Adam Smith and “Adam Smith”

I’m sorry, but what does Michael Boskin’s WSJ op-ed entitled “Obama and ‘The Wealth of Nations'” have to do with Adam Smith? The first sentence of the op-ed is “President Obama should put Adam Smith’s ‘The Wealth of Nations’ at the top of his summer reading list.” Perhaps he should—but then again, lots of people should, including, one might even suggest, Michael Boskin.

Boskin quotes the famous line from The Wealth of Nations in which Smith says “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest” (bk. 1, chap. 2, para. 2). But there are two problems with Boskin’s use of this passage. First, he misquotes it. I have rendered it correctly here, but Boskin forgets a comma and inserts the word “can” between “we” and “expect.” Not a major blunder, perhaps, but if that is the only line one quotes from the book that ostensibly forms the background for your entire op-ed argument, you should get it right.

Second, and much more important, that line from Smith does not make the point Boskin apparently wants it to. Boskin wishes to criticize President Obama for holding, in Boskin’s words, “that the profit motive is somehow ignoble.” Boskin counters that “every student learns in introductory economics class that the pursuit of profits is essential to a successful economy, allocating resources to the use consumers value most.” (That might be taught in every micro course, but I am not so sure every student learns it; but that is by the by.) Note, however, that both Obama’s and Boskin’s positions, as stated, might be true: they do not contradict one another. Let me explain.

Smith’s claim about how we “address ourselves” to potential partners in market or commercial transactions—namely, “not to their humanity but to their self-love” (ibid.)—would seem to be a descriptive, not a prescriptive, statement. In other words, it describes what people actually do in such situations, leaving the question of whether they should or should not behave that way out of the discussion. Smith is here describing the way markets work, on the assumption—correct then, as it is now—that most people do not know how they work. Now Smith will indeed go on to argue that individuals acting in their own self-interest tend to engage in behaviors and transactions that benefit not only themselves (their intention) but also other people in the society as well (not part of their intention). This gives us a reason, Smith believes, to wish to encourage such transactions. This is Smith’s famous “invisible hand” argument (Wealth of Nations, bk. 4, chap. 2, para. 9).

Hence Smith does develop a prescriptive argument in The Wealth of Nations, but the gains from trade, which he thinks are both real and underappreciated, are nevertheless not decisive. Smith acknowledges other matters that he thinks we should also consider as we evaluate commercial society. Smith worried about the deleterious effects that extreme division of labor might have on the minds and psyches of the laboring class (WN, bk. 5, chap. 1, art. 2, paras. 50 and 61), and he proposed some small measures—like partially subsidized primary schooling for all (ibid., para. 55)—to address them. He also worried about the effects that business–government “partnerships” would have: he thought they would almost inevitably benefit the protected and privileged businesses at the expense of both other businesses and the public generally, so he opposed such partnerships (WN, bk 1, chap. 10, part 2, para. 27 and passim). And he worried about the poor. Indeed, almost all of the policy recommendations Smith comes to make could arguably be seen as motivated by his concern for raising the status of the least among us (here is but one example).

Now, concern for the poor, support for education, and opposition to monopoly privileges for favored businesses are hardly the exclusive provenance of the political left, as some contemporary scholars claim, but neither are they the exclusive provenance of the right. They arise instead from an understanding of how markets work and a genuine desire for people to have the chance, as Smith puts it, to better their conditions. Hence a person who wants to present Smith’s argument the way Smith intended it has to spend time defending him against people on the left, as well as on the right.

But Boskin, who is on the right, offers no discussion of any of this. Instead he wishes merely to criticize President Obama and at the same time make his own policy prescriptions, but from under the protective mantle of Adam Smith. I pass no judgment here on whether Boskin’s policy recommendations are good or bad. But they are a long way from the general claims Smith makes. If Boskin wants to suggest that Smith would endorse them, he has a lot more work to do. But why bother? Why not merely state them as his own recommendations, and argue for them on the merits?

One thought on “Adam Smith and “Adam Smith”

  1. I think Boskin and others interested in really knowing Smith should read the following books by this guy Otteson: and Or they could just read Smith – inexpensively available from the Liberty Fund’s publishing arm.

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