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Published by EH.NET (July 2004)

Samuel Fleischacker, On Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: A Philosophical Companion. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. xvii + 329 pp. $39.50 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-691-11502-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Spencer J. Pack, Department of Economics, Connecticut College.

Smithologists trying to keep up with the burgeoning commentaries on Adam Smith may well wonder with Jonathan B. Wight, “Is There a Speculative Bubble in Scholarship on Adam Smith?” Wight argues that no, there is no speculative Smithian scholarship bubble because, among other reasons, much of the new work is still informative and significantly adds to our understanding of Smith’s project (Wight 2004). Fleischacker’s new book on Adam Smith admirably demonstrates the acuity of Wight’s viewpoint.

Samuel Fleischacker, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Illinois, Chicago, has written “a guide to the many philosophical questions that inform WN or are raised by its conclusions” (xv). On Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: A Philosophical Campanion is readable in separate parts.

Readers of this list serve may be least interested in the short (20 page) Part III “Foundations of Economics.” There Fleischacker attempts to explain such topics as the natural price/market price dichotomy, labor command versus labor theory of value, and productive and unproductive labor, apparently without benefit of having studied the major classical economists of the nineteenth and twentieth century such as Ricardo, Marx, Sraffa and Dobb — always a mistake.

The 55-page Part I, “Methodology” and the 60-page Part II “Human Nature,” deal with such issues as Smith’s writing style and rhetorical strategies; his epistemology; his philosophy of science; Smith’s use of evidence; the role of God and teleological explanations in Smith’s work; Smith’s anticlerical strain; the importance of the impartial spectator; the minimal inborn differences between people and the importance of early childhood education in shaping character for Smith; self-interest and the importance of speech, discussion and contracts for Smith; and vanity and the role of risk-taking. Fleischacker is traveling well-trod ground here, and for the most part there is little that is new in these sections. (I did, however, appreciate that for Fleischacker there is basically a new Adam Smith problem. Fleischacker detects a shift between the early economic Smith in the Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) where, for example, there are beggars happily sunning themselves by the side of the highway; and the latter economic Wealth of Nations (WN) where these nonchalant beggars do not exist, and where starvation and dependency are real hardships. There are also some other peculiar economic discrepancies between TMS and WN.)

Readers of this list may be more interested in the 29-page Part V “Politics” and 21-page Epilogue “Learning from Smith Today.” There, basically in agreement with writers such as Meek (1977), John Kenneth Galbraith, and Pack (1991), Fleischacker demonstrates that there is indeed a “left wing” as well as a “right wing” reading of Smith. Smith’s strong moral concern for the poor; his view of them as equal in decency and desert to everyone else in society; the need to protect the state and society from the power of large corporations and strong churches; hence, the need to not delegate welfare or education to for-profit or religious enterprises; are properly stressed by Fleischacker in this sympathetic portrait of a left Smithian legacy.

Yet, the real gem in this book, which does indeed contain important new material, is the long (82-page) Part IV “Justice.” Particularly since the discovery of the second, more detailed set of student lecture notes of Smith’s Jurisprudence course in 1958, and their first publication in 1978, it is quite clear that TMS and WN are part (or bookends) of a larger Smithian project which included a work on natural jurisprudence. As Fleischacker points out, Smith’s project developed his political concerns out of his moral philosophy, much as Aristotle did in moving from his Ethics to The Politics. Nonetheless, Smith was unable or unwilling to complete this project. Why? In a deep, penetrating analysis, Fleischacker argues provocatively that Smith’s project of natural jurisprudence conflicted so deeply with other elements in his thought that Smith could not complete it. Smith wants to appeal to the impartial spectator and people’s proper emotions to show how natural justice develops. Yet, as Fleischacker elaborates, the sentiments of the impartial spectator vary so widely according to context, it is hard to see how the impartial spectator could ever provide us with a set of precise laws holding across all societies. It is difficult or perhaps impossible for the impartial spectator to criticize the systemic moral views ingrained in a society. Thus, although Smith seems as if he wanted to criticize some of his own society’s laws and institutions as unjust in WN, he was reluctant to do so. In WN Smith plays down his own theory of justice; when Smith does appeal to justice, he never explains what justice really is. This is a problem. Fleischacker explains: “Smith, realizing that his project of developing a full-scale natural jurisprudence was internally flawed, decided in WN to finesse the issue and write the book with a conception of justice that his contemporaries would take as uncontroversial” (171-172).

Nonetheless, according to Fleischacker, Smith’s work contributed to the changes in moral outlook, and the possible role of the state to aid the poor and attempt to abolish poverty, that inverted the entire understanding of distributive justice. The pre-Smithian notion of distributive justice was largely based upon the Aristotelian view that distribution should be according to merit and not a redistribution of material goods to the poor. On the other hand, the modern view of distributive justice, largely thanks to Smith himself, is that it is the duty, and not an act of grace, for the state to try to alleviate or abolish poverty. In my opinion, all readers interested in Adam Smith’s project and/or the modern Post-Smithian notion of distributive justice, should have access to this book, so they can study this important, provocative contribution to the understanding of Smith’s conception of justice.

References:

Ronald Meek, Smith, Marx, and After (John Wiley and Sons, 1977).

Spencer J. Pack, Capitalism as a Moral System: Adam Smith’s Critique of the Free Market Economy (Edward Elgar, 1991).

Jonathan B. Wight, “Is There a Speculative Bubble in Scholarship on Adam Smith?” Paper presented to the Eleventh World Congress of Social Economics, Albertville, France, June 2004.

Spencer J. Pack, Professor of Economics at Connecticut College, New London, Connecticut, has written extensively on Adam Smith. His recent work includes “Aristotle’s Theoretical System and Socioeconomic Justice in the 21st Century,” Presented at the Eleventh World Congress of Social Economics, Albertville, France, June 2004; and “Smith’s Humean Criticism of Hume’s Account of the Origin of Justice,” Journal of the History of Philosophy (forthcoming; co-authored with Eric Schliesser).