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'A superb book' Financial Times, Books of the Year
Adam Smith is now widely regarded as 'the father of modern economics' and the most influential economist who ever lived. But what he really thought, and what the implications of his ideas are, remain fiercely contested. Was he an eloquent advocate of capitalism and the freedom of the individual? Or a prime mover of 'market fundamentalism' and an apologist for inequality and human selfishness? Or something else entirely? Jesse Norman's brilliantly conceived \book gives us not just Smith's economics, but his vastly wider intellectual project. Against the turbulent backdrop of Enlightenment Scotland, it lays out a succinct and highly engaging account of Smith's life and times, reviews his work as a whole and traces his influence over the past two centuries.
But this book is not only a biography. It dispels the myths and debunks the caricatures that have grown up around Adam Smith. It explores Smith's ideas in detail, from ethics to law to economics and government, and the impact of those ideas on thinkers as diverse as Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek. Far from being simply an economist, Adam Smith emerges as one of the founders of modern social psychology and behavioural theory. Far from being a doctrinaire 'libertarian' or 'neoliberal' thinker, he offers a strikingly modern evolutionary theory of political economy, which recognises the often complementary roles of markets and the state.
At a time when economics and politics are ever more polarized between left and right, this book, by offering a Smithian analysis of contemporary markets, predatory capitalism and the 2008 financial crash, returns us to first principles and shows how the lost centre of modern public debate can be recreated. Through Smith's work, it addresses crucial issues of inequality, human dignity and exploitation; and it provides a compelling explanation of why he remains central to any attempt to defend, reform or renew the market system.
Norman (Edmund Burke: The First Conservative) takes aim at the carapace of myth that obscures the real legacy of Smith, the Scottish thinker whose Wealth of Nations, first published in 1776, outlined the functioning of a modern market economy. Too often, Norman argues, Smith has been wrongly seen as the progenitor of laissez-faire capitalism, an economic libertarian, and a misogynist whose careful calculations of supply and demand leave no room for the hidden household labor of women. To counter this vision of the boy from Kirkcaldy as a market fundamentalist, Norman provides a thoughtful and accessible overview of Smith's work interspersed with historical context on the Scottish Enlightenment. He argues convincingly that Smith's greatest insight was his notion of mutual sympathy, the human ability to imagine ourselves in the place of others and thus reflect in turn on our own behavior, and it is this reciprocal vision of social interaction, rather than the narrow self-interest typically associated with Smith, that is the true basis for market exchange. Indeed, Smith was more interested in morals than money and would have condemned the crony capitalism and income inequality that dominate contemporary economic life. This is a stimulating introduction to an often misunderstood figure in the history of economic thought.