Adam Smith and the Pursuit of Perfect Liberty by James Buchan - review by Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson

The Man From Kirkcaldy

Adam Smith and the Pursuit of Perfect Liberty


Profile Books 192pp £15.99

Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, is one of those ‘great’ books which everyone cites with approval and no one actually reads. James Buchan, who has made himself our leading authority on Enlightenment Scotland, has fun at the expense of Alan Greenspan, the famous head of the American Federal Reserve Bank, who came to Scotland in February 2005 to sing the praises of Smith at Kirkcaldy, his birthplace. He called Smith ‘a towering genius in the development of the modern world’ for his ‘demonstration of the inherent stability and growth of what we now term free-market capitalism as a result of the principle of the invisible hand’ that he discovered. According to Buchan, though the phrase ‘invisible hand’ occurs three times in Smith’s oeuvre, in none of these instances does it have any reference to free-market capitalism. Greenspan was talking nonsense. Among those listening to his nonsense, and applauding it, was Gordon Brown, who also comes from Kirkcaldy and is its MP. He promotes Smith as the patron saint of his own version of Scottish socialism, and this is nonsense too.

So what? I don’t suppose Buchan himself would have read The Wealth of Nations had he not been planning to write a book about its author. No one reads a volume of economics unless he is paid to do so, or about to sit an examination. What is remarkable about

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RLF - March