Saturday, June 05, 2010


The homely fellow above is one Adam Smith, born this day (depending on whose calendar you go by) 1723 in Kirkcaldy, Scotland. The exact date of his birth is unknown, but he was baptized on June 16th, 1723, so I figure today is as close as we need to be to put him on the hero podium. Not a whole lot is known about his childhood, but there is a story of him being kidnapped by a band of gypsies at the age of four, and then quickly rescued from them. Not sure if it is true or not, but I am sure it made for one hell of a dinner time story. He entered Glasgow University at the age of fourteen, and eventually made it to Oxford University. He came to Scotland, and begin a teaching career by starting to give lectures at the University of Edinburgh. In 1751, he got a professorship at the University of Glasgow, and spent the next 13 years there teaching logic and moral philosophy. But, any damn fool can go and read the minor, and major points of his life. He is famous for writing "The Wealth of Nations" a book that, ages ago when I was trying to be an intellectual I had to become fairly familiar with. Now, that I am just a dumb lawyer pushing papers around a desk, I have forgotten most of what I gleaned from his writings. That does not detract from his influence, a good teacher he made, and it is not his fault that I was such a poor student. In the book he introduces the idea of the Invisible Hand guiding the marketplace, and keeping its seemly chaotic meanderings from spiraling out of control. The best passage, and one often quoted from "The Wealth of Nations" is "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages." True enough words there, like the apothecary who, against his own will, sells Romeo the poison, and whom Romeo reminds "I pay thy poverty, not thy will" we are prisoners of the marketplace. We may like the brewer as a friend, we may have even be raised in the same neighborhood, or we may be some how related, but at the end of the day, the brewer has to eat too. And good will and friendship does not taste nearly as good as a nice, fat, juicy, steak. Perhaps we get the occasional freebie, but in the long run, we are in a buyer/seller relationship with a lot of people. A lot of Smith's ideas have been misinterpreted by, and for a lot of different causes. I suspect that is a sign that your ideas have some staying power, when a lot of very diverse groups try to latch onto them, twist them a little, and call them their own. His ideas were groundbreaking, and for those ideas, and for writing a fantastic book that is a foundation of modern economic thought, Adam Smith (June 5th, 1723-July 17th, 1790, at the age of 67), you are my (283rd) hero of the day.

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