The Invisible Heart: Adam Smith Reconsidered

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John Paul Rollert reviews Jack Russell Weinstein's Adam Smith's Pluralism: Rationality, Education and the Moral Sentiments, in the LA Review of Books:

FRETTING, PERHAPS, for the fate of his own work, Jorge Luis Borges described the tendency of time to denude and adulterate a careful architecture of ideas. “There is no intellectual exercise that is not ultimately pointless,” he said. “A philosophical doctrine is, at first, a plausible description of the universe; the years go by, and it is a mere chapter — if not a paragraph or proper noun — in the history of philosophy.”

This is not the destiny of marginal minds, but the lot of first-rate philosophers like Kant, Heidegger, and Rawls. The Categorical Imperative, Dasein, and Veil of Ignorance are all bywords for a broader vision, one that many of us feel we should know something about but which few of us will ever bother to investigate in any detail.

There are worse fates. Consider Adam Smith. His philosophy — indeed, the fact he was a philosopher — has been obscured by the “invisible hand.” That phrase occurs just three times in his entire corpus and only once in his most famous work, The Wealth of Nations. Nevertheless, it has become a symbol for the “caricaturish libertarian” whose philosophy (if we may call it that) has supplanted the “holistic picture of human agency” Smith spent his adult life describing.

Or so says Jack Russell Weinstein in a remarkable new book, Adam Smith’s Pluralism: Rationality, Education, and the Moral Sentiments. The title is most telling for what it omits. Smith is best known as the founding father of modern economics. More than two centuries after his death, he is still celebrated for establishing a “free-market paradigm,” as Alan Greenspan put it in a 2005 lecture in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, Smith’s birthplace, that “remains applicable to this day.”

Of course, it wasn’t long before the former Fed chair had to acknowledge that the applicability of that paradigm was a bit more limited. In the fall of 2008, with the financial crisis in full bloom, the dean of deregulation famously confessed to the House Oversight Committee that there was a “flaw” in the “ideology” he presumed to share with Smith. The belief that “free, competitive markets are by far the unrivaled way to organize economies” and that attempts to regulate them were unnecessary because they had never “meaningfully worked” warranted an amendment. Free markets, Greenspan conceded occasionally needed fixing.

More here.