Feeling Philosophical?

11 Dec, 2017


Feeling Philosophical?

December 2017

The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought will introduce many readers to a pair of Scottish philosophers author Dennis Rasmussen calls “the two greatest intellectual influences on America’s founding.”

A professor of political science at Tufts University, Rasmussen argues for the relevance of these thinkers to contemporary politics and policy.

This is a way to signal their allegiance to the free market — to trickle-down economics and to capitalism. In 1776, Smith published his work The Wealth of Nations, which to this day is the greatest expression of the importance of free trade and of commercial culture itself. It was a refutation of the mercantilism that for so long had dominated economic policy in Great Britain. It’s a monumental work.

But you think Smith has been misinterpreted?

That’s the considered opinion of most scholars, actually. Smith was not the advocate of “laissez-faire” that a lot of people seem to assume. The phrase laissez-faire in fact never appears in the book. And Smith certainly did not approve of selfishness and greed. His earlier work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, after all, argues that a strong sense of morality is part of human nature. And even in The Wealth of Nations, he is critical of commercial capitalism.

In what way?

Smith argues, for example, that for all their advantages, free markets result in worrisome inequalities of wealth. Although a market economy makes for material progress — and for a less warlike world — the pursuit of happiness through the accumulation of money is counterproductive and even degrading. He also claims that the division of labor that is part of industrialism is also degrading. He says that a man who spends his life working on a task that represents one-eighteenth of the process of manufacturing a pin, for example, inevitability becomes “stupid.” The way to push back against that is through government-funded education.

So Adam Smith himself wouldn’t wear an Adam Smith tie?

No, and people who wear Adam Smith ties for the wrong reasons should probably wear Bernard Mandeville ties, if they exist. Mandeville was the author of The Fable of the Bees, the subtitle of which is Private Vices, Public Benefits. He is the one who argued that society is improved when people pursue selfish ends. Smith didn’t say that. One of the tedious aspects of being a Smith scholar, by the way, is that you have to read in every new work on Smith the “discovery” that Smith didn’t believe a lot of things Smith enthusiasts tell themselves.

Does anyone wear David Hume ties?

Not to my knowledge, but maybe they should. Hume was writing defenses of free trade years before Smith did, and he was a huge influence both on Smith’s thinking about morality and also about economics, though the term that would have been used in their day was “political economy.”

Hume is thought of as the ultimate skeptic. Here was a man who disputed even our assumptions about cause and effect, using billiard balls to make his point. He said we see the cue ball hit the object ball, and then we see the object ball move, but we can’t assume one caused the other, right?

What he meant was that it was only through observation and experience that we can assume cause and effect. There was no rational reason to make that connection. We believe it because we see it. His point wasn’t that there is no cause and effect, only that rationalism cannot account for it. Only experience can.

What’s the point for us today?

Hume’s assault on rationalism is especially relevant today because it teaches us never to be too sure of what we think we know. He argues for using a scientific approach to observe the results of our experiments — not just to “reason” about them in the abstract. Hume teaches us intellectual humility, and we need more of that.


Want More Information on This Topic?

Reach Rasmussen at dennis.rasmussen@tufts.edu

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