Jesse Norman explains why he decided to tackle the complex matter of Adam Smith’s life and times as the subject of his latest acclaimed book
Today, mention of Adam Smith often elicits sharply contrasting reactions.
Take from Panmure House Perspectives Issue 3: Especially since the 1980s, he has been at the centre of the ideological battleground for competing views of economics, markets and societies.
For many on the right of politics, he is a founding figure of the modern era: the greatest of all economists, an eloquent advocate of the freedom of the individual and the staunch enemy of state intervention, in a world released from the utopian delusions of communism and socialism.
For many on the left, he is something very different: the true source and origin of so-called ‘market fundamentalism’; author of ‘the textbook on contemporary capitalism’ (according to the activist and writer Naomi Klein); the prime mover of a materialist ideology that is sweeping the world and corrupting real sources of human value; an apologist for wealth, inequality and human selfishness; and a misogynist to boot.
One thing is certain, however: in an era in which economists and economics have become ever more influential, Adam Smith is regarded as by far the most influential economistever to have lived. In a random 2011 survey of 299 academic economists, Smith came first by a huge margin, with 221 citations vs 134 for Keynes, the rest all following after. Nor is Smith’s academic reputation confined to economists: a detailed study of references on JSTOR, a comprehensive database of largely English-language journals, between 1930 and 2005 showed Smith to be by far the most heavily cited of the economic ‘greats’. His latest recorded total was higher than that of Marx, Marshall and Keynes combined, and more than three times as high as that of any modern economist.
Smith’s influence has been magnified by the sheer range of his ideas; even outside economics, many of the deepest thinkers of the past 200 years, in a range of fields spanning philosophy, politics and sociology, bear his stamp to some degree, including Burke, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Weber, Hayek, Parsons, Rawls, Habermas and, more recently, Amartya Sen. Smith’s four maxims of good taxation form the basis of tax systems the world over.
His famous phrase ‘the invisible hand’ is ubiquitous in lecture halls and media comment pages alike. He has an institute, a peer-reviewed journal and numerous societies around the world named after him; according to Pushkin, the fictional Eugene Onegin studied him; his face stares impassively across the face of the Bank of England £20 note. And, of course, his former home at Panmure House in Edinburgh has been fastidiously regenerated for contemporary use by Edinburgh Business School. My new biography of Smith falls into two halves. In the first half, a fairly rattling narrative takes us through his life, setting it against the backdrop of the tumultuous events of the eighteenth century, from the Act of Union between Scotland and England through the Jacobite rebellions to the American and French Revolutions.
The second half then steps back to explore his ideas – from economics to ethics and social psychology – in more detail, and show how relevant they remain to the major problems of capitalism and commercial society today. En route, it punctures a host of myths and establishes connections across the whole body of Smith’s thought, including its influence on economic thinkers as diverse as Hayek, Keynes and Marx.
But, even from beyond the grave, Smith does not make it easy for the biographer: his life was the very pattern of academic uneventfulness; just before his death he instructed his highly reluctant executors to burn almost all his manuscripts, about whose contents we can only speculate. His Lectures on Jurisprudence, an oft-neglected but vital element in his thought, survive only thanks to some astonishing luck. Many of the deepest ideas in Smith’s thought tie back to those of his closest friend, David Hume. In many ways they were an unusual pair. Hume, the older man by 12 years, was worldly, open, witty, full of small talk, banter and piercing aperçus, a lover of whist, a gourmand and a flirt. Smith, by contrast, was reserved, private, considered and often rather austere in his public manner, though he could unwind in private.
But, far more than any other thinker, Hume is Smith’s imagined interlocutor; and, though no real philosophical correspondence between them survives, there are few pages of Smith in which one does not sense the shadow, if not the influence, of Hume. For all the duo’s numerous points of difference, it would not be too much to call Smith a disciple of Hume.
