Monday, March 5, 2012

Me & Adam Smith

Many economists and non-economists alike consider Adam Smith to be the father of economics.  His last book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations is considered to be the beginning of the field.  It is still frequently cited and still held in the highest regard.  It can easily be said that it is one of the most important books ever written in terms of the evolution of human thought on par with Isaac Newton's Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica and other books that inspired epic changes within their fields and led to important changes for humans at large.

The Wealth of Nations was one of the first economics books I have ever bought.  I find reasons to read it frequently, although I have never read it all the way through.  I read it a bit like I read the Bible: one passage at a time.  I typically use the index to find what Smith wrote about any given subject that I'm studying.  I do this frequently with Smith and Alfred Marshall's Principles of Economics.

Now, a bit about me.  I've always had a strangeness for physically touching things that I think or feel are important.  I've always been like this, I use it as a trick of memory but also for somehow transferring something else.  A process something like osmosis, but much more meaningful to me.  So when I have visited places that were particularly meaningful to me such as my Father's grave or even the George Mason statue on campus, it is meaningful for me to physically touch the artifacts.  This might be one of the oddest quirks about me, and a rare trip into metaphysical ideas.

I was in the library at the Department of Commerce doing some research, and I noticed that they had several glassed shelves with very old books.  Being the bibliophile that I am, I couldn't help but look.  I had already checked out their economics section and noticed a 1904 copy of The Wealth of Nations on the regular shelf, but here sat three volumes of what looked like a much older copy.  Being the curious sort, I looked it up on their computer system.  I noticed the 1904 copy and what was written as a 1776 copy.  That couldn't be, they didn't look that old (not that I'm an expert about this sort of thing).  I googled the publisher, and that search turned up that these might be the first Irish edition of the Wealth of Nations.

A week passed, but I ultimately decided that I would ask the librarian if I could see them.  She seemed surprised, and I got the impression that few people even used the books in this library anymore, instead relying on it to read newspapers, trade journals, and the internet.  But she didn't have a problem with me looking at them.  I asked if she had any gloves, and then she looked at me quite strangely and said no.  I didn't ask any other questions after that.  I was worried that the books might be too far gone for me to even handle them.  I've checked out books younger than these at the Library of Congress only to have them disintegrate in my hands.  I've learned to treat these old books with as much care as you would for a frail elderly person or a newborn.  Often their spine needs to be cradled, and their pages barely opened, and turned very slowly.

(photo: John Cobb)

I was surprised to see this copy of The Wealth of Nations to be in very good condition.  The spine was still quite sturdy, and the pages were crisp.  I still treated it extra carefully, but I did what I wanted to do with it.  It was indeed a 1776 copy of the Wealth of Nations printed in Dublin, Ireland.  It's hard to imagine that this book is older than the United States government, nor that this little book had a decent part in influencing the individuals that forged our Constitution.  I took a couple of photos of the title page, the first page of the text, and myself holding it.  I also took one gratuitous swipe of my index finger down the lower part of the title page.  This gets back to my obsession with touching things.  I had made sure to wipe my hands before to remove excess oils and sweat, but I still felt a bit guilty doing that on a 200+ year book of that stature.  I must admit that it was an exhilarating, if meaningless activity.  I put the book back on the shelf and took one last parting photo of it.  I can't explain why, but this was a meaningful activity to me.  I didn't read it, and I probably spent less than ten minutes with it... but I'll never forget it.

George Mason University Professor Daniel Klein has become somewhat of an authority on Adam Smith.  He recently released a book, Knowledge and Coordination which is based on liberal economic ideas and especially Smith.  Klein is as interested in Smith's approach to ethics as economics.  Here is a lecture that he gave in Stockholm, Sweden last December.

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