The greatest issue of our time…

08.07.18 Publication:

The greatest issue of our time in political economy is how to reconcile societies to the process we now call globalisation, with all the inequality and insecurity that have come with it. We only need to mention Brexit, Trump and the Five Star-League government in Italy to explain why this matters. But all too often, any use in response of the phrase “Adam Smith” produces a Pavlovian or Voltairean reaction: you are either a heartless neoliberal saying that freer markets are always the solution, or a complacent elitist who believes we are in the best of all possible worlds.

This is a tragic mistake, as the philosopher-MP Jesse Norman explains in this excellent intellectual biography of the most influential political economist of all time. It is a mistake because the 18th-century Scotsman, author of the famous “Wealth of Nations” of 1776 but also the less well-known “Theory of Moral Sentiments” of 1759, provided many of the insights we need today to unravel our current tangles.

Far from echoing the Thatcherite misquotation that “there is no such thing as society”, in Smith’s thought there was nothing but. Markets may work thanks to the “invisible hand” of self-interest, but to Smith they are above all social constructs, bringing together millions of people in relations of exchange and empathy, and depending on rules, enforcement and other interventions by the State. They cannot and must not be simply left alone, for truly “free” markets are a myth and private enterprise anyway often ends up as crony capitalism, a “conspiracy against the public”, in one of Smith’s better-known phrases.

Thus Jesse Norman’s underlying purpose is not just to rescue Smith from misunderstanding but to make him a powerful ally in reframing his own Conservative Party’s thinking: away from market fundamentalism and towards a renewed moral sense of the public good and shared citizenship. Good luck to him.