Adam Smith’s neglected masterpiece?

Corey Robin posted a brief write-up of a passage from Adam Smith over on his blog some weeks back. The text quoted was Smith’s earlier work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It’s become quite popular in recent years to contrast this work with Smith’s magnum opus, An Inquiry into the Wealth of Nations, which came a few years later.

One commenter, Diana, expressed more or less this exact sentiment. “Please keep blogging about the Theory of Moral Sentiments,” she wrote. “Everyone so associates Adam Smith with the other book [The Wealth of Nations] and forgets about this one.” Another commenter, Benjamin David Steele, immediately seconded her request, writing: “I agree. I’ve never read the Theory of Moral Sentiments, but I’ve been very interested in this lesser-known side of Adam Smith.”

For whatever reason, though the Theory of Moral Sentiments is an interesting work, it annoys me when individuals try to “correct” common misperceptions about Smith’s political and economic philosophy by redirecting attention away from what is undoubtedly his greatest work, The Wealth of Nations. (This is, of course, the work that libertarians and neoliberals like to cite the most in their anti-government diatribes, though this is simply because they never read beyond Book I). So I felt I’d write something along these lines. What follows is a brief exchange mostly between Corey Robin and me on Adam Smith’s moral philosophy and its ideological relation to aristocratic (versus bourgeois) virtue. Also at issue is the relative worth of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments as opposed to The Wealth of Nations. Continue reading