More than people tend to interpret him.
From what I could learn in detail in quarter of an hour’s research, Adam Smith didn’t just say what people say he said the most.
What I understood beforehand, and what Adam Smith is shorthand for, is the way the ‘publick interest’ is served by market economies (the free ones, they would tell us). He’s kinda considered the father of modern economics, mostly just because he wrote a big book justifying the way markets like to work. With freedom.
People always talk about ‘the invisible hand’ which is a ludicrous metaphor for a slightly silly idea. Basically, everyone will behave self interestedly. Each individual will strive to make as much money (which in turn represents food, security and pretty things) for themselves as possible. But this isn’t a problem, because ‘the invisible hand’ of natural market forces will tend to benefit the ‘publick good’.
In other words, the butcher making money means that everyone has access to meat. The baker brings the town bread. And the competition between everyone ensures that everyone can get everything as cheaply as possible.
Phew. That’s lucky.
Now, I’m a raving lefty. And I can see the world around me. So I’m not particularly happy with that assessment.
It’s kind of okay, because Mr Smith wasn’t particularly content with it either. He did warn against ‘conspiracy against the public’ in the form of monopolies and other business interests that would essentially scheme against the public in the in interest of good business.
I don’t think he realised how efficient they would be (in the same way that Marx underestimated the capacity of capitalism to defend itself).
So we’re left with self interest and free markets reigning supreme over the world, exploiting the public and natural resources to their destruction.
Smith found his earlier work (the economics stuff is in The Wealth of Nations but before that he wrote The theory of Moral Sentiments) to be the superior one, but he’s remembered for his invisible hand (a throwaway metaphor mentioned twice in the actual text). His work on moral sentiments seem almost antithetical to the rabid self interest ‘promoted’ by the wealth of nations.
Basically, he rejected the idea of an intellectual ‘moral sense’ that told us what was the ‘right thing’ to do, in favour of compassion. The desire to help the people around us on account of not wanting to see their suffering (and wanting to see happiness). It’s a simple idea, but actually a more personal understanding of right and wrong, and yet again an optimistic viewpoint on human behaviour.
We see Smith look at the basic dichotomy of human behaviour. Wanting to look after the self and wanting to look after each other.
Wait. That’s not a dichotomy. That’s just common sense, right?
Summarising Kurt Vonnegut’s Man without a country last night, I said the themes were ‘Enjoy yourself, and don’t be a dick.’
That’s an American way I can get behind.
Illustration by Lucy.