Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Forgotten Foundations
distributed 1/25/02 & 9/24/10 - ©2002, 2010

I went to the library looking for a fun novel, and came home with a book on moral philosophy. And I'm delighted.

I make it a habit to browse the "new books" shelf for fiction because it opens the possibility for serendipitous discoveries. Rather than stick with familiar authors or this week's best seller list, the new books display exposes me to unusual, even quirky, writings that I would never see otherwise. It is a discipline that I highly recommend.

The book that I stumbled across is Saving Adam Smith, a novel by economics professor Jonathan B. Wight. The story line has the 18th Century economist -- famous for his phrase about the "invisible hand" of the market -- making an appearance in modern America. The mind and spirit of Smith "channel" through an unwilling mechanic, and convey Smith's frustration that his nuanced theories have been turned into a caricature.

Wight is a creative enough author that his odd plot device works well as a tool for building a dialogue across a 250 year historical gap. It is evident that the book is grounded in solid scholarship. What's more, it is actually fun reading.

The author has an agenda in spinning this story of "academic fiction." He knows that Smith's work remains a powerful influence and justification in modern economic thought and policy development. The problem he addresses is that only a part of Smith's message has been remembered, and that the forgotten parts are of great importance.

The contemporary embodiment of Adam Smith asserts that the well-known practical economics from The Wealth of Nations have to be placed on the foundation of his earlier philosophical writings. The prior book (The Theory of Moral Sentiments) held up a fundamental concern for justice, the cultivation of virtue, and concern for the community. Taking those principles into account puts Smith's later writings about self-interest and the invisible hand into a very different context.

Wight is clearly a fan of Smith's thinking, and an advocate of capitalism. He is also deeply concerned about the ruthless shape of markets in the modern world. The novel is an amusing and enticing way to introduce us to the depth of Smith's thought, and to engage us in thinking about moral issues that are at the heart of our economic life.

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The need to wrestle with Adams Smith -- and those who claim to be his followers -- was further highlighted by a phone call this week.

A laywoman from a large Methodist church is planning a series of classes on globalization, and called to see what resources I might be able to suggest that could be used in her planning. It turns out that she is far better versed than I in the current studies. From my bookshelves and research, though, I was able to suggest some theological and practical sources to complement her solid economic and political knowledge.

One item that I came across is a recent study paper from the Lutheran World Federation, Engaging Economic Globalization as a Communion [PDF]. The paper's basic description of globalization shows how a partial reading of Adam Smith has a continuing influence on economic policy:

Economic globalization is driven by the assumption that the 'invisible hand' of the market, if allowed relatively free reign, will assure the optimum good as each individual pursues his or her economic gain. Human beings are viewed primarily as individuals with insatiable wants or desires ... Wealth, power, ownership, and control are what matter, along with a willingness to use nearly any means for the sake of higher profits.
The theological critique developed in the Lutheran paper sounded remarkably like the point that Wight made in his novel. Both remind us that a system which ignores the role of community and relationship, a system built on greed and selfishness, is morally flawed. Both show that an economy without ethics and compassion will be destructive for both individuals and society.

Such a message about core ethical and philosophical principles should be heard often -- in churches and in economics classes.

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The paragraphs above were first distributed as a Notes in January, 2002. (Recycling is a good eco-justice practice!) In 2010, we don't hear a lot of discussion about globalization, although the same policies and trends about international economics are still in place.

It seemed worthwhile to resurrect the discussion of Adam Smith and Moral Sentiments because of a currently raging domestic debate. The "Tea Party" crowd, large segments of the Republican Party, and a fair number of influential Democrats have adopted the notion that individual self-interest should be the primary incentive in our society. Demands for tax cuts and reductions in government often -- not always, but often -- are grounded in the belief that the maximization of personal or corporate wealth will always serve the common good. As we are dragged toward an individualistic free-market perspective, those who speak up with "moral sentiments" for social services and ecological health are called "weak".

Theological ethics and responsible economics still agree -- as I wrote eight years ago -- "that a system which ignores the role of community and relationship, a system built on greed and selfishness, is morally flawed. Both show that an economy without ethics and compassion will be destructive for both individuals and society."

In 2010, the political conversation is on taxes, not globalization. But still it is imperative that people of faith and conscience be assertive in bringing morality into the debate.

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As I read Wight's novel, I kept thinking of an important story from the Hebrew scriptures. During the reign of Josiah, a scroll was found in the temple that contained the Deuteronomic laws -- moral and ritual instructions that had been long forgotten. (See 2 Kings 22 and/or 2 Chronicles 34.) Through many generations, the people had wandered into idolatry and corruption. Judaism had been distorted. The rediscovery of the temple scroll brought about public repentance and a remarkable cleansing of the faith.

I hesitate to draw too close a parallel between the historic discovery of Jewish sacred texts and Wight's fictionalized reminders about the foundations of Adam Smith's economic theory. But both go to show that a tradition which loses its moral moorings can be distorted into something which bears little relation to its worthwhile roots.

Josiah and Judaism were transformed when they rediscovered their foundations. I only wish that a fresh reading of Smith's Moral Sentiments would provoke the leaders of today's nations and corporations into a similar depth of repentance and reform.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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