Adam Smith. Jonathan Conlin, Reaktion Books, 2016

In more ways than one, The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith has a status for economists much like that of the Bible for theologians. Like the Bible, to read Wealth of Nations cover to cover takes stamina. Also, we know little about its author. And finally, economists use Smith’s work much the way theologians use the Bible: quoted selectively to lend authority to a wide range of disparate, sometimes mutually exclusive tenets. Jon Conlin’s Adam Smith in under 200 pages provides a guide for readers who do not have the time to plumb the depths of Smithology and brings Smith to life by showing how he came to think the way he did by taking cues from the world he lived in.

The personality of Adam Smith is a conundrum. The book that first earned him fame, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, argued that humanity’s sense of a shared fellowship evolved from mankind’s innate empathy with the feelings of others. In The Wealth of Nations Smith seems to have changed his mind: here man’s self-interest is the engine powering progress in society. Reconciling two contradictory assertions is not the only puzzle for readers. Another is that Smith, the advocate of giving free rein to entrepreneurs, never personally invested in business, in fact, quit his academic career as soon as he could to work as a bureaucrat. Moreover, Smith, the proponent of cultivating empathy of others, kept household with his mother and seems never to have had a love life. In this way too Adam Smith comes across as perhaps a very contemporary figure: he must have been a workaholic geek. But if a geek, an amiable one, since Adam Smith seems never to have made an enemy. He was as popular with his students as he was with his high-society patrons and even with his peers competing for public attention; David Hume and Edward Gibbon considered him a friend.

On to Smith’s main output.

Had Adam Smith after publishing The Theory of Moral Sentiments never written another line, he still would rank as one of the Enlightenment’s seminal public intellectuals. For Smith propounded the view that the ties that bind society together consist of mutual empathy, and that everyone can tell right from wrong because within each of us there is an impartial spectator. Smith raised an edifice of social theory that dispensed with the need for a divine author, something that was a delicate undertaking for a Scottish academic writing at a time when church authorities in Scotland would gag anyone who challenged Christian orthodoxy. Indeed Smith had academic colleagues in Glasgow who faced dismissal on suspicion of atheism. The Theory of Moral Sentiments became a defining moment for the Enlightenment, for here was a book that encouraged readers to turn their eyes from contemplating the celestial beyond to looking at each other. It is a token of Smith’s personal tact that he managed to win fame without alienating authorities.

The Wealth of Nations to many seems as if written by an entirely different Adam Smith. Where The Theory of Moral Sentiments came down in favour of living in a state of harmony with one’s friends and family, The Wealth of Nations says the pathway to personal fulfilment lies in giving free rein to the impulse to acquire and better oneself. This works not only at the individual level but at the level of society too, since when everyone aims for their personal advantage an invisible hand aggregates these energies, and those energies that serve society best are the ones that prevail. Smith would not have seen this is a volte-face. Quite the contrary, since only when enjoying the approval of neighbours can individual effort succeed. Indeed Adam Smith was at his most scathing whenever he inveighed against constraints on individual effort of the many to protect the vested interests of the few.

But even if his position is internally consistent, Adam Smith’s countless analyses of the minutiae of social and business life have been a trove of insights that economists of all stripes and colours have reached into, and rightly so. In Germany, for example, The Wealth of Nations first was translated by Max Stirner, a Hegelian philosopher who advocated anarchism, whereas Wilhelm Roscher, Germany’s 19th century high-priest of academic economists, considered The Wealth of Nations a compilation of inconsecutive monographs. Neo-liberals invoke Adam Smith, but so do socialists. Even today, Adam Smith excites attention in settings where one would not expect something written over 200 years ago to have a bearing on issues that are cutting edge. Conlin’s Adam Smith is adroit in teasing out such links: for example how the impartial spectator anticipates research into neural cognition, or that Adam Smith’s deliberations on the need to protect unsuspecting consumers might have a bearing on regulation of financial markets. Jon Conlin has been teaching Smith at universities in the UK and France and his exposure to questions raised by twenty-somethings shines through. Jon Conlin encourages reading Smith not as a monument on display but as a manual encouraging readers to look at the world we have before our eyes and use our mind to draw our own conclusions.