Adam Smith is remembered today as the author of An Inquiry into the Natures and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. As a consequence, he is hailed globally as the founder of modern economics. Remarkable though this reputation is, there was more to Adam Smith than a single book.
His importance as a moral philosopher is now far better understood through recent study of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. His other works, on the nature of justice, science and the expressive arts, are also recognised as major contributions to Enlightenment thought.
There is also far more to the man than the selective use of the more contentious passages of The Wealth of Nations might suggest. As his other works show, Smith did not simply believe in the primacy of man’s selfishness or in the purity of free markets. The ideas he explores and the conclusions he draws are far more complex, realistic and humane.
Of the thousands of words Adam Smith wrote, perhaps one sentence best serves to express something of his own philosophy, and to temper the more extreme interpretations of his supposed legacy:
“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”
PODCAST: The Economist asks What would Adam Smith say about capitalism today?
Anne McElvoy investigates the life of the Scottish philosopher now known as the father of modern economics. What does an author who died in 1790 have to teach us about trade wars and crony capitalism in the 21st century? And which American television villain kept a copy of “The Wealth of Nations” on his bookshelf? Music (“Divider”) by Chris Zabriskie (CC by 4.0 UK)