The Invisible Heart: Adam Smith Reconsidered

FRETTING, PERHAPS, for the fate of his own work, Jorge Luis Borges described the tendency of time to denude and adulterate a careful architecture of ideas. “There is no intellectual exercise that is not ultimately pointless,” he said. “A philosophical doctrine is, at first, a plausible description of the universe; the years go by, and it is a mere chapter — if not a paragraph or proper noun — in the history of philosophy.”

This is not the destiny of marginal minds, but the lot of first-rate philosophers like Kant, Heidegger, and Rawls. The Categorical Imperative, Dasein, and Veil of Ignorance are all bywords for a broader vision, one that many of us feel we should know something about but which few of us will ever bother to investigate in any detail.

There are worse fates. Consider Adam Smith. His philosophy — indeed, the fact he was a philosopher — has been obscured by the “invisible hand.” That phrase occurs just three times in his entire corpus and only once in his most famous work, The Wealth of Nations. Nevertheless, it has become a symbol for the “caricaturish libertarian” whose philosophy (if we may call it that) has supplanted the “holistic picture of human agency” Smith spent his adult life describing. 

Or so says Jack Russell Weinstein in a remarkable new book, Adam Smith’s Pluralism: Rationality, Education, and the Moral Sentiments. The title is most telling for what it omits. Smith is best known as the founding father of modern economics. More than two centuries after his death, he is still celebrated for establishing a “free-market paradigm” — as Alan Greenspan put it in a 2005 lecture in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, Smith’s birthplace — that “remains applicable to this day.”

Of course, it wasn’t long before the former Fed chair had to acknowledge that the applicability of that paradigm was a bit more limited. In the fall of 2008, with the financial crisis in full bloom, the dean of deregulation famously confessed to the House Oversight Committee that there was a “flaw” in the “ideology” he presumed to share with Smith. The belief that “free, competitive markets are by far the unrivaled way to organize economies” and that attempts to regulate them were unnecessary because they had never “meaningfully worked” warranted an amendment. Free markets, Greenspan conceded occasionally needed fixing.

Had Weinstein’s book been released a little earlier, it could have marked the fifth anniversary of the fall of Lehman Brothers, the event that, more than any other, signaled the disaster that was unfolding. As it is, the book treats the financial crisis like a dead child at the dinner table, an invisible presence that remains unacknowledged even as it lends a grave quality to the proceedings. 

This is by design. Weinstein is a philosopher, and he has written a book that aims, by his own account, to be an intellectual history. Thus he asks his readers to “leave partisanship aside,” a wish he himself does not altogether abide, dismissing one page earlier the ubiquitous Adam Smith ties that Time Magazine once dubbed “the neckpiece of conservative Washington.” Weinstein calls them “shorthand for free-market and limited government,” a politics, he says, that reflects “an extreme misreading” of Smith’s work. Maybe so, but to say as much before asking one’s readers to abjure partisanship seems finical or disingenuous — and unnecessary.

For politics is implied by Adam Smith’s Pluralism, which lays the groundwork for a multivolume project using Smith to anchor a “twenty-first-century liberalism.” First, however, liberalism will have to be uprooted from its Kantian foundation, a task Weinstein reserves for the second volume. However, he hints at a likely strategy when he takes on Rational Choice Theory as a proxy for the free-market caricature of Smith.

Taking his lead from Amartya Sen, the most famous philosopher currently working to redeem Smith, Weinstein objects to the notion that a particular “economic calculus” can explain all human decision-making. In its most vulgar form, that calculus presumes that people are always and everywhere driven by self-interest, an arid account of human motivation that Lord Macaulay once described as “a man had rather do what he had rather do,” a proposition, he said, on par with “the great truth that whatever is, is.”

The proponents of Rational Choice Theory, or RCT, don’t make the mistake of leaving the definition of self-interest so open-ended. Rather, says Weinstein (citing Sen), they favor “one very narrow interpretational story” of what constitutes our self-interest, a tale that excludes “moral or socially principled behavior” unless it is filtered through a “device of complex instrumental arguments” that imbues it with the aim of maximizing our individual utility.

Of course, for anyone who has ever helped a friend carry a couch up a few flights of stairs, such explanatory logic seems strained at best, and Weinstein is clear that Smith does not subscribe to it. “The existence of multiple motives is an essential component of Smithian rationality,” he says, “to be rational is to wade through a plethora of personal and social influences.”

