I’ve not been, in the past, particularly good at getting discussion threads going here. Probably I don’t have enough readers. Still, I was reading a book on neo-liberalism this evening and came across a quote from Adam Smith in the context of a discussion of where Milton Friedman’s ideas differed from those of Smith. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the context, the “New Deal” was a series of government programs in the U.S. during the Great Depression of the 1930s that used the public purse to alleviate economic misery.
But Smith was not thinking in terms of the twentieth-century New Deal state and its successes and failures, although he did go further than Friedman in his advocacy of public administrative action. He argued, for example, that government should take responsibility for education and infrastructure, something Friedman thought the market could operate through vouchers and competition between alternative providers. Smith’s conception of the moral individual, essential to his thought, Friedman avoided altogether. Smith was concerned that people’s “disposition to admire the rich and the great, and to despise or neglect persons of poor and man condition,” led to “the corruption of our moral sentiments.”
Smith’s best known work is The Wealth of Nations, but his other major work is The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which I have not yet read.