Adam Smith 1723-1790
by Richard E. Noble
Adam Smith was, first, a moral philosopher. He was a professor and he taught philosophy. The job of a moral philosopher through the ages seems to have been to recognize chaos, disorder, and evil, and then “discover”, within these phenomena, order, organization and Providence. Adam Smith was successful as a moral philosopher, and consequently his books sold. He had viewed the work-a-day lives of the common man and discovered that God was in His heaven and all was right with the world ... despite any obvious realities to the contrary. If he had discovered that God was undiscoverable, heaven was a non-existent product of hopeful imagination and that the world was ALL wrong, he would, more than likely, not have sold so well.
Isaac Newton, before Adam, had established similar value for the Universe. Isaac had determined that the hand of God was responsible for tossing the stars and the planets into the heavens and thus perpetuating motion. He then went on to extrapolate a mathematical relationship between the stars and planets which he could demonstrate accurately and named “gravity”. Isaac thus established before Adam Smith the “invisible hand” of God notion.
John Locke, Herbert Spenser, and John Stuart Mill were all riding on a similar economic track, but none of these men had yet stooped so low as to involve themselves with the nitty-gritty of everyday work and then tie it all into a Divine Plan.
Adam seems to have gotten stigmatized by certain concepts; one such concept being the notion of Laissez Faire. Adam suggested that “morally responsible” individuals, (butcher, baker, brewer and candlestick maker – as opposed to ax-murderer, bank robber, political tyrant) pursuing their personal morally responsible self-interest, will obviously promote the general welfare in a morally acceptable manner. Today the notion has been corrupted to the idea that immoral individuals, pursuing totally immoral self-interests, will inevitably perform a moral service for the society and the world in which they live. Even our sometimes misguided religious concoctions make more sense than this. Religion, while advancing the notion of an all knowing, provident God, still acknowledges the necessity for a hell - thus implying that ALL and ANY behavior does not result, necessarily, in virtue, even in the eyes of God; He who has created all things, and possibly even economics... God forbid.
Adam promoted the idea of morally conspired self-interest over the promotion of state sponsored or even personal and individual benevolence, because promoting benevolence, unlike promoting vice, did not seem to be governed by any reasonable restraints of conscience. In pursuit of virtue and moral excellence personalities are often developed along the lines of Mohammed, John Calvin, Martin Luther, John Brown, Billy Graham, various Popes, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Karl Marx, Osama bin Ladin; not to mention many past and modern day politicians right here in the good, old U.S.of A.
Most of Adam Smith’s observations are over simplifications, and generalizations not wholly applicable to the complicated economics of today. But Adam seems to have been the first to try and establish fundamental principals that relate to our everyday world of monetary interaction and general commerce. For the first time in history, possibly, he established a relationship between a nation’s wealth and work ... even everyday, lowly, common-man type work.