Adam Smith (1723–90) is a mystery in a puzzle wrapped in an enigma. The mystery is the enormous and unprecedented gap between Smith's exalted reputation and the reality of his dubious contribution to economic thought.
Smith's reputation almost blinds the sun. From shortly after his own day until very recently, he was thought to have created the science of economics virtually de novo. He was universally hailed as the Founding Father. Books on the history of economic thought, after a few well-deserved sneers at the mercantilists and a nod to the physiocrats, would invariably start with Smith as the creator of the discipline of economics. Any errors he made were understandably excused as the inevitable flaws of any great pioneer. Innumerable words have been written about him. At the bicentennial of his magnum opus, An Inquiry into the Nature and the Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), a veritable flood of books, essays, and memorabilia poured forth about the quiet Scottish professor. His profile sculpted on a medallion by Tassie is known throughout the world. A hagiographic movie was even made about Smith during the bicentennial by a free market foundation, and businessmen and free market advocates have long hailed Adam Smith as their patron saint. ‘Adam Smith ties’ were worn as a badge of honour in the upper echelons of the Reagan Administration. On the other hand, Marxists, with somewhat more justice, hail Smith as the ultimate inspiration of their own Founding Father, Karl Marx. Indeed, if the average person were asked to name two economists in history whom he has heard of, Smith and Marx would probably be the runaway winners of the poll.
As we have already seen, Smith was scarcely the founder of economic science, a science which existed since the medieval scholastics and, in its modern form, since Richard Cantillon. But what the German economists used to call, in a narrower connection, Das AdamSmithProblem,1 is much more severe than that. For the problem is not simply that Smith was not the founder of economics. The problem is that he originated nothing that was true, and that whatever he originated was wrong; that, even in an age that had fewer citations or footnotes than our own, Adam Smith was a shameless plagiarist, acknowledging little or nothing and stealing large chunks, for example, from Cantillon. Far worse was Smith's complete failure to cite or acknowledge his beloved mentor Francis Hutcheson, from whom he derived most of his ideas as well as the organization of his economic and moral philosophy lectures. Smith indeed wrote in a private letter to the University of Glasgow of the ‘never-to-be-forgotten Dr. Hutcheson’, but apparently amnesia conveniently struck Adam Smith when it came time to writing the Wealth of Nations for the general public.
Even though an inveterate plagiarist, Smith had a Columbus complex, accusing close friends incorrectly of plagiarizing him. And even though a plagiarist, he plagiarized badly, adding new fallacies to the truths he lifted. In castigating Adam Smith for errors, therefore, we are not being anachronistic, absurdly punishing past thinkers for not being as wise as we who come later. For Smith not only contributed nothing of value to economic thought; his economics was a grave deterioration from his predecessors: from Cantillon, from Turgot, from his teacher Hutcheson, from the Spanish scholastics, even – oddly enough – from his own previous works, such as the Lectures on Jurisprudence (unpublished, 1762–63, 1766) and the Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).
The mystery of Adam Smith, then, is the immense gap between a monstrously overinflated reputation and the dismal reality. But the problem is worse than that; for it is not just that Smith's Wealth of Nations has had a terribly overblown reputation from his day to ours. The problem is that the Wealth of Nations was somehow able to blind all men, economists and laymen alike, to the very knowledge that other economists, let alone better ones, had existed and written before 1776. The Wealth of Nations exerted such a colossal impact on the world that all knowledge of previous economists was blotted out, hence Smith's reputation as Founding Father. The historical problem is this: how could this phenomenon have taken place with a book so derivative, so deeply flawed, so much less worthy than its predecessors?
The answer is surely not any lucidity or clarity of style or thought. For the much revered Wealth of Nations is a huge, sprawling, inchoate, confused tome, rife with vagueness, ambiguity and deep inner contradictions. There is of course an advantage, in the history of social thought, to a work being huge, sprawling, ambivalent and confused. There is sociological advantage to vagueness and obscurity. The bemused German Smithian, Christian J. Kraus, once referred to the Wealth of Nations as the ‘Bible’ of political economy. In a sense, Professor Kraus spoke wiser than he knew. For, in one way, the Wealth of Nations is like the Bible; it is possible to derive varying and contradictory interpretations from various – or even the same – parts of the book. Furthermore, the very vagueness and obscurity of a work can provide a happy hunting ground for intellectuals, students and followers. To make one's way through an obscure and difficult tract, to weave dimly perceived threads of a book into a coherent pattern – these are rewarding tasks in themselves for intellectuals. And such a book also provides a welcome built-in exclusion process, so that only a relatively small number of adepts can bask in their expertise about a work or a system of thought. In that way they increase their relative income and prestige, and leave other admirers behind to form a cheering section for the leading disciples of the Master.
