Tag Archives: Great Thinkers

Joe Biden vs. Adam Smith

Vice President Joe Biden recently said that every great idea of the last two-plus centuries came from government. My colleague Alex Schibuola and I rebut him over at The Daily Caller using Adam Smith’s book The Theory of Moral Sentiments as our weapon of choice. Biden, it turns out, is an almost perfect example of what Adam Smith described as the “man of system.” This is not a good thing.

As Smith put it:

The man of system … is often so enamored with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it … He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board.

The problem, of course, is that human beings are not chess pieces. They have their own wants and desires. They move on their own. The man of system does not take this into account. This is why his plans fail time after time, even if he has the best of intentions.

Read our whole article here.

For those of you interested in learning more about Adam Smith, I couldn’t recommend him more highly. Don’t be scared off by his 18th-century prose style. Sit down with either of his books for less than an hour and you’ll develop an ear for it.

I don’t agree with everything Smith said; he invented the labor theory of value. But he was a keen observer of human nature. He was also a kindly soul, who wanted man to be free, happy, and prosperous. The overarching theme of his thought is mankind as social creature.  Our social instincts color how we form our notions of morality (the impartial spectator theory), and explain why economies function the way they do (peaceful exchange, as opposed to simple theft).

The Theory of Moral Sentiments is available for free at the Online Library of Economics and Liberty. You can also get a hard copy or a Kindle edition from Amazon.

For help wading through and digesting Smith’s arguments, I recommend Russ Roberts and Dan Klein’s six-part podcast series about the book, and D. D. Raphael’s short and readable The Impartial Spectator: Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophy.

Other quality secondary sources on Smith include E.G. West’s short-yet-thorough biography, and P.J. O’Rourke’s On the Wealth of Nations, which pairs Smith’s economic theories with O’Rourke’s mordant wit.


Politics 101: Machiavelli and Public Choice

When Niccolo Machiavelli died in 1527, Washington, DC was still more than two and a half centuries away from being founded. But he understood perfectly how that dismal city would work, as Bertrand Russell reminds:

“In the absence of any guiding principle, politics becomes a naked struggle for power; The Prince give shrewd advice as to how to play this game successfully.”

-Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, xxii-xxiii.

Machiavelli was, in many ways, the first modern public choice theorist. Had he lived in a post-Adam Smith world, he would have made a fine economist. A politician’s guiding principle is usually not ideology. It is to remain in power. So they behave accordingly. The first lesson of economics is that people respond to incentives. If someone’s incentive is to get re-elected, they will behave in a way conducive to achieving that goal. Morality and the greater good compete for a distant second.