Benevolent Adam Smith

The Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith, I. The Theory of Moral Sentiments

by Adam Smith, edited by D.D. Raphael and A.L. Macfie.
Oxford University Press, 422 pp., $33.00

The Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith, II. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations

by Adam Smith, edited by R.H. Campbell, edited by A.S. Skinner, textual editor W.B. Todd
Oxford University Press, 2 vols., 1162 pp., $55.00

Essays on Adam Smith

edited by A.S. Skinner, edited by Thomas Wilson
Oxford University Press, 672 pp., $37.50

Adam Smith
Adam Smith; drawing by David Levine

A number of great works appeared in 1776—Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, Paine’s Common Sense, Smith’s Wealth of Nations, the first volume of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, and the first volume of Bertotti-Scamozzi’s Buildings and Designs of Andrea Palladio. The bicentennial of all five publications was celebrated in 1976; but Smith received the most illuminating tribute—the launching of Oxford University Press’s Glasgow Edition of Smith’s works, a beautifully edited series that will in time include a new biography and all the important Smith fragments and correspondence. These give us the materials to break Smith out of the prison of his popular reputation as the rationalizer of greed.

Smith anniversaries have been uncommonly fruitful affairs. The centennial prompted Bagehot’s essays on the man and his works. The sesquicentennial produced a series of Chicago lectures that became classics of their kind—Paul Douglas on the paradox of value, Jacob Viner on the inaccuracy of calling Smith a laissez-faire purist, Melchior Palyi on the early impact of Smith.1 Contributors to this new Glasgow volume of Essays are still arguing with Douglas and Viner, still drawing on Palyi’s work.

But the bicentennial outshines former efforts. It can draw on advances in textual scholarship, and on a fortuitous discovery—that of a new (and fuller) set of student’s notes from Smith’s course on jurisprudence. This discovery made it possible for Ronald Meek and Andrew Skinner to redate the sequence of Smith’s fragments on the division of labor, in a seminal article that appeared long enough before the celebration to let the Glasgow editors and some of the essayists absorb its importance.2

The most inclusive approach to Smith looks to what the Germans call “das Adam Smith Problem“—the difficulty of reconciling the 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments (henceforth referred to as MS) with the 1776 Wealth of Nations (henceforth WN). In the first book, Smith based human happiness and virtue on the “fellow feeling” one has for others:

We have always, therefore, the strongest disposition to sympathize with the benevolent affections. They appear in every respect agreeable. We enter into the satisfaction both of the person who feels them, and of the person who is the object of them. [MS pp. 38-39].3

But WN does not speak of sympathy with others as the driving force of social life. It grounds the wealth of nations in the love of self:

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. [WN pp. 26-27]

Joseph Schumpeter thought it barely conceivable that two such different works could issue from the same brain. Viner, in his 1926 Chicago lecture, spoke of the “irreconcilable divergence” between the…

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