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Adam Smith


Jonathan Conlin


Critical Lives Series

London: Reaktion Books, 2016

Paperback. 192 p. ISBN 978-1780235684. £11.99


Reviewed by Jerry Evensky

Syracuse University




[W]ere he to return to life Smith would probably be surprised by what his self-proclaimed followers have done in his name. He would be frustrated by the tendency to draw a line between his study of ‘political economy’ … and his moral philosophy(1) [10].


While Adam Smith scholars have escaped this false demarcation(2) “between his study of ‘political economy’ … and his moral philosophy”, “if today’s undergraduates or MBA students study Smith at all, this [deconstructed Smith] is all the Smith they get” [11]. Conlin has taken it upon himself to reconstruct an integrated analysis of Smith’s vision of humankind’s invisible connecting principles(3) for undergraduates(4), as well as for any thoughtful reader who is interested in Adam Smith’s work. In his 2016 contribution to the Critical Lives series, Conlin does a very admirable job of this in a small space (192 pages). The book is laid out as follows.

In his “Introduction”, Conlin presents the story of the “Chicago Smith”(5) as it has been enshrined in the pantheon of economists’ heroic forefathers. In this version of Smith, “three stories … came to define ‘Adam Smith’ ” [11]: specialization as a driver of increased productivity, homo economicus – humans are rational utility-maximizing beings, and the invisible hand – unfettered markets are magical.

Conlin rejects this representation of Smith based on these three stories alone as insufficient to appreciate the fullness of Smith’s vision. Indeed, he notes that each of these stories has a dark side in Smith’s analysis. At the extreme, the division of labor can lead to “unrelenting, mind-numbing toil” [21]. Unbridled-self interest in unfettered markets can unleash the “harmful effects of the businessman’s ‘monopolizing spirit’ ” [23]. Conlin’s goal is to present a “more holistic understanding of Smith” [24].

Conlin concludes his “Introduction” with a brief biography of Smith so that we know something of the person we are about to explore and as an anticipation of the richer biographical picture we will encounter in the six subsequent chapters. Each chapter explores the unfolding of Smith’s life in the context of his times, and the key concepts that were emerging from his pen as that life unfolds [36-37].

Chapter 1 orients us by describing the events and individuals that shaped Smith’s first twenty-seven years. These were formative years before Smith became a public intellectual. First and foremost among Smith’s personal influences is his mother, Margaret, whom he loved and admired more than any other individual(6). In the second rank are Francis Hutcheson, who introduced Smith to questions on the origin of morals and morality, David Hume, who became his dearest friend and closest confidant, and Henry Home, Lord Kames. Kames had “adopted the stadial model of human development” [58] that Smith found compelling and he gave Smith his first opportunity to establish himself as a public intellectual “by inviting him to prepare two series of public lectures on rhetoric and jurisprudence” [58].

Among the most formative of experiences during this early period were Smith’s six years at Oxford. Smith found the Oxford environment brain-dead(7) and oppressive(8), but it offered an excellent library wherein Smith could explore ideas unencumbered by the constraints of the inert classroom.

In Chapter 2 we follow Smith from his public lectures into his own classroom as a Professor at the University of Glasgow. Smith was an endearing and celebrated professor. Endearing to his students for his lack of “ ‘that formal stiffness and Pedantry which is too often found in Professors’ ” [Conlin quoting James Boswell : 66]. Celebrated for the widely praised book he published during his Glasgow tenure, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS). The bulk of this second chapter is an overview of the TMS.

Conlin’s analysis of TMS is, of necessity, brief, but it is rich and thoughtful. He rounds up all of the usual suspects – sympathy, sentiments, self-command, the impartial spectator, praise and praiseworthiness, propriety v. impropriety, merit v. demerit – and weaves them into a plausible representation of Smith’s understanding of the “mechanism behind our emotions” [73]. With this mechanism in place, Conlin then broadens his analysis to explain how we assess the morality of our own behavior and the behavior of others. While I do not agree with all of Conlin’s analysis (for example, I think he misunderstands the role of “self-command”), I find his overall analysis captures the spirit of Smith’s understanding of human behavior and moral assessment.

Conlin follows Smith to France in Chapter 3. “On 8 November 1763 Smith gave notice of his intention to resign from the University of Glasgow’s chair of Moral Philosophy” [93]. Smith had received an offer he could not refuse, to escort the Duke of Buccleuch as his tutor on a tour in Europe. It was hard to refuse because the terms were so sweet. He received a generous salary for his work, but the real sweetness of the deal was a generous annuity for life. This would afford him the luxury of time to write and to do so in his home with his beloved mother. The trip also offered him the opportunity to exchange ideas about what constituted the wealth of a nation and how nations became wealthy with others who were contemplating the same questions, Francois Quesnay and the Physiocrats.

In these pages Conlin does a very nice job of comparing and contrasting Smith’s vision with that of the Physiocrats and of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. From that exercise Conlin segues into an analysis of Smith’s Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (WN), presenting a brief look at the content of Books I, II, and III of the WN which, respectively, represent Smith’s framework, dynamic analysis, and empirical test of his theory of the Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

It would not be reasonable to say that Conlin does justice to Smith’s theoretical analysis. How could one do so in eleven pages? But in fairness to Conlin, I think that misses the point of his book. As I understand his purpose it is not to offer a comprehensive analysis of Smith’s life’s work, but rather to demonstrate that his life’s work was not simply about economics(9), it was about the human condition. Conlin’s goal is to present a “more holistic understanding of Smith” [24], and to do so in a manageable 192 pages so that students have access to an alternative to the deconstructed version of Smith so commonly offered in college classes.

