Friday, September 09, 2011

Was Adam Smith 'The Father of Economics'?

A debate on whether Adam Smith was the ‘father of political economy’ is under way among the history of economic community. I offered this brief comment today:

Crediting Adam Smith as the "Founding Father of Modern Economics" is unhelpful though now ubiquitous. It started with J. B. Say and has had a long gestation period.

In the 1930s, Oscar Lange (1937-, 38; and 1945), argued that socialist planning was superior to capitalist markets because socialist planners would do better in their planned interventions than Smith’s unreliable and uncontrolled invisible hand.

Paul Samuelson, argued the now ubiquitous view, that Adam Smith’s invisible hand meant markets were superior, though he got Smith’s words wrong in popularizing the myth that the IH meant markets enabled ‘selfish’ people to act unintentionally for the public good (Economic, 1948, p 36). This justified Smith as the ‘father of economics’ in contrast to Soviet planning.

At the UK HET annual conference this week (Balliol, Oxford) Professor Arild Saether, presented a detailed paper, “Pufendorf – Hutcheson’s and Smith’s Most Important Source?”, with clear details of Pufendorf’s (1632-1704) priority in many key economic concepts in his widely read and used books in many European languages, including English (Smith read Latin too) in European Universities, including Glasgow in Scotland.

Saether's details link Hutcheson’s (Smith’s tutor) and Smith’s ideas to Pufendorf’s prior publications, showing that:

if Adam Smith, as Jean Baptiste Say claimed, can be called the father of political economy, Samuel Pufendorf deserves to be remembered as the grandfather’.

I believe that there is a case to be answered here, let alone whether to continue the usefulness and correctness of the popular claims about our discipline’s parentage. We might also wish to re-look at other myths, their origins and purpose.

[A report of the Conference of the UK HET Society will follow this weekend.]

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Blogger Paul Walker said...

Surely the point about Smith is very simple: he had followers. He is the Father of Economics simply because he had intellectual children. People followed Smith, in a way they didn't follow on from other writers, both those who agreed with him and those who didn't. But no matter what you think of his writings, he started something.

2:18 a.m.  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...


I agree, however, Arild has shown in detail that ideas central to Wealth Of Nations were articulated as a collected system by Puffendorf much earlier and that Smith had access to these sources as a student of Hutcheson, and as a professor, when preparing WN.

Cantillon, pace Jevons, likewise is credited with certain central ideas (1755). Neither detracts from Adam Smith's classic works (WN and TMS) and the fact that he definitely "started something", which is why I am sceptical of the designation (for political purposes, nowadays), as 'father of economics', and more absurd, 'High Priest of capitalism'.

But separate for that, it may be worth looking into as a study of the origins of ideas. That's all.

10:58 a.m.  
Blogger Paul Walker said...

Cantillon would be a good example of my point. There are many important ideas in his writings, but who followed him? He didn't, as far as I know, have much influence since nobody followed on from him, developing and applying his ideas in the way they did for Smith.

3:25 p.m.  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...


I take your point and from your perspective it is quite consistent with your argument about Adam Smith being the 'father of economics'.

However, I raise two other points for consideration.

1 Smith's economics, of which he was the 'father,' are often at variance with his Works (laissez-faire and all that).

2 Smith's real economics were, apparently, also derivative from others (Pufendorf, apparently; Cantillon, certainly). This does not detract from Smith's crucial and important role in the history of economics.

Lost Legacy is based on intellectual integrity and not in perpetuating new or old myths about Adam Smith. It lets readers make their own minds up on the evidence.


8:57 p.m.  

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