Monday, June 06, 2011

Adam Smith's Contribution and his Lost Legacy

Brian Pitt in Sociological Imagination writes HERE

'It’s Adam Smith’s Birthday' June 5, 2011*

‘Adam Smith is regarded as the progenitor of modern economics. This, I think, grossly understates Smith’s intellectual contribution – and what Smith conceived as possible through the professional study of man.

To me, Smith’s intellectual project foreshadowed the social sciences and the humanities with his emphasis on the observation of human nature, his study of the human language, and his seemingly never-ending reading of human history and law. Smith saw the professional study of man as not only being able to explain the principles of social and political organization to be found in different eras and in different types of society – a la sociology, law, history, anthropology, economics, and political science. Smith, in addition, conceived of the professional study of man as potentially capable of explaining the principles of government and legislation that ought to be followed by enlightened rulers who desired to extend the liberty and the happiness of their subjects and the wealth and power of their dominions. (Does this make Adam Smith the forefather of classical liberalism and libertarianism?). … What does Smith’s intellectual project mean to you?

Contemporary with and closely following him there were many developments in all the social sciences, some of it traceable to Smith and to others, and much of it with quite different roots. It is pointless making claims for this or that individual as the fount or ‘foreshadowing’ what followed them. It is the presence of a multitude of enquiring minds, and not the lonely scribe churning out ideas in some isolated garret, that creates the gravitational pull of a movement, such as the Scottish Enlightenment towards the end of the 18th century.

Smith and his compatriots met regularly in Edinburgh, they dinned, drank, and argued at his home (Panmure House) at his Sunday suppers and, also, socially, at the nearby ‘Oyster Club’, or more formally (no beer or claret) at meetings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the various other scholarly discussion groups dotted around town (Select Society, etc.).

Undoubtedly Adam Smith’s works offered much food for thought, but he did not start everything off, single-handedly. Some scholars made their mark in their criticisms of his ideas (Lauderdale, Horner, even William Playfair), others ‘improved’ on them (Stewart, Malthus, Ricardo, Say). Smith’s ideas, however, outlived them all, even when, as now, the epigones (Ricardo, Mill, Walras, Jevons, Marshall, Pigou, Samuelson, and the welfare and general equilibrium theorists, and most modern economists), who made such a mess of them, they damaged him, almost irreparably.

[* The 5 June, 1723, is the date on his baptism certificate; his birth date is not known for certain. Also, 5 June is under the old calendar; the modern calendar (from 1752) places it on 16 June, as pedants keep informing me. However, I think it best to stick to the convention of the date on the only known certificate, because retrospectively changing every date on every document before the date was changed by a modern calculation would make historical work prior to 1752 a hopeless mess, as anybody working with 18th century documents will tell you.]



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