All Commentary
Saturday, March 1, 1997

Book Review: The Life of Adam Smith by Ian Simpson Ross

A Book with Much for the Free-Market Reader to Appreciate

Clarendon Press, Oxford • 1995 • 495 pages • $35.00

If you ever wondered what books Adam Smith’s father kept in his library, then Ian Simpson Ross’s The Life of Adam Smith is for you. Indeed, Ross’s biography of the father of free-market economics is jam-packed with such facts regarding Smith, his family, teachers, friends, and associates.

It’s rather striking, when you consider Adam Smith’s impact on mankind, that more has not been written about his life. As Ross notes, the last full-scale biography on Smith was published 100 years ago. The Life of Adam Smith paints a technically complete picture of Adam Smith—complete in the sense that the major endeavors of Smith’s life are addressed. That is, we see Smith the student, the moral philosopher, the rhetorician, the historian, the teacher, the customs official, and of course, the economist.

Overall, we gain a portrait of Smith as a self-confident man, though modest and self-deprecating, absent-minded, charitable, and committed to scholarship to the point that his health sometimes suffered. Various particulars about Smith’s personal life are noted, including a deep dedication to his mother, being kidnapped by gypsies at the age of three, a possible nervous breakdown as a student, and lifelong bachelorhood with one or two lost loves along the way. Ross concludes that first and last [Smith] was a moralist whose character bore the impress of the Roman Stoics.

Ross warns, however: We must not think that Smith’s life was all labor over his books, worry over their reception, and refuge from concentration on chains of complex ideas in the endless ramifications of the business routine of the Customs Board. He enjoyed a stimulating social life, particularly through entertaining visitors from other countries in Edinburgh.

Ross discusses Smith’s works in their entirety, naturally giving great attention to The Theory of Moral Sentiments and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. In summary, Ross notes that The Theory of Moral Sentiments contributed to a better understanding of the role of sympathy in moral judgments and developed the idea of the impartial spectator to account for the formation of our judgements of ourselves. As for The Wealth of Nations and the economics model developed within, Ross observes: The leading features of the model, with its concept of a freely competitive and self-regulating market, have proved highly attractive up to the present day. As defined by Smith himself, the Smithian model was the obvious and simple system of natural liberty.

Ross illustrates that Smith’s free-market ideas were brewing for some time before the publication of The Wealth of Nations in 1776. For example, Ross provides a quote from a 1755 paper prepared by Smith to be read to a society in Glasgow: Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice; all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things. All governments which thwart this natural course, which force things into another channel, or which endeavour to arrest the progress of society at a particular point are unnatural, and to support themselves are obliged to be oppressive and tyrannical.

This biography particularly excels when examining the many people who influenced Adam Smith to varying degrees. Most important were his teacher Francis Hutcheson, his friend David Hume, and Francois Quesnay and the French Physiocrats.

The Life of Adam Smith is well worth reading. However, I must admit that the book left me wanting more in two particular areas. First, from the perspective of reading a biography, the tidbits regarding Smith’s personal life were not enough to satiate me. This is probably an unfortunate consequence of the amount of information available, though, and not necessarily the fault of the author.

Second, the final chapter cried out for a stronger discussion regarding the massive and durable impact of Smith’s economics for more than two centuries. Unfortunately, at the book’s close, the reader possesses some doubt as to whether or not Ross fully grasps Smith’s deep influence to this very day.

There is much for the free-market reader to appreciate in The Life of Adam Smith, with still a bit left to be desired.

  • Raymond J. Keating is an author and serves as Chief Economist with the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council.