Jeremy Shearmur on Adam Smith

A great steer from Matt McIntosh (in a comment) to a long interview with Jeremy Shearmur. He is now living in the vicinity of Canberra. Britain’s loss….

This is some stuff about Adam Smith that should appeal to Nicholas Gruen.

You’ve spoken about Adam Smith. How do you see the vision of Smith’s work given by Paul Ormerod, for example, on one side, versus Rothbard, on the other side? (Smith as a statist economist, to simplify.)

Jeremy Shearmur
I like Smith, because of what I think are the interesting theoretical ideas suggested by his work, ideas to which¢â¬âin tandem with ideas from Popper and from Hayek¢â¬âI would be inclined to look, when seeking to address the issues left open by my answer to your previous question. I also think it a mistake to evaluate someone simply on the basis of whether or not, say, he is a statist. One can, clearly, engage with that. But the importance of Smith’s work is, I believe, rather different. Let me mention, briefly, four respects in which his work seems to me of real interest to classical liberals.

The first element, is that set out by Haakonssen in his The Science of a Legislator. Here, he explains how one can see a (broadly classical liberal) theory of rights and of a system of justice, is suggested by the approach that Smith takes in his Theory of Moral Sentiments and Lectures on Jurisprudence. Smith was distinctive, among the post-Grotian natural law theorists, in that he was not a Christian. And there is a sense in which Smith’s approach and the parallels that I would see there as being with Popper’s ‘critical rationalism’ may suggest an approach to moral and legal theory that addresses problems of rights without teleology or God. I am not saying that a workable theory is there, on the shelf, as it were; but Smith’s work suggests to me an approach that one might well re-investigate, and certainly a better prospect than trying to resurrect Thomism!

The second, set out by Hont and Ignatieff in the “Introduction” to their collection, Wealth and Virtue, concerns how Smith’s economic thought relates to Locke’s political philosophy. They show brilliantly, in my view, the way in which Smith’s case for ‘commercial society’ rests on, but deals with some key problems of, Lockian natural rights (including the ‘right to subsistence’), and in which is it also already grappling with problems that have been raised in our own day by critics of ‘globalization’. (I will not say more here, as I have discussed these matters briefly in my Hayek and After.)

The third, is Smith’s acute concern for the ‘disadvantages of commercial society’. He recognized, and re-interpreted, some of the defects of ‘commercial society’ which, especially, were of concern to those with ‘republican’ sensibilities. Smith’s insights here were acute, and I think that they pose some interesting and challenging problems. But as I have written about them in a series of papers (e.g. “Adam Smith and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism”, in N. Elliott (ed.) Adam Smith’s Legacy: His Thought in Our Time, Adam Smith Institute, London, 1990; a paper in Dan Klein’s collection on Reputation; and “Adam Smith’s Second Thoughts”, which has recently been reprinted in K. Haakonssen (ed) Adam Smith, Ashgate, 1998), I will, again, not say more here, other than that Hont and Ignatieff again have some excellent points to make about these matters.

Finally, I would mention what Smith says about the topic of reputation. This is best explored via Dan Klein’s first-rate collection, Reputation, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997, in which he brings together theoretical and empirical material which illustrates, and takes further, Smith’s ideas. In particular, Klein discusses how reputational mechanisms of various kinds including markets in information about reputation may serve to police people who do not have face-to-face relations, and thus discharge functions which, it is often claimed, can only be discharged by the state. (Indeed, I think that Klein’s work offers an important alternative to the anti-individualistic arguments that Tocqueville developed in his Democracy in America, and to the huge and often statist literature on ‘social capital’ that has developed from Robert Putnam’s Making Democracy Work.)

All told, I would say that the sometimes conflicting but immensely interesting mix of ideas that one gets¢â¬âif one puts together Smith, Hayek and Popper¢â¬âoffers a lot not only, positively, to classical liberalism, but also by way of ways in which one can productively take issue with many of our contemporaries, who seem to behave as if liberalism¢â¬âif not political philosophy itself¢â¬âwas invented by John Rawls.

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Nicholas Gruen
2024 years ago

Thx for that Rafe – looks interesting. Seems like a knowledgeable guy.