Thursday, 19 November 2009

Chris Berry on Adam Smith

Chris Berry, Professor of Political Theory at University of Glasgow is a leading expert on the life and work of one of the University of Glasgow's most famous academics, Adam Smith.

In this 10 minute talk, Professor Berry describes the making of the man, the global significance of his writing and explains why Smith's work still resonates with us today.


Adam Smith was born in Kirkcaldy in 1723. He entered Glasgow University at the early - but for the time not unusual - age of fourteen.

He studied logic, metaphysics, maths and later Newtonian physics and moral philosophy under some of the leading scholars of the day. In 1740 Smith was awarded a Snell Scholarship (which is still in existence today) to study at Balliol College, Oxford. Smith preferred Glasgow, however, because Oxford’s curriculum was antiquated and he thought the teachers were lazy since, in contrast to Glasgow, their salary did not depend on the number of students taught.

After a period of freelance lecturing, Smith returned to Glasgow University, first as Professor of Logic in 1751 and then a year later as Professor of Moral Philosophy, a post he held until he left academia in 1764.

The mid-eighteenth century saw a period of intense intellectual activity, known as the Scottish Enlightenment. Universities were key players in this outburst of enquiry, with Glasgow a major force. Smith himself is of course the figure of overwhelming historical significance. But he was not alone. Smith’s fellow professoriate included pioneering chemists William Cullen and Joseph Black, as well as engineer and inventor James Watt who also worked at the University). Another historically important figure is a pupil of Smith’s, John Millar. Who became Professor of Jurisprudence and the author of a key work in what we would call historical sociology.

The seeds of Smith's two great books were sown in his professorial years. The Theory of Moral Sentiments appeared in 1759 and drew on his lectures. It went through six editions in his lifetime. Smith’s intellectual range as a lecturer was extensive. Beyond courses in philosophy and jurisprudence he also discussed history, literature and language. He maintained his interest in science and wrote an essay on the history of astronomy. This is notable not only for the breadth of Smith’s knowledge but also as an attempt to link the development of different astronomical accounts to a basic human propensity to seek order.

Although his second great book the Wealth of Nations was published in 1776 we know that he had already considered many of its leading themes at Glasgow as he lectured on as he put it: 'those arts which contribute to subsistence, and to the accumulation of property, in producing correspondent movements or alterations in law and government'. In 1787 Smith was elected Rector of the University and in a letter of thanks remarked that he remembered is professorial days as 'by far the most useful and therefore as by far the happiest and most honourable period of my life'.

If Smith of popular repute is the ‘father of capitalism’, the advocate of ‘market forces’, the enemy of government regulation and believer in something called the ‘invisible hand’ to produce optimum economic outcomes then he would be a disappointed parent. All his work is deeply steeped in moral philosophy. Indeed the simple fact that the final edition of the Moral Sentiments containing extensive revisions appeared in 1790, the year of his death, tells us is that Smith’s commitment to the moral point of view endured alongside and beyond the publication of the Wealth of Nations.

The Moral Sentiments is a leading example of a particular approach to moral philosophy – one that regards it not as sets of rationally or Divine ordained prescriptions but as the interaction of human feelings, emotions or sentiments in the real settings of human life. In many ways it is a book of social and moral psychology. What we can call economic behaviour is necessarily situated in a moral context. But more than that the key theme of the book is an opposition to the view that all morality or virtue is reducible to self-interest. Indeed his opening sentence declares that everyday human experience proves that false, he writes: "How selfish soever a man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derive nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it".

Our morality is founded on certain truths about human nature. Everyone is capable of sympathy, or fellow-feeling, and that ability enables us to imagine what we would feel if we were in the situation of another and, once we have made that imaginative move, we can then judge whether those feelings are appropriate. We have to learn about ‘situations’ but Smith believes that happens because humans are social creatures.

Smith illustrates the natural fact of human sociality by likening society to a mirror. It is this responsiveness to others - pleasure in their approval, pain in their disapproval - that Smith used to explain why the rich parade their wealth while the poor hide their poverty. The rich value their possessions more for the esteem they bring than any use they get from them and it is this disposition to "go along with the passions of the rich and powerful" that establishes the foundation for distinctions of status. And it is this desire for esteem that explains the incentive, we all possess, to better our condition. This is one of the links between the Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of Nations. In many ways the moral interactions Smith describes in Moral Sentiments bear on the practices that characterise his contemporary commercial society. The very complexity of that society meant that the bulk of inter-personal dealings were with strangers.

A ‘society of strangers’ is a commercial society which Smith identifies in the Wealth of Nations as one where 'everyman is a merchant'. A commercial society's coherence - its social bonds - do not depend on love and affection. You can coexist socially with those to whom you are emotionally indifferent. As Smith famously said:

“it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chuses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens”

Nothing in this means that Smith is denying the virtuousness of benevolence. When Smith came to write the Wealth of Nations he made it clear that the ‘wealth’ lay in the well-being of the people. This covered not only their material prosperity but also their moral welfare. Accordingly he thought to be in poverty is to be in a miserable condition and commerce is to be praised for improving human life.

The great achievement of the Wealth of Nations was to discern the principles of order in the seeming chaos of commercial or market behaviour – it wasn’t random, it could be reduced to some simple principles. It was for this reason that Smith was described as the Newton of political economy. It is no idle fact that the full title is Inquiry into Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

He identifies basic principles such as the human propensity to ‘truck, barter and exchange’ that he argues underlies the division of labour but says that this depends on a market and that requires some institutional structures like those that uphold justice such as government and how that in turn mutually relies on principles of public finance.

All of this is placed by Smith into a historical narrative. In his Glasgow lectures he had outlined an account of four stages of social organisation focused around the characteristic form of economic endeavour – hunter-gatherer, herder, farmer, commerce - and in the Wealth of Nations he gives a set-piece account of the transition from the farming to commerce. This process of social change was not brought about by deliberate human policy. This fact reveals for Smith a general truth about social life, namely, that it is pervaded by unintended consequences. This supports the widely-held view of Smith as an opponent of attempts to direct ‘the market’ but, in fact, what he really opposes is the attempt to direct individual’s activities, their ‘natural liberty’ to pursue their own ends in their own way. This is itself a ‘moral’ position and Smith never abandons that perspective.

In the opening chapters of the Wealth of Nations, he celebrates the productiveness of the division of labour with the example of pin-makers but later notes that those whose lives were spent performing a "few simple operations" were rendered "stupid and ignorant" and were incapable of "forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life". The 'morality' into which these individuals are socialised is defective; the 'mirror' in which they see themselves reflects back to them to their "mutilated" condition. This is the probable course of events, says Smith, unless "the public" takes remedial steps by instituting a subsidised system of elementary schooling. This example clearly illustrates how Smith's social and moral theories cannot be fully understood in isolation and must be seen as a whole.

Adam Smith’s legacy has had global impact and it is fitting that the work of a world-historical figure was forged in this world-class University.

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