Conlin continues his presentation on the WN in Chapter 4 with a nice overview on the Ayr Bank crisis and how it relates to Smith’s views on paper money. However, he spends the bulk of the ink in this chapter where it should be: on Mercantilism. Mercantilism was a “wealth is created by winning at trade”-driven economic policy that Smith believed was foisted on the body politic in the name of national wellbeing, but really meant to justify policies for the profits of the business class. As reflected in the evolving content of successive editions of WN, if Smith had a growing obsession it was the “perils of mercantilism” [140]. Conlin very effectively captures the unfolding events, driven by the mercantilist policies, that led to Smith’s ever more virulent condemnation of mercantilism. As Conlin notes, “[t]he final paragraph of The Wealth of Nations sees Smith argue that … the mercantilist ‘project’ had failed” [142].

In WN Book V, Smith turns to the role of government. In Chapter 5 Conlin scolds Smith on this. Conlin asserts that Smith “puts security and prosperity before justice and freedom” [161]. According to Conlin, in Smith’s analysis our instincts will naturally, if not directly, lead to institutional arrangements that afford “greater prosperity to all” [158-159]. It is all about unintended consequences. Conlin criticizes this as “tantamount to a surrender of our right to self-determination” [159]. I think this oversimplifies Smith and we can see why in Conlin’s closing Chapter 6. There Conlin returns, as Smith did at the end of his life, to The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

The first point Conlin makes here is that in Smith’s analysis the nature of our being is not born in us, it is made in us. We are socially constructed. On this I think Conlin has Smith exactly right. But this does not make Smith a relativist. While we are other-referential as we mature, the “wise and virtuous man” evolves into a self-referential being. Conlin is correct in stating that “Smith recognized that, far from being universal, moral rules varied from one stage of human development to another, influenced by custom and even fashion” [180]. But the very thing that makes possible the evolution of humankind through progressive stages is that these moral norms are, in fits and starts, moving toward the unknowable but imaginable ideal of perfect virtue. Humankind, in Smith’s view, is not perfectible but it is improvable. It is the progressive coevolution of civic ethics and human institutions driven in part by active citizens that make this progress possible. We have not, according to Smith, surrendered our right to self-determination.

Just as Conlin cannot do justice to Smith in 192 pages, I cannot do justice to Conlin in about 2000 words. I can say I recommend Conlin’s Adam Smith very highly. It is written in a very entertaining voice. Where else can one find as a metaphor for self-referential moral assessment “cookery … [wherein] the best cooks are the first and best critiques of their own work” [177]? Colin also brings enduring societal issues to the fore. For example, he contrasts the role of women (or at least privileged women) in Britain and France in the 1760s. He connects modern research with the conceptions of the past. For instance “[t]he discovery in the 1980s of mirror neurons … suggests that the responses Smith suggests we have to others’ emotional and physical states [trough sympathy] may in a sense be hard-wired” [73]. But most significantly, the book does what I imagine Conlin set out to do. It offers students a “more holistic understanding of Smith” [24] as an alternative to the deconstructed version of Smith so commonly offered in college classes.


(1) As George Stigler does in “The Successes and Failures of Professor Smith”.

(2) See Jeffrey Young, Economics as a Moral Science, for an excellent example of this.

(3) “Philosophy, by representing the invisible chains which bind together all these disjointed objects, endevours to introduce order into this chaos of jarring and discordant appearances ….”. Smith, “History of Astronomy”.

(4) “This book … has its origins in a proposed brief introduction to Adam Smith’s works aimed at history undergraduates” [199].

(5) See Evensky, “ ‘Chicago Smith’ versus ‘Kirkaldy Smith’ ”, in which the Chicago school representation of Smith is contrasted with the actual Smith of Kirkaldy.

(6) Smith’s father died before he was born.

(7) “In the university of Oxford, the greater part of the publick professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching” [Smith, WN : 761].

(8) “Smith would have suffered from the hostile English view of Scottish migrants as uncouth, barbarian carpetbaggers” [51].

(9) “Smith never refers to ‘economics’ and would not have called himself an ‘economist’ ” [23].



Evensky, Jerry. “ ‘Chicago Smith’ versus ‘Kirkaldy Smith’ ”. History of Political Economy 37/2 (2005) : 197-203.

Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. General editing by D.D. Raphael & Andrew Skinner. Textual editing by W.B. Todd. Vol. 2 of The Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976.

Smith, Adam.  “History of Astronomy”. Essays on Philosophical Subjects. Edited by W.P.D. Wightman & J.C. Bryce. Vol. 3 of The Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith. General editing by D.D. Raphael & Andrew Skinner, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.

Stigler, George. “The Successes and Failures of Professor Smith”. Journal of Political Economy 84/6 (1976) : 1199-1213.

Young, Jeffrey. Economics as a Moral Science : The Political Economy of Adam Smith. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 1997.


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