10 July 2007

Adam Smith. The Wealth of Nations 1776.

"...by directing (his) industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it..."

Adam Smith. AN INQUIRY INTO THE NATURE AND CAUSES OF THE WEALTH OF NATIONS. London, for W. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1776.

Current Selling Prices
$90000-$15000 /£45000-£75000

A wonderful title. A landmark work by the prophet of the free market. The Victorian philosopher Henry Thomas Buckle once claimed that, in its effect, this was "probably the most important book that has ever been written" and that "that this solitary Scotchman has, by the publication of one single work, contributed more toward the happiness of man than has been effected by the united abilities of all the statesmen and legislators of whom history has presented an authentic record." On the other hand Dr Johnson told Boswell that Smith "was as dull a dog as he had ever met with" --Boswell had been one of Smith's pupils at Glasgow University.

The book, two sound quartos, sold well, and the first edition, the number of which is unknown, sold out within six months. This came as a surprise to the publisher, and probably also to Smith himself - in a letter to David Hume he wrote that the book 'requires much thought and reflection (qualities that do not abound among modern readers) to peruse to any purpose."

Probably one of the least asleep of all books--you are most unlikely to find one cheap--if you find a 1776 edition, and they do turn up, it will almost always be the 3 volume Dublin printing worth about a tenth of the London edition. The above quotation about the 'invisible hand' gives an idea of the style and thrust of the book. It is much loved by enlightened Republicans, libertarians and high Tories. Bagehot was a fan. Reaganomics was nothing but Adam Smith. The amusing P.J. O'Rourke has produced a sort of 'Adam Smith for Dummies' called 'P.J. O’Rourke on The Wealth of Nations" a good summary and explication in which he also takes a few swipes at liberals (however the man, described on one site as 'an ageing bong head', is no Rush Limbaugh.) He sees Enron as an example of businessmen not following Smith's principles - self-interest and greed being antithetical to each other. Greed is not good business.

The book is featured in 'Printing and the Mind of Man'- a work that used to be a bible among serious collectors of landmark books. It is still important, but you don't hear people say 'it's in PMM!' so much anymore. PMM says of the book:
'Where the political aspects of human rights had taken two centuries to explore, Smith’s achievement was to bring the study of economic aspects to the same point in a single work … The certainty of its criticism and its grasp of human nature have made it the first and greatest classic of modern economic thought...’

VALUE? A copy made £85000 (+ commission taking in to little short of £100,000 to get it out of the room) in June this year. It was in an Edwards of Halifax binding (decorated / painted at the spine with a family crest.) There is a bit of a fetish for such bindings so this may have fired this price up, a copy in a handsome binding sits in London at £75000 and a copy described as "...a remarkably clean, fine and totally unsophisticated copy" made $135000 at Sotheby's New York in 2005. A worn copy made $60K last year and 10 years ago decent examples were making $30K. William Rees Mogg once wrote an article showing how key books such as this could be an investment and if chosen wisely could outpace inflation. He may well be right so far. You are never going to find a set now for much less than $60K unless it is defective or has had a hard life. [ W/Q ** ]

TRIVIA. O'Rourke parodies Smith's opaque prose style in his own work on him - “Pretty soon Smith gets enmeshed in clarifications, intellectually caught out, Dagwood-like, carrying his shoes up the stairs of exegesis at 3 a.m., expounding his head off, while that vexed and querulous spouse, the reader, stands with arms crossed and slipper tapping on the second-floor landing of comprehension.” Also it could be argued that Adam Smith inspired Boswell in his great biography of Johnson - he attended Smith's lectures at Glasgow University, and was captivated by Smith's remark that even the smallest detail is of interest in a great man - such as John Milton's choice of shoe laces over buckles.


Anonymous said...

Good stuff.

Anonymous said...

From Adam Smith to Disco--you certainly cover some ground (stay with it Capo)

Click Here Delux Lodge Alaska Salmon Fishing said...

A great introduction to modern economics that is often missed in didactic lectures. This book gives the motivation for many modern economic concepts that is often lost in mathematical formalism.