By Jesse Norman
Adam Smith is now widely regarded as 'the father of modern economics' and the most influential economist who ever lived. But what he really thought, and what the implications of his ideas are, remain fiercely contested. Was he an eloquent advocate of capitalism and the freedom of the individual? Or a prime mover of 'market fundamentalism' and an apologist for inequality and human selfishness? Or something else entirely? Jesse Norman's brilliantly conceived Adam Smith; What He Thought and Why It Matters gives us not just Smith's economics, but his vastly wider intellectual project. Against the turbulent backdrop of Enlightenment Scotland, it lays out a succinct and highly engaging account of Smith's life and times, reviews his work as a whole and traces his influence over the past two centuries.
But this book is not only a biography. It dispels the myths and debunks the caricatures that have grown up around Adam Smith. It explores Smith's ideas in detail, from ethics to law to economics and government, and the impact of those ideas on thinkers as diverse as Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek. Far from being simply an economist, Adam Smith emerges as one of the founders of modern social psychology and behavioural theory. Far from being a doctrinaire 'libertarian' or 'neoliberal' thinker, he offers a strikingly modern evolutionary theory of political economy, which recognises the often complementary roles of markets and the state.
At a time when economics and politics are ever more polarized between left and right, this book, by offering a Smithian analysis of contemporary markets, predatory capitalism and the 2008 financial crash, returns us to first principles and shows how the lost centre of modern public debate can be recreated. Through Smith's work, it addresses crucial issues of inequality, human dignity and exploitation; and it provides a compelling explanation of why he remains central to any attempt to defend, reform or renew the market system.
Zachary Spiro on Acton Institute wrote:
"Norman’s book is directed toward that, at times elusive, general educated reader, and has, in my opinion, three objectives: (i) to situate Adam Smith in his time, both intellectually and politically, (ii) to argue that there is a remarkable consistency between the Adam Smith of the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Lectures on Jurisprudence and the Wealth of Nations, and (iii) to show that most of neoclassical and laissez-faire appropriations of Adam Smith are at best one-sided, and in many cases downright wrong. [...] The belief that Adam Smith was an unqualified supporter of the free market, anti-labor and pro-capitalist, or was always in favor of small government is just so much at odds with his writings that one is bewildered as to how such a caricature ever took hold. Recently, however, not least thanks to Amartya Sen’s writings, the 'real' Smith is much better known. Norman is here adding, I hope, the proverbial last nail into the coffin of the neoliberal caricature of Smith."
Simon Heffer on The Spectator wrote:
"By the time we reach the second part of his book, entitled simply 'Thought,' we possess the background knowledge – backed up by helpful insights from Norman – to understand how Smith’s thought developed. Smith soon emerges as very different from the buccaneering free marketer of myth. Norman’s revisionist assessment rejects both left- and right-wing caricature, detailing the complexity and some of the contradictions underlying Smith’s thought. [...] In its closing section, Norman’s book summarises the insights and details gleaned in previous pages to examine how Smith would react to contemporary issues such as rising inequality and crony capitalism. Unsurprisingly, Norman has to do most of the heavy lifting here. [...] Smith would doubtless have objected to concentrations of wealth, Norman argues, convinced as he was that monopolies are bad for everyone. But one of the consequences of the groundbreaking nature of Smith’s work, as well as its philosophical grounding, is that passages can be found across his writing to justify a wide array of opinions. That is not to say that he did not have opinions of his own – but Norman ably rescues the economist from the tangled weeds of his own popular legacy. [...] Smith’s thoughts cannot be taken individually or devoid of context. In demonstrating this, while also providing a well-researched and eloquent book for anyone interested in economic thought, Jesse Norman has achieved something both original and deeply impressive."
"Norman, whose own hinterland in political philosophy is, as he shows here and in his previous life of Edmund Burke, deep and considerable, seeks to rehabilitate Smith, who (though he does not explicitly say so) has clearly been tarnished by some sort of association with Margaret Thatcher and libertarian think-tanks. This is an unnecessarily squeamish approach. At the core of the book, between a brisk but thorough biographical essay and a somewhat less brisk (and indeed at times ponderous) assessment of Smith’s thought and its relevance to today, Norman sets out five myths about the Sage of Kirkcaldy and effectively demolishes some of them. [...] This book is well-written, well-argued and intensely thought-provoking, and it will rightly raise Smith’s posthumous reputation. I hope some of the author’s parliamentary colleagues summon up the moral and intellectual strength to read it."
Jesse Norman on the Book
Listen to this interview (45 min.) with Jesse Norman on the many myths about Adam Smith, produced by libertarianism.org:
Or, alternatively, listen to this 28 minute interview by journalist Jeff Schechtman.
- "How Adam Smith would fix capitalism" - essay by author Jesse Norman in the Financial Times (22 June 2018)
- "Adam Smith wasn’t so much about ‘fixing’" - reply to Norman's essay in the Financial Times
Table of Contents
Part One - Life
- Kirkcaldy Boy, 1723 - 1746
- 'The Most Useful, Happiest and Most Honourable Period of my Life', 1746 - 1759
- Enlightened Interlude, 1760 - 1773
- 'You are Surely to Reign Alone on These Subjects', 1773 - 1776
- Working to the End, 1776 - 1790
Part Two - Thought
- Reputation, Fact and Myth
- Smith's Economics
- Adam Smith and Markets
Part Three - Impact
- Capitalism and its Discontents
- The Moral Basis of Commercial Society
- Conclusion: Why It Matters
About Jesse Norman
Jesse Norman is a campaigner, writer and member of parliament for Hereford and South Herefordshire, the UK. Norman's other books include The Big Society: The Anatomy of the New Politics (2010), published by University of Buckingham Press and a biography of Edmund Burke, which was long-listed for the 2013 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.