Core Economics | Adam Smith, revisited
The perception of Adam Smith, too often claimed by ignorant liberal market extremists as one of theirs (as the founder or father of modern capitalism, or laissez-faire economics, and so on), has undergone a significant change, at least among those who actually have read parts of his oeuvre, and especially among those that have read more than his classic “The Wealth of Nations” (1776). Behavioral economists, in particular, have taken to gut Smith’s earlier “Theory of Moral Sentiments” (1759). Unfortunately, many behavioralist economists seem to have gotten out of it little more than some tantalizing quotation to decorate their articles on human foibles or social preferences. To the extent that Smith’s work on astronomy, methodology, rhetoric, languages, and jurisprudence, continues to be ignored, it remains poorly understood and is likely to continue to serve as an inkblot test for political priors.
There is no excuse for that kind of cavalier appropriation of the history of economic thought. At least half a dozen biographies are out there, from Dugald Stewart (Smith’s first biographer of sorts, still extremely insightful), over Scott and Rae, to more recent ones such as the two editions of Ian Ross’s often celebrated attempt to write the ultimate (his)story of Smith life and work. I personally found Stewart’s – as short, and short on biographic detail, as it is – always the best primer. No longer.
Nicholas Phillipson recently published a brilliant attempt to reflect on Smith’s life and work as well as the circumstances in which they unfolded. It’s a veritable tour de force but one worth every minute it takes to read it. Indeed it is a must-read for everyone who is interested in what Smith really said.