Adam Smith the moralist

A new book on Adam Smith by James Buchan deepens the case that he did not wear an Adam Smith necktie. Commented on by Bloomberg columnist Matthew Lynn:

Most people these days regard Smith as the founder of free- market economics. He’s the hero of the get-the-government-off- our-backs crowd. He’s the pin-up boy of the flat-taxers and the business-knows-best crew.

None of this would have resonated in 18th-century Edinburgh and Glasgow, however. Smith was essentially a moral philosopher, and he viewed economics as a branch of that inquiry, as Buchan reminds us. Smith’s vision of the “invisible hand” of the market grew out of a wider vision of a moral and just society. . . .

Most people these days accept that a free market is the best way to organize an economy. Yet many increasingly worry about whether it’s a moral system. The cost to society is becoming increasingly clear at a time when some $1 trillion in dirty money is washing through Western banks.

So it’s good to be reminded that Smith first started to question government meddling in the economy because he was interested in morality and freedom. He wasn’t interested in creating a system that would make a few people fabulous wealthy, let alone a world marked by excessive, conspicuous consumption.

His purpose was to build a just society. When each human is allowed to earn his own living in his own way, Smith argued, he ultimately benefits the society around him. That’s worth bearing in mind next time you hear an antiglobalist tell you that the free market is fundamentally immoral.

Our appreciation of that market began with a Scotsman imagining a more moral society. Although Smith will still be remembered primarily as an economist, Buchan is right to try to restore the philosophical Smith to the prominence he deserves.

“Adam Smith and the Pursuit of Perfect Liberty” is published by Profile (198 pages, 14.99 pounds).

Perhaps I need to buy an Adam Smith necktie . . .

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