Sunday, July 09, 2006

Adan Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments: essential companion to The Wealth of Nations

AS USUAL, FREE ENTERPRISE is under attack. Assaults on laissez-faire are being made by petro-commie Hugo Chávez, by the EU's dirigisme regime, by Vladimir Putin's reassertion of nationalism and socialism - call it National Socialism? - in Russia. Congress thought Dubai had bought Newark and was going to move it to the Persian Gulf. The Treasury Department is having a neo-mercantilist fit over the current acc ount deficit with China. And President Bush, in his last State of the Union address, made the shameful statement that "America is addicted to oil."

But Americans don't get sick and shaky when they're deprived of oil; they get sick and shaky when they pay for it. And the price they pay is artificially inflated by our government's taxes, acquiescence to a monopoly cartel, and restrictions on exploration, drilling, and refinery construction.

The world's political leaders need to be frog-marched back to The Wealth of Nations for a refresher course. The principles therein are straightforward enough. Even politicians should be able to grasp them. Economic growth depends on division of labor. Division of labor depends on freedom of trade. Freedom of trade depends on, in the words of Adam Smith, "the obvious and simple system of natural liberty."

What politicians are incapable of comprehending is the moral underpinning of free enterprise, that "system of natural liberty." Even many of free enterprise's advocates see market freedoms solely in terms of practical economics. The government of China comes to mind. But Adam Smith was not an economist. The discipline hadn't been invented. Adam Smith was a moral philosopher.

The Wealth of Nations was part of a larger enterprise in moral philosophy. The first installment of Adam Smith's great undertaking was The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published 17 years before Wealth. Smith finished an extensive revision of Moral Sentiments the year before he died. He considered it his most important work. The book is not much read or referred to nowadays, but his theories in The Wealth of Nations cannot be understood without The Theory of Moral Sentiments ...

Continue here (The Weekly Standard, dated 17 July 2006).