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200 × 130 × 13 mm
200 pages
35 illustrations
01 Feb 2016
Critical Lives

Adam Smith Jonathan Conlin

Universally acknowledged as the father of capitalism, the eighteenth-century Scottish thinker Adam Smith is best known for developing the concept of the ‘invisible hand’. The ‘hand’ helped to explain how the removal of state regulation could set individuals free to specialize and pursue their own interests for the good of all. Unfortunately this idea was later manipulated by advocates of unfettered casino capitalism, while Smith’s references to self-interest were caricatured as ‘greed is good’, the mantra of Wall Street’s anti-hero Gordon Gekko. Smith’s thought, rooted in the holistic science of moral philosophy, was squeezed into the straitjacket of economics, a discipline unknown in his day.

This introduction to Smith’s thought sews the ‘invisible hand’ back onto the body of Smithian ethics. Smith rooted our trading instinct in human psychology and advanced a system of ethics founded on sympathy. In life as in books such as the renowned The Wealth of Nations he drew much from the contrasts afforded by the industrializing Scottish Lowlands and the clan-based pastoralism of the Highlands, as well as between contem­poraries such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume, a close friend. Weaving together his life and ideas, this book highlights the ways in which Smith anticipated recent developments in behavioural economics and virtue ethics as well as debates over inequality. It argues that Smith can equip us to face tomorrow’s challenges and, more importantly, make us better as well as happier humans.

‘In a well-written and consistently interesting study, Jonathan Conlin shows how Adam Smith, key thinker in the development of economics, is directly relevant not only for the late 18th century but also for today . . . a valuable, interesting and well-written book. Conlin deserves congratulations.’ — BBC History magazine

‘Jon Conlin’s Adam Smith in under 200 pages provides a guide for readers who do not have the time to plumb the depths of Smithology and brings Smith to life by showing how he came to think the way he did by taking cues from the world he lived in . . . Jon Conlin has been teaching Smith at universities in the UK and France and his exposure to questions raised by twenty-somethings shines through. Jon Conlin encourages reading Smith not as a monument on display but as a manual encouraging readers to look at the world we have before our eyes and use our mind to draw our own conclusions.’ — Journal of the Adam Smith Institute

‘Presents an introduction to the thought of Adam Smith, integrating his life with such key Smithian concepts as sympathy and the passions, the historical account of the development of society, and moral philosophy.’ — Journal of Economic Literature

‘Conlin has taken it upon himself to reconstruct an integrated analysis of Smith’s vision of humankind’s invisible connecting principles for undergraduates, as well as for any thoughtful reader who is interested in Adam Smith’s work. In his contribution to the Critical Lives series, Conlin does a very admirable job of this in a small space.’ — Cercles

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Jonathan Conlin is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Southampton. His books include Tales of Two Cities: Paris, London and the Making of the Modern City (2013), Evolution and the Victorians (2014) and Adam Smith (Reaktion, 2016).

Note on the Text


1. The Theater of Nature, 1723-50

2. Spectatorship and Sympathy, 1751-63

3. Trading Places, 1764-6

4. Golden Dreams

5. The Machine of Government, 1776-89

Conclusion: Head, Heart and Hand, 1790


Further Reading


Photo Acknowledgements