As I finally catch up on the Great Books of the Western World reading project, I come now, somewhat out of order, to Smith. The introduction and first nine chapters of Smith’s The Wealth of Nations technically follow the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers in the Great Books of the Western World reading list, but I have been reading October’s readings side-by-side and finished Smith first. I have actually had the privilege of spending quite a bit of time reading, contemplating, and discussing Smith over the past few months as I have been engaged in a PhD seminar on “Wealth” as one of the great ideas.
One of the aspects of Smith’s thought that strikes me most each time I read him is what it is that is motivating him. One frequently hears the name of Smith abused in contemporary debates about economic systems. He is often referred to, by those who no doubt have never actually read his work but only seen him mentioned in textbooks, as the father of cold, hard laissez-faire capitalism. He seems most commonly to be seen as a sort of Ayn Rand figure who believed in the virtue of greed.
The reality, as we see in this selection from his most important work, however, is that Smith was motivated essentially by his compassion for the poor. Smith believed that through economic freedom a superabundance of goods and luxuries could be produced which would make a society richer in a general sense, thereby raising the standard of living for even the poorest members of that society. And while Smith may have erred in some of the details of his ideas, the wealth of those nations that have more or less followed his road map today is sufficient evidence in favor of the soundness of his thesis. With but few exceptions, even the poorest Americans and Western Europeans enjoy a lifestyle that far surpasses that of the poor in many other places in the world and that surpasses by a long shot nearly all of the poor anywhere in the world before the modern era. Smith is certainly a thinker with whom we should be more familiar and whose ideas deserve more respect and consideration than they currently receive.