James Otteson on Adam Smith
I brought Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) with me on my vacation this year. My plan was to read most of it, in preparation for a talk I’m giving in December for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) in Monterey.
I found it tough slogging. I could typically read only about 10 pages at bedtime. The language is dense. I’m not criticizing Smith. That’s how people wrote in those days, but I also found it much tougher than The Wealth of Nations.
Fortunately, I also brought along James Otteson’s short book The Essential Adam Smith, published in 2018 by the Fraser Institute in Canada. It’s first-rate. The first five chapters are on Smith’s TMS. They will help me tremendously when I get home and systematically work my way through TMS.
One passage from TMS that Otteson quotes on p. 20 is this:
All the members of human society stand in need of each other’s assistance, and are likewise exposed to mutual injuries. Where the necessary assistance is reciprocally afforded from love, from gratitude, from friendship, and esteem, the society flourishes and is happy. All the different members of it are bound together by the agreeable bands of love and affection and are, as it were, drawn to one common centre of good offices. (TMS: 85.)
What I like about this passage, besides the fact that it’s true, is that it’s such an offset to the stereotype that people who have not read Smith. or have not read him carefully, believe.
The Otteson book, by the way, is zero-price in pdf form from the Fraser Institute.
Here’s the bio I wrote of Smith in The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.