’s life-long project—the development of an overarching system for the study of social life—of which his individual works were elements. By so doing, Phillipson effectively puts to rest the longstanding argument that the economics of The Wealth of Nations was inconsistent with the moral theory that Smith had laid out in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a view that dominated the study of Smith until well into the twentieth century, and that continues to shape the way he is understood.
Smith’s economics, Phillipson argues, was a function of precisely his understanding of morality—an understanding of man as a profoundly social creature whose capacity for sympathy and desire for approval made it possible to civilize him through the inculcation of “moderate virtues” like prudence, restraint, industry, frugality, sobriety, honesty, civility, and above all “self command” or discipline. These low bourgeois virtues were nothing to sneer at, Smith believed. They were the essence of a functioning liberal society. And the market, in turn, was an institution crucial to the effort to inculcate such virtues. It could both yield immense prosperity and encourage discipline and the moderate virtues by making self-command (which is essential to keeping a job, satisfying customers, and beating out the competition) a means of bettering our condition.
The compatibility and continuity of Smith’s two great works suggests that there was not—as left-leaning admirers of Smith ever since Thomas Paine have suggested—a hidden revolutionary morality in the The Wealth of Nations. The insistence on such a veiled radical agenda (which can be found in many contemporary studies of Smith, most recently Iain McLean’s book Adam Smith, Radical and Egalitarian) has kept too many readers of Smith from taking his moral philosophy seriously.
But the same continuity also means that many libertarian readers of Smith are wrong to believe that his economics is his morality, or that an unregulated market exhausts his idea of an ethical society. In fact, Smith’s market is highly regulated. Far from a pseudo-natural phenomenon best left to its own equilibrium, it is a social institution constructed by policymakers with very particular moral ambitions.
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