Happy birthday, Adam Smith
By Alberto Mingardi
Some 291 years ago today, Adam Smith was born. Richard Ebeling has an insightful article that beautifully introduces to the contemporary reader the “father of economics”. Scott Sumner pointed out that, according to Thomas PIketty, Smith “had more political prejudices than Ricardo”. Scott already suggested that writing that somebody has “political prejudices” very often means he has political prejudices that you do not share.
Both Ricardo and Smith wrote to persuade their audiences, though they had very different backgrounds. Ricardo was a formidable entrepreneur before becoming a theoretical economist, and his first contributions dealt with the day’s monetary problems. Smith was a moral philosopher who set out to solve a tremendous puzzle: how is it that men cooperate one with each other? He distinguished between cooperation in the small group, that is the center around which his “Theory of Moral Sentiments” gravitates, and cooperation in the extended society, which is the subject of the “Wealth of Nations“.
Francis W. Hirst, who wrote a splendid, short intellectual biography of Smith in 1904, asked a question to ponder.
In a science like political economy, every new teacher endeavours to correct the mistakes of his predecessors, to supply their deficiencies, and generally to teach the science in its last stage of perfection. Some of Smith’s successors were themselves men of genius, and proved equal to the task of displacing their master for a few years. But those who have seen the rise and decline of Mill may well ask with Wakefield, who had seen Smith superseded by Malthus and Ricardo and M’Culloch: How is it that the Wealth of Nations, all these things notwithstanding, is still read and studied and quoted as if it had been published yesterday?
This question is as relevant today as in 1904. Insofar as answers are concerned, I would consider Hirst’s still a persuasive one:
Adam Smith writes as one who has applied his mind to definite problems without neglecting a wider field of letters and learning. The store is rich and the steward is bounteous. So far from being an isolated study of abstract doctrines, political economy is treated from first to last as a branch of the study of mankind, a criticism of their manners and customs, of national history, administration, and law. Even when silencing a battery or throwing up a counterwork he is very seldom disputatious or doctrinal. “He appears,” says Wakefield, “to be engaged in composing not a theory, but a history of national wealth. He dwells indeed on principles, but nearly always, as it seems, for the purpose of explaining the facts which he narrates.” There is no scarecrow of thin abstractions and deterrent terminology flapping over the pages to warn men off a dismal science. The laws of wealth unfold themselves like the incidents in a well-laid plot. It was left for his successors to show how dull economics might be, and how suitable for the empty class-room of an endowed chair.