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Adam Smith: His Life, Thought, and Legacy

Editor(s):Hanley, Ryan Patrick
Reviewer(s):Mueller, Paul

Published by EH.Net (May 2016)

Ryan Patrick Hanley, editor, Adam Smith: His Life, Thought, and Legacy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016. xxiv + 571 pp. $45 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-691-15405-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Paul Mueller, Department of Economics, The King’s College.

In this volume, Ryan Hanley (a professor of political science at Marquette University) has brought together a multitude of perspectives on Adam Smith’s life and thought. These short essays range from studying the background of Smith’s works to elaborating his views on economics, politics, ethics, religion, social vision, morality, and philosophy. There are thirty-two separate chapters, each written by a scholar well-acquainted with Smith and his works. The contributors include two Nobel Laureates: Vernon Smith and Amartya Sen. The contributions are succinct yet deliver a great deal of insight because of their narrow focus. This compendium serves as a reference book for anyone who wants to explore Smith’s contributions on a wide variety of topics.

There are five parts to this volume: “Introduction: Texts and Context,” “Smith’s Social Vision,” “Smith and Economics,” “Smith beyond Economics” and “Smith beyond the Academy.”  Although Smith is best known for his contributions to economics in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, the section “Smith and Economics” is the shortest of the five. Hanley tries to give the reader a broad survey of Smith’s ideas outside the realm of strict economics. In doing so, he builds on the trend in Smithian scholarship over the past two decades to explore Smith’s social, moral, and philosophical ideas. This, in turn, gives the reader particularly timely insight into what topics are currently being discussed and debated among experts on Adam Smith.

Although there are interesting and illuminating essays throughout the volume, I highly recommend the introductory essays because they give the reader a clear overview and introduction to each of Smith’s works as well as to his life during the Scottish Enlightenment. David Schmidtz’s essay “Adam Smith on Freedom” is also exceptionally clear and faithful to Smith’s ideas.

The primary strength of this work is the diversity of the contributions. By including dozens of authors from a variety of perspectives, Hanley has put together a deep, thoughtful, and expansive volume examining Adam Smith, his works, his ideas, and his influence on the world up to today. For an example of the ideological diversity in this volume, Vernon Smith and Amartya Sen have back-to-back chapters offering very different perspectives on what Smith thought about markets. Another example is the pairing of two chapters called “Adam Smith and the Left,” by Samuel Fleischacker, and “Adam Smith and the Right,” by James Otteson.

The brevity of these essays is another strength. Each entry runs fifteen to twenty pages. They are also quite accessible to those who are not experts on Smith’s thought or even familiar with most of his corpus.

A third major strength of this edited volume is the detailed references and bibliographic essay at the end of each chapter. The contributors have written their essays within the context of books and articles written on their particular topic. They give you their summary of the discussion while also pointing you to many other potential resources on the topic.

I can think of but two weaknesses in the volume. First, I disagree with how a few of the essays portray Smith and his thought — or rather don’t portray it. Much of this disagreement is over topics about which reasonable people can disagree. However, there are a few essays that fail to engage Smith’s works closely and carefully. In those instances, I encourage the reader to look to the secondary literature and, of course, the primary texts themselves! But these superficial treatments of Smith are few and far between — the volume is still well worth perusing!

The second weakness, which is inherent in this sort of project, is that there is no clear overarching theme tying the various essays together. Hanley has done a respectable job of grouping the essays by topic and explaining the overall purpose of the work — but several of the essays feel ad hoc or out of place.

For someone who wants a crash course in Adam Smith, by all means read this volume from cover to cover. But for most readers the best way to use this book will be choosing particular contributions based upon your personal or research interests. As I mentioned before, there is a wealth of reference material for scholars. I highly recommend this book for anyone researching and teaching Adam Smith’s ideas. There isn’t a similar reference volume that matches the breadth, variety, and insight of this one. And I also recommend it for scholars who have only a passing interest in Smith. The contents of Adam Smith: His Life, Thought, and Legacy will not fail to teach you something new and interesting about this iconic eighteenth-century Scotsman.

Paul Mueller is an assistant professor of economics at The King’s College in Manhattan. He has published articles in the Adam Smith Review, Journal of Private Enterprise, and Review of Austrian Economics. He has also written columns about Smith’s ideas for the Cato Institute. His email address is pmueller@tkc.edu.

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Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII