The Common Reading for 2017: The Condensed Wealth of Nations

For over a decade, our community of Christian scholars has been introduced to ideas, principles and creativity generated by a variety of literary sources, chosen to fit around the qualities of a liberal arts education and figured as the college’s Common Reading. This reading has been assigned for summer consideration and in preparation for the next academic year. Just last summer and fall, we explored the themes within Pericles’s “Funeral Oration” and Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address;” prior to that, our Common Reading selections have ranged from C.S. Lewis’s penetrating “The Abolition of Man” to Mary Shelley’s much-adapted “Frankenstein,” with other choices over the past years including Theodore Roosevelt’s “Citizenship in a Republic” and “Flatland” by E.A. Abbott.

In a healthy atmosphere of debate—permitted, and even encouraged, in a free society allowing for the thrust and parry among those with competing opinions—Americans, among other Western peoples, have long traded ripostes over the central questions focusing on the intersection of their respective societal needs, the desires of individuals within those societies and the consequences of their national borders. Those questions frequently coalesce in debate over choices concerning political systems, military structures, codified law defining societal norms and economic policy. How free a society is can be measured within any of those; however, given the dynamic nature of nations with individuals allowed to critically think and thus create and produce, economic systems often serve as the most sensitive barometer. So, for 2017-2018, the college’s Common Reading will be a summary consideration of a legendary text: Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations.”

In 1776, as the American colonies were rebelling against the British Crown, and moving ever closer to declaring independence, the British economist Adam Smith (1723-1790) produced his enduring and influential work. A primary figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, Smith witnessed some of the most terrific changes in Western history, including the rise of steam power and pivotal work of James Watt, as well as the political ferment in America and France—leading to republics aiming to shield individual liberty within free societies structured by the “consent of the governed.” John Locke’s ideal of that consent was ultimately borne out with some success here in America, but only haltingly implemented in France. The intellectual world of Locke and Isaac Newton—the genius who quickened thinking leading to the “Scientific Revolution” that ushered in Watt’s invention—was of the 1690s. Consequently, the efforts and ideals of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were often times founded directly on the thinking of Locke and Newton. As Newton so aptly figured so his own accomplishments: “if (we) have seen further, it is because (we) have stood on the shoulders of giants.”

The work of Adam Smith has typically been known in name and not usually by experience in reading. “The Wealth of Nations” weighs in at around a prodigious 900 pages, and is replete with 18th century illustrations and allusions. The principles that Smith espoused, however, are far more precise and with obvious modern application. What has been needed is a modern, concise version of Smith’s powerful observations concerning the relationship between an individual’s choices in production and consumption, and the role of that individual’s society in governing how those choices are made or if a government has any role at all. With many thanks to the Adam Smith Institute in London, such a version of these free market principles has been produced. Written by Dr. Eamon Butler, who currently serves as director of the Adam Smith Institute, Smith’s vital thinking is easily accessible and available here.

Smith’s famed illustration of an invisible hand guiding a marketplace is the most well-known aspect of his thinking; yet, in Smith’s 1759 companion volume, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” he set the moral parameters for this matter, figuring that there is also an invisible hand guiding decisions regarding ourselves and others. Dr. Butler includes an incredibly condensed version of that writing as well in the essay provided. Thus, what Adam Smith proposed was a marketplace not only driven by self-interest, but also a consideration of societal concerns. Revolutionary thinking, indeed.

As classes begin in the autumn months, we will engage in a forum focusing on this Common Reading. A marketplace has mattered to societies even further back than the Hellenistic world and its agora; as long as individuals engage in commerce, a free exchange of both products and ideas will always matter.