Parliamentarian Norman (Edmund Burke: The First Conservative, 2015, etc.) enlists Adam Smith (1723-1790) and the Scottish Enlightenment in the cause of moral capitalism.
Having written of Edmund Burke as an intellectual founder of modern conservatism, the author now reckons with Smith, the great Scottish student of markets and consumer behavior. What are those markets, and what are they for? As the author notes, we don’t ask the right questions “about norms and culture and the role of the state.” Above all, the market assumes trust and consent: It cannot function well if those who are engaged in it do not trust one another and willingly enter into exchange, which, of course, is a problem in a market stained by crony and predatory stripes of capitalism, the capitalism that “flourishes where companies and markets lose their connection to the public good.” Following Smith, who wrote of the “moral sentiment” that underlies our supposedly self-interested interactions in the marketplace, Norman holds that while a free market should indeed be free, that does not mean that it should not be regulated. The playing field should be level, the barriers to entry uniform, the market a place not just of exchange, but also a moral community that hinges “on people who are not merely legally free but free in the full exercise of their capabilities.” Markets, he adds in what will be anathema to libertarians, are often improved by state intervention, especially of the sort that keeps insiders from ripping off outsiders. Following Smith again, he even endorses paying one’s taxes, though taxes must be used to public good, for “inefficient taxes increase bureaucracy, undermine the incentive to the productive, encourage smuggling and create vexation.”
It’s hard to imagine an American politician writing with the same depth and grasp of an inordinately complex subject, but Norman pulls it off quite capably. A worthy addition to the literature surrounding Smith and that of modern conservative thought.