This is the first book I've read that goes into much detail about the subject of primitive accumulation, and I'm impressed. Having an American History perspective, when I think about the social engineering behind a capitalist economy, I think about protective tariffs, slavery, moving Indians off the land, subsidies to canals and railroads, etc. It's fascinating to see that coercion and government involvement goes back much farther than that. And it's good to learn about some of the more forgotten political economists like James Steuart.
One does not have to be particularly leftist appreciate this book. Whether means to capitalist economic development was wrong or a "necessary evil", it's still extremely useful to know that things just didn't evolve naturally out of free exchange. The system was consciously engineered so that the "right sort" of people would be successful, and there's nothing sinister when people, through democratic choice, re-engineer things to bring about a reduction in income inequality, environmental protection, etc.
While not all leaders and thinkers in the 18th century were economists, I have a slight problem with the portrayal of Adam Smith. Now perhaps I've been seduced by his charm, but it seems as though he has a more complex view of the common good. Of course he wasn't a modern leftist or a cultural relativist, but at the same time, he wasn't a William Graham Sumner-style Social Darwinist of the late 1800s either.
"Whenever the legislature attempts to regulate the differences between masters and their workmen, its counsellors are always the masters. When the regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters. "
The author doesn't use quotes like this from Smith, perhaps he assumes the "pro-worker" statements are well-known enough not to repeat. But how many ways can we interpret this?
"The capricious ambition of kings and ministers has not, during the present and the preceding century, been more fatal to the repose of Europe, than the impertinent jealousy of merchants and manufacturers. The violence and injustice of the rulers of mankind is an ancient evil, for which, I am afraid, the nature of human affairs can scarce admit of a remedy. But the mean rapacity, the monopolizing spirit of merchants and manufacturers, who neither are, nor ought to be, the rulers of mankind, though it cannot perhaps be corrected, may very easily be prevented from disturbing the tranquility of any body but themselves."
Pretty strong language. The author would say that he's talking only about a certain class of merchants, perhaps.
Some leftists like Noam Chomsky will talk favorably about Adam Smith, as part, I think, of a larger argument to show that market fundamentalism and Social Darwinist "class warfare" are a departure from Classic Liberalism. Maybe I'm being naïve but I'm more sympathetic to this view. I feel it unwise to throw away so much of classic liberalism when it seems that most 18th century liberals wouldn't support modern corporate capitalism. From reading this book, I partly get the sense that you should either be a supporter of "invisible hand" market economics, or a Marxist. But that isn't the case.
Benjamin Franklin, a friend of Adam Smith, wrote a lot of contradictory statements, it is true. But this quote, I think, shows the concept of civic virtue that many of America's "founding fathers" had:
"Private property is a Creature of Society, and is subject to the Calls of that Society, whenever its Necessities shall require it, even to its last Farthing, its contributors therefore to the public Exigencies are not to be considered a Benefit on the Public, entitling the Contributors to the Distinctions of Honor and Power, but as the Return of an Obligation previously received, or as payment for a just Debt."
This is a superb refutation of the warmed-over 1890s Social Darwinist mentality. Wealthy people aren't being punished when they pay higher taxes. Nor are they doing an act of benevolence. They are paying a "just debt" because in the long run, large-scale private-property is socially engineered, and the rich man depends on government more than the poor man.
Overall I have few disagreements with this book, and I highly recommend it.