Jesse Norman on Adam Smith
By Alberto Mingardi
A few months ago I sent a letter to the Financial Times on the excerpt of Jesse Norman’s book on Adam Smith that they published. When I blogged on it, a few readers complained that I was criticising an excerpt (and even worse, the title the FT put to it) while not having read the book.
While my point was that to make Smith “fashionable” you have to claim he was not that much of a free trader—that is: a point related to how ideas are digested by public opinion and not so much on Norman’s book—in a sense they were right. Books should be read, before being reviewed.
Now I’ve published a review of Norman’s book, in the last Economic Affairs. My take on the book is that it is actually two books in one.
The first is a precise and faithful review of Adam Smith’s life and career. Smith’s life was hardly a James Bond novel: therefore, to fill 140 dense pages Norman weaves together the uneventful reports of time passing with useful summaries of unfolding world affairs (from the Seven Years War to the Ayr Bank catastrophe) and an unadorned and yet spot-on presentation of the great Scot’s ideas as they developed.
… Alas, Norman’s succinct and accurate history of Adam Smith and his times is followed by what is in fact another book: his attempt at explaining the relevance of the great Scottish philosopher for our times. Current issues, from rising inequalities to the financial crisis and even Facebook and the ‘market dominance’ of ‘web titans’, are confronted with some lessons that allegedly could be learned from Smith.
I’m not positive on this second part of the book and I contrast it with Mario Vargas Llosa’s recent La llamada de la tribu. Vargas Llosa’s book is a collection of intellectual biographies, the first one of which is dedicated to Smith. Vargas Llosa is one of the greatest writers of our time, but he is also a (classical) liberal. In dealing with Smith, he seems to be to understand what is peculiar to Smith, and why it is an essential part of the vocabulary of liberty.