It is the last day of the Liberty Fund’s week-long Adam Smith Extravaganza. I can now safely say I know a lot about Adam Smith. And, I am tired. Great conference. (As an aside, Liberty Fund really knows how to organize a productive conference. The general format is to send out a lot of reading, which everyone is supposed to do, and then the participants simply have long conversations about it. I have been trying to figure out what the key is to having that format work so well. (Sign that the format works well: there is a constant discussion among the participants of Liberty Fund conferences about how to makes sure you get invited back to another one—and there is a persistent worry about the Liberty Fund Blacklist (by the way, everyone affiliated with Liberty Fund denies the existence of the Blacklist, but everyone not affiliated with Liberty Fund seems certain that the Blacklist does in fact exist.)) My conclusion about why these conferences work so well: 1) they pick books worth reading, 2) they get participants who have a range of ideas but are not dogmatic missionaries, and 3) (and I think this is the real key) they don’t micromanage the conversation. The last one takes a lot of faith that even if the conversation meanders, people will still be learning a lot (about Liberty in this case). And that format works amazingly well.) The conversations this week have spilled out long after the formal sessions ended. We have been arguing at the bar until after 11 pm every night about Smith and a zillion other topics nobody would have ever known were related until this week. (Things I can confidently say now: 1) The Magic Mountain is not that good. 2) Martin is not that much better than Kingsley (indeed, I am not entirely convinced he is better at all). 3) Mahler is not a top ten composer. 4) Intermediate Hegelians are as mythical as Left Hegelians and Right Hegelians; they are all just Hegelians. 5) Private Lighthouses are a silly idea. 6) Pride and Prejudice is the best novel ever. 7) The Watchmen and V for Vendetta are both deeply interesting arguments about Liberty (and both movies are relatively bad).)
By the way: I have now realized one of the most amazing things about a blog; you win every bar debate by getting the last word.
As for Smith, I started the week thinking that The Wealth of Nations was arguably one of the 25 best books in the History of the West (and it is easily in the Top 50). My opinion of Smith has gone up this week. That’s high praise for a conference. As for the books—listed in order of quality:
1. The Wealth of Nations. It’s a book you simply stare at in wonder. The first part is still the best overall explanation of the basics of economics there is. Think about that—over 200 years later, nobody has written a better introduction to Economics than that of the first person to ever figure out how markets actually work. And then the book wanders everywhere into all sorts of interesting and surprising terrain. To top it all off, Smith is a fantastic prose stylist.
2. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. I read this for the first time. And, after reading it, I was seriously underwhelmed. I am pretty sure my problem was that I was expecting Wealth of Nations level and it isn’t that good. The conversations this week has convinced me it is better than I originally thought. And, I am now convinced that the book can easily be thought of as simply part of The Wealth of Nations.
3. Lectures on Jurisprudence. This is two lectures Smith gave on the topic; I’ve only read the second one, and someone told me the first one is the same content, but some different details and so on. I wasn’t impressed by the lecture, though I enjoyed reading it. One of the other participants noted that the most interesting thing about the lectures is that they are like a short version of The Wealth of Nations. That made me realize that the only downside of these lectures is that those who like the ridiculous length of The Wealth of Nations will find the lectures missing something. It does present an strange problem: While I would still tell someone who had never read Smith to simply read the magnum opus, a case could be made that this is also a good starting point.
4. Essays on Philosophical Subjects. A random set of essays, some of which have some interesting tidbits, but none of which are particularly great in isolation. The book is good if you are trying to figure out Smith’s thought in a comprehensive discussion of him, and if there was a topic one was studying, then some of these essays could be of interest, but there isn’t much here for the general reader. The book does have the virtue of including the essay that is the answer to a Persistent Question: What is the single worst essay ever written in the English Language? Answer: “Of the External Senses” by Adam Smith.
5. Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. Move along, son, nothing to see here. I cannot imagine this book would have any interest at all in any forum other than a week-long discussion of Smith. As part of a comprehensive Smith discussion, it is interesting, but I am not sure in what other situation it would be worth reading.
6. The Correspondence of Adam Smith. We read just one letter from this book, so I actually have no evaluation of it, but I decided to list it for completeness.