Adam Smith did not found the science of economics, but he did indeed create the paradigm of the British classical school, and it is often useful for the creator of a paradigm to be inchoate and confused, thereby leaving room for disciples who will attempt to clarify and systematize the contributions of the Master. Until the 1950s, economists, at least those in the Anglo-American tradition, revered Smith as the founder, and saw the later development of economics as a movement linearly upward into the light, with Smith succeeded by Ricardo and Mill, and then, after a bit of diversion created by the Austrians in the 1870s, Alfred Marshall establishing neoclassical economics as a neo-Ricardian and hence neo-Smithian discipline. In a sense, John Maynard Keynes, Marshall's student at Cambridge, thought that he was only filling in the gaps in the Ricardian-Marshallian heritage.
Into this complacent miasma of Smith-worship, Joseph A. Schumpeter's History of Economic Analysis (1954) came as a veritable blockbuster. Coming from the continental Walrasian and Austrian traditions rather than from British classicism, Schumpeter was able, for virtually the first time, to cast a cold and realistic eye upon the celebrated Scot. Writing with thinly veiled contempt, Schumpeter generally denigrated Smith's contribution, and essentially held that Smith had shunted economics off on a wrong road, a road unfortunately different from that of his continental forbears.
Since Schumpeter, historians of economic thought have largely retreated to a fallback position. Smith, it is conceded, created nothing, but he was the great synthesizer and systematizer, the first one to take up all the threads of his predecessors and weave them together into a coherent and systematic framework. But Smith's work was the reverse of coherent and systematic, and Ricardo and Say, his two major disciples, each set themselves the task of forging such a coherent system out of the Smithian muddle. And, furthermore, while it is true that pre-Smithian writings were incisive but sparse (Turgot) or embedded in moral philosophy (Hutcheson), it is also true that there were two general treatises on economics per se before the Wealth of Nations. One was Cantillon's great Essai which, after Smith, fell into grievous neglect, to be rescued a century later by Jevons; the other, and the first book to use political economy in its title, was Sir James Steuart's (1712–80) outdated two-volume work, Principles of Political Oeconomy (1767). Steuart, a Jacobite who had been involved in Bonnie Prince Charlie's rebellion, was for much of his life an exile in Germany, where he became imbued with the methodology and ideals of German ‘cameralism’. Cameralism was a virulent form of absolutist mercantilism that flourished in Germany in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Cameralists, even more than western European mercantilists, were not economists at all – that is, they did not analyse the processes of the market – but were technical advisers to rulers on how and in what way to build up state power over the economy. Steuart's Principles was in that tradition, scarcely economics but rather a call for massive government intervention and totalitarian planning, from detailed regulation of trade to a system of compulsory cartels to inflationary monetary policy. His only ‘contribution’ was to refine and expand previously fleeting and inchoate notions of a labour theory of value, and to elaborate a proto-Marxian theory of inherent class conflict in society. Furthermore, Steuart had written an ultra-mercantilist tome just at the time when classical liberal and laissez-faire thought was rising and becoming dominant at least in Britain and France.
Even though Steuart's Principles was out of step with the emerging classical liberal Zeitgeist, it was no foregone conclusion that the work would have little or no influence. The book was well received, highly respected, and sold very well, and five years after its publication, in 1772, Steuart won out over Adam Smith in acquiring a post as monetary consultant to the East India Company.
One reason that the Schumpeter view of Smith shocked the economics profession is that historians of economic thought, similar to historians of other disciplines, have habitually treated the development of science as a linear and upward march into the truth. Each scientist patiently formulates, tests and discards hypotheses, and thereby each succeeding one stands on the shoulders of the one who came before. What might be called this ‘Whig theory of the history of science’ has now been largely discarded for the far more realistic Kuhnian theory of paradigms. For our purposes the important point of the Kuhn theory is that a very few people patiently test anything, particularly the fundamental assumptions, or basic ‘paradigm’, of their theory: and shifts in paradigms can take place even when the new theory is worse than the old. In short, knowledge can be and is lost as well as gained, and science often proceeds in a zig-zag rather than linear manner. We might add that this would be particularly true in the social or humane sciences. As a result, paradigms and basic truths get lost, and economists (as well as people in other disciplines) can get worse, and not better, over time. The years may well bring retrogression as well as progress. Schumpeter had heaved a bombshell into the temple of the Whig historians of economic thought, specifically of the partisans of the Smith–Ricardo–Marshall tradition.
We have thus posed our own version of the Das AdamSmithProblem: how did so badly flawed a work as the Wealth of Nations rapidly become so dominant as to blot out all other alternatives? But before considering this question, we must examine the various aspects of Smithian thought in more detail.