Wading is a good word, for it illustrates the second distinction Weinstein attempts to draw between Smith’s theory of decision-making and that assumed by RCT. As opposed to the “formal modeling of rational deliberation,” the decision-making process for Smith is “significantly more layered.” Human beings are buffeted by a wide variety of motivations — some inspired by custom, others etched in our DNA, all shaped by circumstance — and adjudicating between them is not a straightforward exercise in utility maximization, whether in respect to aim or the manner of deliberation.

Indeed, what truly distinguishes Adam Smith from the adherents of RCT as well as the proponents of a Kantian-based liberalism is the auxiliary role of reason in decision-making. The credo of the Scottish Enlightenment was famously coined by David Hume, Smith’s dearest friend, when he said, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Smith was too circumspect to indulge in such verbal bravado, but he seconded Hume’s belief that human beings are best understood as creatures who conduct their lives feelingly. Smith’s first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments — in his opinion as well as Weinstein’s the more essential volume — was an attempt to describe moral decision making in terms of sympathy. Weinstein draws on it to describe what he sees as Smith’s particular vision of rationality, one that incorporates our “sentimental foundation” into “reasoned analysis.”

It is in explaining how this works that Weinstein’s book makes its greatest contribution. He shows how Smith provides a theory of moral deliberation that is less a syllogistic exercise than an effort to establish a “narrative thread” in which we articulate our own needs, the needs of others, and the relationship between them. That theory, says Weinstein, is inspired by Smith’s study of rhetoric, a topic he lectured on while writing Moral Sentiments, the notes for which survive thanks to a nimble auditor. The “purpose of rhetoric is, in part, the cultivation of sympathy,” Weinstein says, for, by it, “we make information available to ourselves and others.”

Given that the ability to explain oneself and to interpret the life of another is essential to this “model of moral adjudication,” it isn’t surprising how much emphasis Weinstein places on education. Far more, in fact, than Smith, whose actual discussion of education is fractured and fleeting, and is most remarkable for its endorsement of universal education to offset the stultifying effects of the division of labor. The relevant passages give evidence to the only clear error I found in Weinstein’s analysis. When Smith says that the dedication to some specific task in the division of labor “necessarily increases very much the dexterity of the workman,” Weinstein assumes a contemporary definition of “dexterity” that augurs “increased innovation, better judgment, and more sophisticated rational capacities.” For Smith, however, the exact opposite is true. A workman’s excellence at grinding the end of a nail is arrived at by him doing so exclusively, every day, for hours on end, with the broader legacy being exactly what you’d imagine: “His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expense of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues.”

However glaring, Weinstein’s misreading is in service of a noble cause, redeeming Smith from responsibility for providing the blueprint for a commercial system in which, by his own account, “the laboring poor, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall” into “gross ignorance and stupidity.” But Smith does provide that blueprint, which is why he proposes basic instruction for the poor to ensure that they are “decent and orderly,” less liable to “enthusiasm and superstition,” and “more disposed to examine, and more capable of seeing through, the interested complaints of faction and sedition” that can undermine a commonwealth.

In other words, education is vital for exercising the “moral adjudication” that Smith describes and Weinstein celebrates. Cultivating that skill is essential for a world of increasing social complexity, not only to navigate that world but also to abide by the people in it. Ultimately, Smith’s work, and The Theory of Moral Sentiments in particular, provides us “a process of finding social unity in the face of otherness, of creating a stable pluralism.” For Weinstein, this recommends Smith’s philosophy ahead of any system that presumes the final assurance of certain reason. This, he says, is the shortcoming of a Kantian-based liberalism, which fails to account for (among other things) “the emotions in moral and political commitments,” but it also may be applied to anyone who places abject faith in the abstractions of ideology. Smith warned against such visions, for they come complete with the blinders of bewitchment that see “the learned give up the evidence of their senses to preserve the coherence of the ideas of their imagination.” This is the lesson of Greenspan’s ideological “flaw” and the larger warning of the financial crisis: to rely wholly on the assurances of an invisible hand is to put ourselves at its mercy.

A greater humility regarding the power and promise of free markets is an implicit and as yet unfulfilled wish of Weinstein’s book. It commends the kind of epistemic modesty that is essential to a “stable pluralism” and that education, experience, and human exchange can only embolden. For those of us who applaud his efforts to rescue Smith and expand the applicability of his philosophy, we should hope that, as Weinstein develops his project, he embodies his own lesson and avoids the temptation he upbraids others for: letting Smith speak for himself, rather than presuming Smith speaks for him.

“Fame,” Borges warned, “is a form — perhaps the worst form — of incomprehension.” We can just as soon lose sight of something by staring too hard as by not paying attention.


John Paul Rollert is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Chicago Law School and the author of a recent paper on President Obama’s “Empathy Standard” for the Yale Law Journal Online. You can follow him @jprollert.