Adam Smith and the past, present, and future of liberalism.

Author:Ridley, Matt
  1. Smith and His Precursors

    What is so special about Adam Smith, a provincial tax inspector who lived with his mother, tutored a young duke, and had no small talk? Does he really deserve our praise?

    I once went in search of a good pub in Edinburgh with the historian Niall Ferguson, and as we walked down the street, he said to me: the question is not what would Adam Smith do now, because he would go home to his mum, but what would David Hume do, because he loved to get drunk.

    Smith saw more clearly than anybody before that much of the world is an emergent, bottom-up place of spontaneous order, and that we don't need skyhooks to explain it or to regulate it--at least, not nearly as much as we think.

    Smith first made this point about language ([1767] 2010), that it emerges in all its complexity from the interactions of ordinary people, then about ethics in the Theory of Moral Sentiments ([1767] 2010), then about the economy in the Wealth of Nations ([1776] 1981), and finally about jurisprudence ([1763] 1978).

    These were extraordinary insights for the time, with far-reaching implications. I genuinely believe that Darwin could not have had his great epiphany if he had not studied in Edinburgh and absorbed the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment, and we know he read Smith at Cambridge.

    I am fascinated, too, by the thought that Smith--and Jefferson and Hume and Voltaire and Newton and Spinoza and all the great thinkers of the Enlightenment, who began to imagine a world of spontaneous order--might not have done so without the fluky rediscovery six hundred years ago this year of Lucretius, that fearless materialist of ancient Rome (Greenblatt 2012).

    I shudder to think what would have happened if the tatty manuscript of De rerum natura (Lucretius Carus 1997) had not been found by Poggio Bracolini in a German monastery in 1417.

    I am not suggesting that Lucretius invented or has a monopoly on ideas like spontaneous order, evolution, atomism, and materialism--that would be rather self-contradictory. The whole point of such a philosophy is that it is not handed down from above. I am drawing attention to what a rare and delicate flower the Enlightenment is, how hard it was to achieve and how incredibly precious.

  2. A Brief History of Liberalism

    I cannot believe how carelessly we treat it today. Under the banner of postmodernism, we flirt with the abolition of free speech in universities and trample on tolerance, openness, and the search for truth. What's the opposite of diversity? University.

    Smith knew what it was like to be no-platformed. As I recount in my book (Ridley 2015), in 1793, in Edinburgh--the supposedly enlightened Athens of the North--one Thomas Muir was tried for sedition, the prosecution alleging that he had scandalously argued that "taxes would be less if they were more equally represented." He got fourteen years and transportation to Australia.

    William Skirving and Maurice Margarot got the same sentence for echoing Adam Smith on free trade (Moore 2009). The next year, Dugald Stewart, later the biographer of Adam Smith (Stewart 1994), decided to apologize abjectly for even mentioning Condorcet's name in a book. Enlightenment had to hide under a bushel.

    And we flirt with reimposing laws of...

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