« Worthwhile Canadian Initiative - The Shameless Self Promotion Edition | Main | Are there any straight lines in economics? Roman and Anglo Saxon roads. »


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Adam Smith is widely ignored by the same groups which cite him as a founder of their economic narrative. This comment wouldn't be quite as surprising to someone who knew that Adam Smith supported taxes as a "badge of freedom," and felt that a completely free market would be very "destructive":

"...we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it; and that when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment..."

Much like Keynes and Marx, the mainstream narrative would like nothing more than to cite these archetypes without even hinting at having any knowledge about them.

Um, Greg: do dial it back a bit, will you? And Dean, I suppose it felt good to get that out of your system, but we could do without passive-aggressive accusations of ignorance and hypocrisy.

An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations


This is a post about the suffering in Japan. A shame that the debate has already taken such a turn.

I interpret the last paragraph as an admission by Smith that there is much we cannot begin to understand. I believe that a good economist understands this. That doesn't mean we don't try to find answers. However, we still can be wrong. In a constructive debate of the issues it is easier to determine on what points one agrees and disagrees, build consensus and move on.

A thoughtful post Frances.

There seems to be a revival in Adam Smith's writings. I read his Theory of Moral Sentiments recently.

There's an adage that we should always bet on self-interest because it invariably wins the race. On the other hand, societies could not function for long without benevolence and sympathy. If we compare self-interest and benevolence with the fundamental forces of physics - nuclear, electro-magnetic and gravity - benevolence is like gravity; it is the weakest force, yet it's the force that holds the universe together. So too, I think, benevolence holds societies and nations together. Self-interest could not work without sympathy and benevolence. Like the strong nuclear force, self-interest works within a very short range.

I wasn't accusing anyone here of the narrow mindedness I cited. The first thing that came to mind were some of the off-handed quips of TV personalities, and a few specific editorials in the local paper.

The confusion that Smith was a "blind-selfish" kind of thinker is just as ignorant as the idea that Marx didn't include the "equilibrium of self-interests" or "skilled v unskilled" labor concepts in his own theories. It's not like these are obscure or otherwise unheard of problems: I was deliberately mis-taught on both philosophers in school, and never got an alternate understanding until I took up their study myself.

I think its rather bizarre that anyone would think I'm attacking them here. The clear focus of my post was that the mainstream does not engage in honest discussion of the points at hand, but rather prejudices them towards a predetermined narrative. Perhaps the culture is different enough where you live to make you think otherwise. But, that I hadn't accused anyone here ought to be enough to give me the benefit of the doubt, even if you disagree with me.

Greg - I've deleted your comment because the language wasn't appropriate - if you'd like to make the same point slightly differently, please do so.

Kien: "benevolence is like gravity; it is the weakest force, yet it's the force that holds the universe together"

I understand benevolence and agree with what you say about its importance. What I have a harder time getting my head around is the idea of "the love of what is honourable and noble, of the grandeur, and dignity, and superiority of our own characters." That's much harder to reconcile with rational utility-maximizing calculus.

Kevin, thanks.

Dean - actually I wouldn't criticize mainstream economics education for teaching an incomplete/partial caricature Adam Smith, Marx etc. For the most part history of thought and methodological issues aren't discussed at all, and the overwhelming emphasis is on technique. Which, paradoxically, has led to a willingness to explore things like behavioural economics - it doesn't matter if it can't be explained by rational utility maximization as long as the econometrics are sound...

Frances: this is an important passage in Smith especially when read with Hume in mind. Hume at one point says "It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of half the world to the scratching of my finger" - well this is a paraphrase, but this is the canonical statement of the instrumental conception of rationality that economists rely so heavily on. Reason can tell us about means to ends, but nothing about what our ends should be. Smith in the passage you quote obviously disagrees: reason, conscience, the man within the breast motivates what Sen called counter-preferential choice. And I can't help thinking that Smith had this passage from Hume in mind when he wrote this.