By the standards of the time Smith was broadly Whiggish in outlook, a term implying a belief in the virtues of constitutional monarchy, religious toleration and personal freedom. But he remained remarkably close-lipped about his personal political views throughout his life. He never married, and he had no children. As far as we know, there were no secret loves, no hidden vices, no undergraduate pranks, no adult peccadilloes: when it comes to juicy personal detail, Smith’s life is a featureless Sahara. In the words of his first biographer, Dugald Stewart, Smith ‘seems to have wished that no materials should remain for his biographers, but what were furnished by the lasting monuments of his genius, and the exemplary worth of his private life’.
Despite these unpromising circumstances, Smith has not lacked for biographers. He has been greatly favoured in recent years by works that have painstakingly assembled the details of his life, set it vividly against the intellectual backdrop of Edinburgh and the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment, presented him anew for a popular audience, and explored the span of his intellectual interests; in addition to an ever-expanding academic literature. I have drawn freely and with great gratitude from this body of work.
My book inevitably covers much of the same ground. It is, of course, not immune to its own preconceptions, and although as balanced and fair-minded as I can make it, it is hardly free from the usual defects of partial knowledge and limited perspective; defects on which I welcome corrections and ideas from readers. But it has three specific points of difference from its predecessors. The first is that it is written not by a professional Smith scholar but by a working politician, albeit one with an academic background in philosophy; that is, by someone both dealing with and trying to understand and explain the nature of political economy in its modern aspects, practical as well as theoretical. The second is that the book makes a deliberate effort to give the reader not merely a taste of Smith’s ideas but a feeling for how those ideas work and fit together, across their whole, very wide-ranging span. Finally, it makes a specific and, I hope, trenchant argument for the importance and continuing relevance of Smith’s ideas.
Adam Smith and the great Irish philosopher statesman Edmund Burke – the subject of my last book, Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet (2013) – were good friends. They much admired each other, and there are numerous overlaps in their thinking, as well as points of difference; Smith once reportedly said that ‘Burke is the only man I ever knew who thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do, without any previous communications having passed between us.’ Together, the two men mark an extraordinary moment in the world’s history, a moment at which the political and economic outlines of the present age first become visible, are analysed in depth and given public explanation. Burke is the first great theorist of modern political parties and representative government. Smith is the first thinker to put markets at the centre of political economy, and so of economics, and to place norms at the centre of what we now think of as sociology. As Burke is the hinge of our political modernity, so is Smith the hinge of our economic, and in many ways our social, modernity. These are momentous achievements.
But Adam Smith, like Burke, is not merely a historical figure, and my book is not merely a biography. On the contrary, Smith lives and breathes today through his ideas and his impact. Our present world, developed and developing alike, faces huge challenges, including – but by no means limited to – how to generate and sustain economic growth, how to deal with problems of globalisation and escalating inequality, and how to create moral understanding across different communities of history, interest and belief. Smith’s ideas still have the capacity to take our breath away, through their ambition and brilliance, their simplicity and scope. They are essential to any attempt to address these challenges, and they need to be widely and fully understood. We need to know not merely what Adam Smith thought but why it matters; and then to apply his insights again for a new generation.
The refurbished Panmure House has been given a message of welcome from one of its staunchest supporters. Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, Principal and ViceChancellor of the University of Glasgow, said, ‘I was delighted when I was Principal of Heriot-Watt University that a decision was taken to purchase Panmure House. It is one of the few remaining physical connections to Adam Smith, and provides an opportunity to Heriot-Watt and Scotland to feel that connection with one of the towering figures of the Scottish Enlightenment. I wish the University well as it continues to develop Panmure House.’
His comments came after a gathering of leading academics hosted by Professor Richard Williams, the Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University. ‘Heriot-Watt are to be commended for such a thoughtful and attractive restoration of Adam Smith’s home, Panmure House. I am sure it will prove to be an important venue for many tourists, visitors and scholars, from Scotland and beyond,’ said Susan Stewart, Director of the Open University in Scotland.
The gathering was a preview of the house before the official opening by the Right Honourable Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer.