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

December 21, 2013

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.]

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