What Adam Smith really said: chapter-by-chapter study invitation — October 11, 2010

What Adam Smith really said: chapter-by-chapter study invitation

If I understand my intellectual history correctly, Adam Smith is much-misunderstood. We typically quote two passages from [book: The Wealth of Nations]:

> It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chooses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens.

and

> By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain; and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.

And that’s about it. But it’s a large book, no? Just about 600 pages, as a matter of fact. And he has a second book, [book: The Theory of Moral Sentiments], that’s almost as long. That’s 1200 pages, from which we usually extract about two paragraphs. How about this other paragraph, in which Smith makes the case for what we’d today call progressive taxation?

> The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor. They find it difficult to get food, and the greater part of their little revenue is spent in getting it. The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich; and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess. A tax upon house-rents, therefore, would in general fall heaviest upon the rich; and in this sort of inequality there would not, perhaps, be any thing very unreasonable. It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.

That’s three paragraphs, anyway. Let’s do all 1200 pages, shall we? Starting about a month from today — Monday, November 15th — I’m going to start reading [book: The Wealth of Nations] and [book: The Theory of Moral Sentiments] and offer a chapter-by-chapter excursus on this here blog. Let’s have a big old book group about What Adam Smith Really Said. I predict that we’ll be surprised. I expect that he’s not nearly the libertarian, every-man-for-himself, minimal-government-is-the-best government guy that we’ve come to know.

But I don’t know! I’ve not read Smith (apart from three paragraphs). It’ll be a surprise. Let’s do it.

The editions I’m thinking of are linked above, but again:

* [book: The Wealth of Nations] (Modern Library, unabridged)
* [book: The Theory of Moral Sentiments] (Great Minds, not sure if it’s unabridged but seems to be)

Get them out of the library, buy them from your favorite bookseller, etc. Starting in a month, let’s talk Adam Smith.

__P.S.__: My homedogg Paul noted that the initial [book: Wealth of Nations] link I provided was an abridged Great Minds edition. I’ve corrected that to the Modern Library edition.