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Adam Smith - the Father of Post-Autistic Economics?:
A reply to Edney
Andrew Sayer (Lancaster University, U.K.)
© Copyright: Andrew Sayer
In his article on Greed (Part 1, PAE Review, issue no. 31), Julian Edney recycles, with a radical twist, a common myth about Adam Smith’s work that has long been propagated in mainstream economics. According to this myth, Smith saw people as wholly self-interested:
“Adam Smith’s contribution was a step further, to give happiness a mercantile slant. In the new philosophy there is no conspicuous concern with sympathy, compassion, honesty, courage, grace, altruism, charity, beauty, purity, love, care nor honor. It accepts that humans are fundamentally selfish and egoistic and that they don’t care about society-as-a-whole. . . . He simply declared that the selfishness of each man [sic] and the good of society go together. The general welfare is best served by letting each person pursue his own interests.” (Edney, 2005)
Edney goes on to treat Smith as a utilitarian theorist, and accuses him of dispensing with justice. Is this the same Adam Smith that wrote about “the remarkable distinction between justice and all the other social virtues . . . that we feel ourselves to be under a stricter obligation to act according to justice, than agreeably to friendship, charity, or generosity; that the practice of these last mentioned virtues seems to be left in some measure to our own choice, but that, somehow or other, we feel ourselves to be in a peculiar manner tied, bound, and obliged to the observation of justice.”? (Smith, 1759; II.ii.1.5).
The myth is based on an extraordinarily selective reading of just a few short passages from The Wealth of Nations regarding the invisible hand and motivation in market exchange, taken out of context. Some versions of the myth acknowledge that before The Wealth of Nations (1776), Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) but assume that the latter’s deep analysis of moral sentiments, which include but go beyond self-interest, was abandoned for a concept of motivation based on narrow self interest. However, the main arguments of The Wealth of Nations were included in Smith’s lectures even before The Theory of Moral Sentiments was published, and the latter was not only his first book, but his last, the final revised (sixth) edition being published in 1790, a year after the final (fifth) edition of The Wealth of Nations. It is inconceivable that Smith could have regarded them as incompatible, and indeed there is now a large literature arguing that they are compatible, so that there was, in effect, only one Adam Smith, and that he bears little resemblance to the caricature recycled by Edney.
The last 30 years of Smith scholarship demonstrates Smith’s lifelong attachment to a thoroughly social conception of individuals, as beings who are psychologically dependent on the approval of others, capable of (and indeed requiring) fellow-feeling, concerned for others in themselves and not merely in relation to their own self-interest, hence capable of benevolence and compassion as well as selfishness, susceptible to shame as well as vanity, and as having a sense of justice. Smith was not Mandeville or Hobbes and his whole philosophy and social theory was utterly at odds with what we now term the autistic model of individuals assumed by contemporary economics. It would be a tragic irony indeed if the post-autistics movement were to overlook this. Here are a few references from this literature, though a careful reading of both the The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations is indispensable.
Evensky, J. 1993, 'Ethics and the Invisible Hand', Journal of Economic Perspectives 7 (2)
Fitzgibbon, A. 1995, Adam Smith's System of Liberty, Wealth and Virtue, London: Clarendon
Griswold, C.L. Jr., 1999, Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press
Lubasz, H. 1998, 'Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand - of the market?’, in R.Dilthey (ed.)
Contesting Markets, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 37-55.
Nieli, R. 1986 ‘Spheres of intimacy and the Adam Smith problem’, Journal of the History of
Ideas, XLVII, pp.611-24
Otteson, J.R. 2002 Adam Smith’s Marketplace of Life, Cambridge: Cambridge University
Sen, A. 1987, On Ethics and Economics, Oxford: Blackwell
Smith, A. 1759:1984, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund
Smith, A. 1776:1976, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. by
E.Cannan, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Tabb, W. K. 1999, Reconstructing Political Economy, London: Routledge
Weinstein, J. R. 2001, On Adam Smith, Belmont: CA: Wadsworth, 2001;
Winch, D. 1978 Adam Smith's Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Winch, D. 1996 Riches and Poverty; An Intellectual History of Political Economy in Britain,
1750-1834 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996