The posts by each of you, day in and day out, demonstrate why WCI is so very important to policy discussions in Canada today. And each of you provide most diverse and fascinating perspectives. I do not know of any other space in Canada where analysis, debate and discussion of economics, business and public policy of this rigour occurs.

Scholarly conferences are mostly a huge waste of time while political parties yell at each other. The think tanks have to a significant degree stepped into the vacuum created by the retreat of the academy into sterile and not very meaningful discussions, but the think tanks "post and go" without follow on debate. The Globe and National Post largely succeed in encouraging a national conversation - but can only go so far, as they must consider space and eyeballs or risk losing readers and advertisers.

Remarkably, the five of you have succeeded in creating the ancient Greek agora in Canada - albeit now virtual. This is no mean feat. All MPs, journalists and analysts of public policy should read WCI regularly.

And I deeply appreciate your courage in discussing the oft maligned Adam Smith (who after all was a professor of moral philosophy).


Frances Woolley:
[A]ctually I wouldn't criticize mainstream economics education for teaching an incomplete/partial caricature Adam Smith...

True story: a few years ago, I saw a brilliant prank on a libertarian forum. Someone posted a few select quotes from Adam Smith that were quoted approvingly by Marx. The joke was that the poster wrote that the text was from a work by Marx, but omitted any mention of Smith. Blissfully unaware of their actual source, the commenters proceeded to denounce the quoted ideas as crazy. (Unfortunately, digging out the link would require some serious googling, for which I don't have the time right now.)

Moreover, when I read The Wealth of Nations, I was shocked to discover that Smith was basically a Malthusian before Malthus. Sure, the latter elaborated these ideas at much greater length, but Smith's view of the long-term trend in population and wages was just as dismal, and supported by much the same arguments. I was really startled by this, considering my earlier merry picture of Adam Smith that I had gotten from modern economic literature.

I am not an economist, but I think it's fair to say that for a non-economist I have an unusually high level of interest and knowledge in economics -- and it definitely seems to me that the picture of Adam Smith that the economic education/profession presents to people like me is an awful caricature.

Ian: As the person who wrote the inaugural WCI post more than five years ago, thanks very much for those kind words.

Ian: This discussion shows how much the fields overlap. In fact, I was largely introduced to a lot of social and political ideas by Erich Fromm, who was a Psychoanalyst. I don't think any honest discussion of these issues can rule out a lot of the political and moral aspects therein (except, perhaps in very limited academic discussions).

Vladimir: I am not surprised that Smith had Malthus-like ideas. But I don't think that means that they are necessarily in the same "vein" so to speak. I hinted at some of Marx's ideas that are shared by others, but he also has a model which parallels marginalism, in his "socially necessary" v "socially superfluous" concept of labor value.

Despite the vitriol in the deleted post from Greg, he had a very important point: the overarching character of someone's works should be more important than oft-repeated quotes and characterizations. I still think there's a lot of obfuscation about these thinkers, however.

Kevin, that's really fascinating about Hume and the source of the little finger idea. I did not know that.

Ian, thanks so much for your kind words.

Vladimir, great story.

Dean, we can properly declare Adam Smith the founder of modern economics AND the source of our social philosophy without blindly chewing, swallowing, and digesting every word the man ever said. He's an economist and philosopher, not the Son of God!

Smith was clearly wrong about the Labor Theory of Value. If he arose from the grave, he might thank us for setting him straight.

We can quote Thomas Jefferson for his eloquent and passionate defense of liberty while still acknowledging his moral turpitude with respect to slavery.

Ideologues might be cherry pickers, but men of intellect can agree mostly but not universally with honored predecessors. Selecting pieces of prior works which are supported by evidence while discarding pieces which aren't is not cherry picking, dogma, or revisionism.

The body of knowledge has advanced somewhat since Smith's day. I think he would approve.

What makes him wrong about the labor theory of value? From what I have read of his - he's far closer to the truth than many contemporaneous economists. That his truths fail to provide edificial value to the interests of preeminent media today shouldn't diminish what he had to say.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Search this site

  • Google

Blog powered by Typepad