McCloskey on Norman
By Alberto Mingardi
In July I commented on a number of articles previewing Jesse Norman’s book on Adam Smith: Father of Economics (that’s the American title, the British one is Adam Smith: What He Thought, and Why it Matters).
Deirdre McCloskey read the book and reviewed it for The Wall Street Journal. The result is an elegant piece, in which Deirdre points out the book’s many strengths but ultimately disagree with its core message.
The author claims, in an argument heard everywhere along the usual political spectrum, that Smith was no exponent of laissez-faire—this, despite the scores of hostile remarks in Smith’s two books about the arrogance of the “man of system” advising governments to shift economic chess pieces.
The worst passages in Mr. Norman’s very good book, that is, come from accepting the assumption that markets are highly imperfect yet easily corrected—and that government, implicitly assumed to be capable of such delicate corrections, should step in. Such a plan runs against Mr. Norman’s own conservatism and Smith’s evolutionary thinking, which would favor spontaneous developments, not “policies” laid on in all directions by self-described experts.
“Far from always being choked back by rules and law, markets vividly illustrate how personal freedom and prosperity can be enlarged by them,” Mr. Norman claims. “Far from being intrinsically opposed, states and markets rely and benefit from each other.” Tell that to the farmer in Iowa facing retaliation from China and other countries for American tariffs. Tell it to the west-sider in Chicago excluded from employment in a new factory or a new grocery store by governmental restrictions that would have made Smith’s blood boil.