Why Adam Smith ideas mean different things for different people

Nice piece by Glory M Liu, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Political Theory Project at Brown University. She is currently working on a book project titled ‘Inventing the Invisible Hand: Adam Smith in American Thought and Politics, 1776-Present’.

Liu argues how Smith leads to fight between people:

People like to fight over Adam Smith. To some, the Scottish philosopher is the patron saint of capitalism who wrote that great bible of economics, The Wealth of Nations (1776). Its doctrine, his followers claim, is that unfettered markets lead to economic growth, making everyone better off. In Smith’s now-iconic phrase, it’s the ‘invisible hand’ of the market, not the heavy hand of government, that provides us with freedom, security and prosperity. 

To others, such as the Nobel prizewinning economist Joseph Stiglitz, Smith is the embodiment of a ‘neoliberal fantasy’ that needs to be put to rest, or at least revised. They question whether economic growth should be the most important goal, point to the problems of inequality, and argue that Smith’s system would not have enabled massive accumulations of wealth in the first place. Whatever your political leanings, one thing is clear: Smith speaks on both sides of a longstanding debate about the fundamental values of modern market-oriented society.

But these arguments over Smith’s ideas and identity are not new. His complicated reputation today is the consequence of a long history of fighting to claim his intellectual authority.

Hmm..

Scholars keep inventing, reinventing and cherrypick Smith:

Indeed, it is easy to forget that Smith – who he was, is, and what he stands for – has been invented and reinvented by different people, writing and arguing in different times, for different purposes. It can be tempting to dismiss some past interpretations and uses of Smith as quaint, superficial, misleading or wrong.

But they also reveal something about how and why we read him. Smith’s value has always been political, and it’s often politicised. But much of that value stems from assumptions about the neutrality and objectivity of the science he invented when, in fact, those assumptions are ones that his later readers projected onto him. Smith was a scientist, no doubt, but his ‘science of man’ (in David Hume’s phrasing) was not value-free. At the same time, we should be wary of reading his science through the lens of a single normative value – whether that is freedom, equality, growth or something else.

Adam Smith’s works remain vital because our need to identify and understand the values of a market society, to take advantage of its unique powers and temper its worst impulses, is as important as at any time in the previous two centuries. Economic ideas carry immense power. They have changed the world as much as armies and navies. The extraordinary breadth and sophistication of Smith’s thought reminds us that economic thinking can not – and should not – be separated from moral and political decisions. 

Perhaps one of the most important lines written on Smith’s works…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: