Insta-Millard Pundit, economics edition: Adam Smith was a bleeding heart liberal

In a new book, author Jack Russell Weinstein argues that we should pay more attention to Adam Smith’s first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments,  and not allow Smith’s humanitarian pleas for good community be hijacked by libertarians, conservatives or liberals.

Adam Smith’s Pluralism, Jack Russell Weinstein, Yale University Press, 360 pages

Adam Smith, updated. Illustration by Michal Hogue.

Adam Smith, updated. Illustration by Michal Hogue.

A review of the book explains further, at American Conservative, “Adam Smith, Communitarian:

Weinstein builds upon Smithian harmony, explaining that while life is not always commercial, it is always communal. Community, in turn, derives its lifeblood from “imagination,” because imagination creates the capacity for sympathy. Unlike Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers, Smith “presumes human difference” as a necessary and inherent aspect of civilization, rejecting the Kantian ideal of “noncontextual normativity.” Smith recognized that cultural, temporal, and social differences shaped norms and values, making it impossible to create a single, all-inclusive norm of human behavior. This is why sympathy is so important. It offers a means that is natural to the human condition—our desire to commiserate with our fellow man—to bridge the gap between our differences.

Smith believed that “political society is not derived from a social contract,” according to Weinstein. Instead, society is a natural expression of what it means to be human. The state of nature for Smith is one of community, and the ultimate questions related to human society are questions of morality and virtue, not economics and politics. Thus, a broad, morally robust education rooted in a particular community is essential to forming sympathetic individuals. While Smith did not idealize the role of education—it could not completely eliminate human selfishness and vanity—he believed it had the power to “direct vanity to proper objects” and to “convert competing passions into a harmonious character.”

[The blog post’s headline should be read with more than a hint of sarcasm; hate to have to explain that.]


6 Responses to Insta-Millard Pundit, economics edition: Adam Smith was a bleeding heart liberal

  1. Porlock Junior says:

    Getting relevant, if I may.

    This is a nice review, showing again that the American Conservative still shows the flag for non-craziness.

    The contrast with Kant appeals to me, partly because Kant’s morality has so much going for it. But the bit about needing imagination and eschewing uniformity is good. It’s the same sort of point that Jack Tanner made (I think — I seem to recall it from the revolutionary’s handbook at the end of Man and Superman): “Do not do unto others as you would they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.”

    Or, to bring it down to the most vulgar level of topical political controversy: Friends don’t let friends participate in gay marriage, amirite? Therefore, by the categorical imperative…

    [Joining our host in hating having to explain – that last bit includes sarcasm.]


  2. Porlock Junior says:

    As I’ve noted before,

    Kings, high priests, highwaymen, barbarians, and the destitute: Pick one. These are the classes of people who traditionally, since cities began to exist, have been generally exempt from paying taxes. Not sure how to choose between the high priests and the barbarians, myself, but I’d probably opt for the priests, because literacy is fun.


  3. Black Flag® says:

    Free Enterprise, not political enterprise.

    I don’t have to show Smith’s quote anywhere. Of course I’ve read Smith, and I do not hold him to god status as you do. He was right on many things and wrong on many things.

    Taxes ARE theft – the coerced seizure of another’s property.


  4. Ed Darrell says:

    We call that “free enterprise.”

    More seriously, can you point to any place Adam Smith ever says taxes are “theft,” or that a good citizen should not expect to pay taxes, and pay more taxes the wealthier the citizen?

    Have you read Smith?


  5. Black Flag® says:

    “The state of nature for Smith is one of community, and the ultimate questions related to human society are questions of morality and virtue, not economics and politics.”

    So how is it moral to seize, unearned, the wealth of other men for your own benefit?


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