Adam Smith Revisionism – Libertarian or No?

Saturday, October 30, 2004
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To claim that Smith’s Wealth of Nations (WN) is grounded on the assumption that people inevitably act out of self-interest, and to imply that the book’s major contribution grows out of that assumption, is to misread it severely. Everything Smith says about the importance of self-interest is quite humdrum, for his day: he rejects Mandeville’s cynical reduction of all human motivations to self-interest, is a greater believer in the possibility of concern for others than Hume, allows more room for sincere religious faith than Voltaire, and differs barely at all from the gentle Hutcheson on the role of self-interest in economics.

I have been reading Sam Fleischacker’s book, On Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations : A Philosophical Companion, when I happened across his recent column on re-reading Smith.

In his book, Fleischacker stresses placing Smith’s writings in the polemical context to which he responded, noting that Smith, in the Wealth of Nations, is “essentially arguing with Plato, Aristotle, and Quesnay, ” and thus his arguments must be reconstructed in modern terms.

Fleischacker’s column suggests that Smith focused on cognitive ability rather than the raw motivation of human beings in an economic system; that Smith had a prodigious distrust of the political class, or elites, and their incentives; and therefore Smith thought that self-command or individual restraint superceded higher “systems” put into place to put a check on human behavior/actions.

Without going into Smith’s complex views on property, justice, and equality, I note that Fleischacker basically argues that it is Smith’s ability to focus on the cognitive aspect of individuals, and their ability to act and make choices without a highly-regulated and fixed order, that makes him a precursor to libertarianism.

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