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Review of “Adam Smith and the pursuit of perfect liberty”

At the age of three, Adam Smith was briefly abducted by tinkers before being rescued by a search party. James Buchan believes him to have been kidnapped again, posthumously, by a motley crew comprising Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Alan Greenspan and Gordon Brown, and promises a similar dramatic rescue. He does not quite deliver that, but succeeds in producing a crisp and enjoyable biography of Smith: philosopher, shrewd observer of the economy and icon of free-market thinkers.

This is a carefully drawn, affectionate portrait. Buchan’s writing is most compelling when he presents Smith’s own periodic depression and pain – for example, at the death of his beloved mother at the age of 89. Smith’s father died before he was born, a sad circumstance which Buchan suggests, not entirely persuasively, is “the capital source of both his philosophy and his sentiments”. Nevertheless, Buchan’s description of Adam Smith’s social and intellectual growth, his qualities and flaws, makes for a strong story.

The book displays a mastery of the little details, with many contemporary stories retold, sometimes with an appropriately sceptical tone. But it is also a slim book and readers will gain a lot more if they already have some knowledge of the issues under discussion.

Buchan’s evident admiration for Smith doesn’t stop him attempting to deflate the idolatry of the philosopher by modern pundits. Scornfully dismissing a paean to Adam Smith by Alan Greenspan, then chairman of the Federal Reserve, Buchan sneers, “One could with better justice claim that Moll Flanders, a resourceful whore in the fiction of Daniel Defoe who also uses the phrase ‘invisible hand’, is another towering contributor to the stability of international markets.”

In this, Buchan goes too far. It is true that the phrase “invisible hand” was never used by Smith to refer to the smooth and socially beneficial operation of market forces. And it is also true that the commercial activities he so carefully observed, in marked contrast to the fact-free theorising of some of his followers, were part of the horse-and-cart economy of the 18th century, not the global finances of the 21st.

But Smith is unmistakeably a chronicler, theorist and great advocate of the virtues of the market, as Buchan shows. Twenty five years before his most famous work, The Wealth of Nations, was published, Smith argued in a public lecture in Glasgow that “little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes and a tolerable administration of justice”. Greenspan may have interpreted Smith’s ideas too loosely but he did not imagine some fictional hero.

Despite his trenchant introductory claims that modern politicians have misrepresented Adam Smith, Buchan ends up refining our understanding of Smith rather than revolutionising it. Smith never abandoned his enthusiasm for free trade, although he spent his last years as a customs officer. Splendidly, Buchan quotes Smith’s humorous reflection on the irony: “Upon looking over the list of prohibited goods… and upon examining my own wearing apparel, I found, to my great astonishment, that I had scarce a stock, a cravat, a pair of ruffles, or a pocket handkerchief which was not prohibited to be worn or used in Great Britain. I wished to set an example and burned them all.”

Smith’s genius as an economist cannot be separated from his decency as a human being. He passionately believed in the value of education, because he felt that the narrow, specialised jobs that were part of a wealthy economy also “mutilated and deformed” the minds of the men who did them. He believed that the government could “without injustice” pay for education, but that the market might do a better job of motivating teachers. This book has done fine work in portraying a man with both a generous heart and a brilliant mind.

13th of May, 2006Other Writing • Comments off