On the grubby pursuit of wealth and glory

Did Adam Smith answer his own question?

Perhaps no economist will ever again so utterly encompass his age as Adam Smith. Certainly none was ever so serene, so devoid of contumacy, so penetratingly critical without rancour, and so optimistic without being utopian. To be sure, he shared the beliefs of his day; in fact, he helped to forge them. It was an age of humanism and reason; but while both could be perverted for the cruellest and most violent purposes, Smith was never chauvinist, apologist, or compromiser. “For what purpose”, he wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, “is all the toil and bustle of this world? What is the end of avarice and ambition, of the pursuit of wealth, of power, and pre-eminence?” The Wealth of Nations provides his  answer: all that grubby scrabbling for wealth and glory has its ultimate justification in the welfare of the common man.

Robert Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers

For those of you interested in reading a little more about Heilbroner, I can suggest the following article on Reason. But the best thing to do is read his supremely influential book The Worldly Philosophers – it’s a truly brilliant historical overview of the subject and doesn’t once reference one of those tedious graphs mapping demand and supply. Highly recommend.

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