I’m pretty gutted that I’m a day late wishing Adam Smith a happy birthday, but so be it. You can’t win them all.
Here’s a snippet from the ASI website. They’ve posted a couple of terrific links to Smith-related resources which I’ll be delving into over the next few weeks.
From their blog: “Had Adam Smith somehow survived until today, he would be 290 years old, having been born on 5th June 1723. The economist, now adorning the £20 note and credited with founding the modern discipline of economics (or political economy as it was known earlier) was originally renowned as a moral philosopher for his widely respected Theory of Moral Sentiments”. Read the rest.
Another great video from the Adam Smith Institute. This week Madsen Pirie looks at trade and also dispatches the zero-sum fallacy (the “big cake” argument which says that trade must leave someone worse off). He also recommends a way to make poorer nations richer – “buy their stuff”! Watch and learn.
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.
More great stuff from the Adam Smith Institute. This week Madsen Pirie looks at specialisation and mass production, picking up on both the Wealth of Nations and the genius of Eli Whitney in the process.
Here’s Adam Smith himself on the benefits of specialisation:
This great increase in the quantity of work, which, in consequence of the division of labour, the same number of people are capable of performing, is owing to three different circumstances; first, to the increase of dexterity in every particular workman; secondly, to the saving of the time which is commonly lost in passing from one species of work to another; and, lastly, to the invention of a great number of machines which facilitate and abridge labour, and enable one man to do the work of many.
Excessive application, during four days of the week, is frequently the real cause of the idleness of the other three, so much and so loudly complained of. Great labour, either of mind or body, continued for several days together is, in most men, naturally followed by a great desire of relaxation, which, if not restrained by force, or by some strong necessity, is almost irresistible. It is the call of nature, which requires to be relieved by some indulgence, sometimes of ease only, but sometimes too of dissipation and diversion. If it is not complied with, the consequences are often dangerous and sometimes fatal, and such as almost always, sooner or later, bring on the peculiar infirmity of the trade. It will be found, I believe, in every sort of trade, that the man who works so moderately, as to be able to work constantly, not only preserves his health the longest, but, in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of work.
The statesman, who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.