Daniel Klein reads Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments as a great work of political liberalism. The book contains a good deal of esoteric writing, using, in particular the device that Arthur Melzer calls ”dissembling the true target”: The author appears to be criticizing Y, but, between the lines, his real target is X.
Klein will treat instances of Smith dissembling the true target. In one instance, the true target is the slave trade – something which, in 1759, Smith was perhaps not ready to take on directly. But the chief instance to be discussed is Smith condemnation of government interventionism, implicit in his withering critique of the books of casuistry (guides to confessors in the Catholic church), which Smith described as ”tiresome,” ”useless,” ”disagreeable,” and guilty of ”frivolous accuracy”. Smith explains why a complex world calls for simple rules and individual sovereignty, not ten thousand commandments, and especially not commandments of ”frivolous accuracy” backed by the police power of government.
Daniel Klein is professor of economics and JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, where he leads a program in Adam Smith. He is also an associate fellow at the Ratio Institute.