Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life

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If people do what they do best and then trade with each other, more will be produced and universal opulence will become possible. Phillipson describes the key features of the economic system Smith proposed. In many ways the system was like a puzzle in which each part complements the others, so that the system would be self-perpetuating. But the pieces of the puzzle would not come together if the entrenched interests of the medieval and mercantilist mind-sets prevailed.

Some radical rethinking was necessary.

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Smith proposed that social good can come from individual actions that are not directed specifically at broad social goals. People have a built-in desire to improve their situation, Smith contended, and given the opportunity to do so they will save, invest, produce and trade. In this manner the wealth of a nation is enhanced far more than if governmental powers dictated economic decisions or concentrated monopolists dominated the commercial scene.

Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life (Cato Institute Book Forum, 2011)

Smith's vision became the starting point for what was to become market capitalism. This book should find a place among the best biographical material on Smith for several reasons. First, it is written in an accessible fashion with a minimum of technical jargon. Second, Phillipson quotes a wealth of primary source material and brings out the nuances of the ideas he presents. Third, Phillipson includes almost every contemporary of Smith who influenced the economist's ideas; this context gives the reader a good feel for the intellectual climate and the controversies that surrounded Smith's work.

Fourth, Phillipson makes clear Smith's deep commitment to historical analysis and contextual understanding, thereby offering a corrective to the simple proof texting so common among present-day readers of The Wealth of Nations. Phillipson offers an abundance of minutia and attends to each recorded social interaction in Smith's life.

In addition to discussing Smith's professional contacts from Scotland, England and France, Phillipson describes in detail Smith's social, political and personal relationships. While these are relevant to the purpose of a good biography, it is easy to get lost in the web of relationships. Fast readers may be deterred from absorbing what Smith faced in his groundbreaking effort. Economists may wish for a treatment of the shortcomings of Smith's system.

His labor theory of value did not survive the advent of subjective value, which is embodied in the theory of demand. Also, he did not distinguish well between long-run and short-run market effects.


These shortcomings, however, do not diminish Smith's contribution to his world and ours. Phillipson adds much to the current project of discovering the real Smith, who does not fit the common image of a laissez-faire advocate promoting unfettered self-interest. All these books highlight Smith's passion to connect history, philosophy and economics.

That may be his greatest contribution to our generation. Jump to navigation Google Tag Manager. In Review :. Share Tweet.

Is it in fact possible to write an account of his life, as opposed to his thought? Smith published two very influential books that went into several editions in his lifetime.

Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life by Nicholas Phillipson.

But he was a poor correspondent, did not keep a diary, and before he died oversaw the destruction of many papers, including unfinished manuscripts. If biography requires some insight into the psychological and emotional life of its subject, the prospects for a biography of Adam Smith are poor. There is almost no material to call on. Smith seems to have been sociable, and he certainly formed lasting friendships.

Yet he preserved an nearly impenetrable personal privacy. Just what he felt, or believed, or hoped, loved or hated is virtually impossible to say with any degree of certainty. That leaves only two sources out of which biography can be constructed — what he did and what he wrote. What he did — his career — is easily ascertained and well known — but in recounting his life and times, for the most part we have to be content with his times.

We learn a lot about Kirkcaldy at the time Smith was born, Glasgow, both city and university, when he was a student, Oxford during the period he spent there, Edinburgh and Glasgow during his years as a professor, continental Europe during his employment as a tutor to the young Duke of Buccleuch, and Edinburgh again in his latter years.

Since everyone must to some extent be influenced by the social circumstances in which they live, we can say something about Smith by implication. But it is all highly conjectural. This is no criticism of Phillipson. There simply is nothing else to do, and his social histories of these places are full of interest.

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Still, the book is subtitled an enlightened life. If we turn to what Smith thought, rather than his personal commitments, there is more promising material.

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Even here, though, a significant amount of conjecture is required. It is highly plausible to suppose that these lectures established his reputation as an effective lecturer and thinker of substance since at the end of this period he was appointed to the Chair of Logic at Glasgow, and soon thereafter translated to the Chair of Moral Philosophy, a position that his teacher Hutcheson had filled with such distinction.

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But what of the lectures that led to these professorial appointments? We have no text, or even notice of them, so that it is impossible to say where they were held, who attended them, or how they were received. The Glasgow lectures referred to here were never published. This has given them a certain authority.

One might nevertheless hesitate to accord them truly canonical status, because Smith was so particular about what he published, and so careful about whether he had successfully articulated the views he meant to advance. Smith did publish a paper in on the origins of language. This paper seems largely to replicate the third of these lectures, and it provides Phillipson with more grounds for speculation about the Edinburgh lectures.

Both made their mark in their day, and have continued to do so, and the revised editions on which Smith himself worked, enable us to chart changes and developments in his thought, though the later editions of WN are not of any great consequence in this regard. Taken together, these works, from the time of their publication, have provided philosophers and others with a rich resource for scholarly debate and discussion, about both their relative merits and their relationship. On this view of the matter, Smith moved from the study of philosophy to the study of economics, the latter being a highly innovative spin-off from the former.

Smith devoted Book IV [of WN] to exploding this new superstition and attacking the merchants and theories who propagated it with the same vehemence that Voltaire and Hume had attacked priestcraft. His evident deep admiration for Hume, and his own antipathy to religion perhaps, distorts his interpretation.


No doubt people in times past and present exhibit an irrationally reverential attitude to money, especially in the form of gold, but mercantilism is more than a mere fetish. It is a recurrently plausible belief about the relation between wealth accumulation and commercial prosperity, with important implications for attitudes to international competition. It was not superstition that led merchants to seek and rulers to grant monopolies.