Monday, April 04, 2011

What Some Academics Debate About

Luigino Bruni posts on an international web board, Societies for the History of Economics (SHOE), to which many academics interested in the subject (broadly defined) are readers and occasional contributors.

Presently, one subject is a discussion of a member’s question: when it was first asserted that “Adam Smith, was the ‘Founding Father’ of Modern Economics?”

A recent contributor, somewhat annoyed at the tone of the many erudite contributions, mainly quoting from early textbooks that may answer the question (a bit like a trip down memory lane for me), posted his viewpoint, which for obvious reasons to readers of Lost Legacy attracted my attention.

Smith's idea of invisible hand (mentioned more than once) is actually very central in both his theory of market (wealth of nations) and in his theory of human sentiments and social behaviour: the invisible hand mechanism is one of the most powerful idea in modern social sciences”.

This contribution among (serious) contributions from historians of economic thought is quite out of step with the historical facts as they apply to Adam Smith, and as regularly documented here on Lost Legacy.

I have kept out of this debate for some weeks since it started because opinions of when, or indeed, whether, Adam Smith was the ‘founder’ of economics is not of great interest to the central theme of Lost Legacy.

It tends to be asserted as part of modern assertions that Adam Smith promoted laissez-faire capitalism and other notions that are more ideological than scholarly.

There are occasional squabbles too over rival claims to this accolade involving Richard Cantilon (1735) or Turgot (1755), or David Ricardo (1817), and even to James Steuart (1767).

Luigino Bruni has widened the argument with entirely dubious propositions about Adam Smith’s use of he metaphor of ‘an invisible hand’ that in their modern form date from the late 1940s (Paul Samuelson and Oscar Lange) and the welfare economists in tandem with the creators of general equilibrium theories in the 1960s (Arrow, Debreu), and in a strange way, with Mises, Hayek and Libertarians too (see contribution from Daniel Klein, most recently in the `March issue of The Journal of Economic Affairs).

If these modern theorists hold views about their meaning of the ‘invisible hand’, in my opinion, it is a perfectly legitimate that they express them, but once they start ascribing their own meanings to Adam Smith, they are up against the historical facts. This may be the case of Luigino Bruni is declamation (unless in the unlikely case that it is a provocation by a troll, of which I am always suspicious of in web disputes).

The Adam Smith, born in Kirkcaldy in 1723, is among the most misquoted and misattributed authors in this modern age.

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