Leo Rosten on Adam Smith


Leo Rosten writes clearly, concisely, and often with great humor. Consequently, his essays make good fodder for classroom use.

British bank note featuring Adam Smith

Rosten is probably most famous for the introduction he once gave to the comedian W. C. Fields, a spur-of-the-moment bon mots that so exactly described Fields comedian persona that it is often listed as a line Fields himself wrote: “Any man who hates dogs and children can’t be all bad.”

That story also tells us that Rosten looks at Adam Smith coolly, through no rose-colored glass.

The Adam Smith Institute carries Rosten’s essay on Smith in its entirety. Go read it:

It is a clumsy, sprawling, elephantine book. The facts are suffocating, the digressions interminable, the pace as maddening as the title is uninviting: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. But it is one of the towering achievements of the human mind: a masterwork of observation and analysis, of ingenious correlations, inspired theorizings, and the most persistent and powerful cerebration. Delightful ironies break through its stodgy surface:

“The late resolution of the Quakers [to free] their Negro slaves may satisfy us that their number cannot be very great …”

“The chief enjoyment of riches consists in the parade of riches.”

“To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising customers [is] unfit for a nation of shopkeepers, but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.”

So comprehensive is its range, so perceptive its probings, that it can dance, within one conceptual scheme, from the diamond mines of Golconda to the price of Chinese silver in Peru; from the fisheries of Holland to the plight of Irish prostitutes in London. It links a thousand apparently unrelated oddities into unexpected chains of consequence. And the brilliance of its intelligence “lights up the mosaic of detail,” says Schumpeter, “heating the facts until they glow.” Sometimes.

Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776 – not as a textbook, but as a polemical cannon aimed at governments that were subsidizing and protecting their merchants, their farmers, their manufacturers, against “unfair” competition, at home or from imports. Smith set out to demolish the mercantilist theory from which those politics flowed. He challenged the powerful interests who were profiting from unfree markets, collusive prices, tariffs and subsidies, and obsolete ways of producing things.

[More at the site of the Adam Smith Institute, including the continuation of this essay.]

Leo Rosten, publicity shot

Leo Rosten

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