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Adam Smith, Radical and Egalitarian

Adam Smith, Radical and Egalitarian: An Interpretation for the 21st Century

Iain McLean
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 192
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctt1r2464
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  • Book Info
    Adam Smith, Radical and Egalitarian
    Book Description:

    Foreword by the Rt. Hon. Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the ExchequerThis book aims to show that Adam Smith (1723-90), the author of The Wealth of Nations, was not the promoter of ruthless laissez-faire capitalism that is still frequently depicted. Smith’s “right-wing” reputation was sealed after his death when it was not safe to claim that an author may have influenced the French revolutionaries. But as the author, also, of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which he probably regarded as his more important book, Smith sought a non-religious grounding for morals, and found it in the principle of sympathy, which should lead an impartial spectator to understand others’ problems. This book locates Smith in the Scottish Enlightenment; shows how the two books are perfectly consistent with one another; traces Smith’s influence in France and the United States; and draws out the lessons that Adam Smith can teach policy makers in the 21st Century. Although Smith was not a religious man, he was a very acute sociologist of religion. The book accordingly explains the Scottish religious context of Smith’s time, which was, as it remains, very different to the English religious context.The whole book is shot through with Iain McLean’s love for the Edinburgh of his birth, and for the Scottish Enlightenment. It begins and ends with poems by Smith’s great admirer Robert Burns.

    eISBN: 978-0-7486-2705-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. viii-ix)
    Rt Hon. Gordon Brown

    In 2002 I had the privilege to chair public lectures in the ‘Enlightenment Series’ at Edinburgh University, on the theme ‘Can Both the Left and Right Claim Adam Smith?’. I asked whether Adam Smith would feel more at home in the right-of-centre Adam Smith Institute or in the left-of-centre (John) Smith Institute, named after my good friend John Smith, the leader of the Labour Party, who died suddenly in 1994. I am delighted that Iain McLean has responded to my challenge. In this book he sets out why Adam Smith deserves to be seen in a new light.

    Adam Smith...

  4. A Note on Citations
    (pp. x-xi)
  5. Preface: A Scotsman Looks at the World
    (pp. xii-xx)
  6. 1 The Life of an Absent-minded Professor
    (pp. 1-26)

    Adam Smith led a quiet, uneventful life. As a child, he was initially sickly and protected by his widowed mother. As an adult, he was notoriously absent-minded. In 1767 a society hostess recorded in her diary:

    I said many things in his [AS’s] praise, but added that he was the most Absent Man that ever was . . . Mr Damer . . . made him a visit the other morning as he was going to breakfast, and, falling into discourse, Mr Smith took a piece of bread and butter, which, after he had rolled round and round, he put...

  7. 2 A Weak State and a Weak Church
    (pp. 27-45)

    Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith and David Hume lived under a weak state and a weak church. If they had not, Smith and Hume might have been unable to publish their devastating demolitions of politics, economics and religion as they found them. Had they depended on the universities of Oxford or Cambridge rather than Edinburgh or Glasgow, they might have been silenced as effectively as their great predecessor John Locke. Locke fled to the Netherlands in 1683 as the political climate in England became more hostile to him and his friends, was expelled from his Oxford fellowship in 1684 and did...

  8. 3 A Non-religious Grounding of Morals: Smith and the Scottish Enlightenment
    (pp. 46-59)

    The weak church and the weak state had a double impact on the Scottish Enlightenment. They made it possible to exist at all. A generation before Hutcheson and Hume the threat of heresy or blasphemy trials had been very real. In 1693 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, which was entitled to pass binding law on its own account, had enacted ‘An Act against the atheistical Opinions of the Deists’. Under this Act, the Scottish Privy Council searched bookshops for pamphlets containing deist or atheistical opinions. Their agents found pamphlets by an unfortunate student called Thomas Aikenhead,¹ who...

  9. 4 Merriment and Diversion: Smith on Public Finance and Public Choice
    (pp. 60-81)

    The Wealth of Nations is many things, but two in particular: it is a treatise on economic theory and an economist’s advice on public policy. The treatise on economic theory, with many digressions into history and current affairs, occupies Books I, II and III. Books IV and V are predominantly advice on public policy, although again containing many digressions into history and current affairs. They cover two policy domains where Smith had been intimately involved: the treatment of colonies (WN IV.vii) and taxation, public expenditure, public works and public goods (the whole of WN V).

    From Smith’s time until the...

  10. 5 The Invisible Hand and the Helping Hand
    (pp. 82-99)

    Three of Gordon Brown’s questions in the Edinburgh speech which set the framework for this book are:

    Is Smith, the author of the invisible hand, also the Smith of the helping hand?

    Or is the Smith of ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ the Jekyll to ‘The Wealth of Nations’’ Hyde?

    Is it possible two centuries and more on from his famous work ‘The Wealth of Nations’ to find a way of reconciling his apparently contrasting views: that social behaviour is influenced by sympathy and that economic behaviour is motivated by self-interest?

    The answers to the questions are closely linked. The...

  11. 6 The French and American Smiths
    (pp. 100-119)

    In 1776, Hume wrote to Smith, ‘The Duke of Bucleugh tells me, that you are very zealous in American Affairs’. He went on to say that he thought that Britain’s difficulties with America were ‘not as important as is commonly imagind’ because business would not suffer as much as most people thought (Corr. # 149). On the latter point Smith agreed. But he as deeply involved – more deeply than has been generally realised – in helping to form British policy towards America. On the face of it, Smiths policy advice shows him to be no friend of the American...

  12. 7 Adam Smith Today
    (pp. 120-149)

    In this chapter I attempt to pick up all the threads that I have deliberately left loose so far. Probably, Smith was no great sympathiser with the French Revolution. But his writing supports all three of the slogans of that revolution. He was in favour of liberty, of equality and of the one that is most usually ignored nowadays, namely fraternity. Therefore the first half of this chapter reviews what Smith has to say to us on each of those three subjects.

    Adam Smith’s work is without doubt what Thucydides wanted his history to be: kτημα ες αιει (‘a possession...

  13. Appendix
    (pp. 150-151)
  14. Notes on Further Reading
    (pp. 152-157)
  15. References
    (pp. 158-165)
  16. Index
    (pp. 166-172)