Adam Smith – The First True Liberal

Head and shoulders photo of Deirdre Nansen McCloskey © Deirdre Nansen McCloskey Source:

The University of Glasgow had the pleasure of welcoming Professor Deirdre McCloskey to the Advanced Research Centre for a public lecture, sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation, as part of a programme of events celebrating the 300th anniversary of the birth of Adam Smith. 

In her talk, chaired by Dr Craig Smith, Adam Smith Senior Lecturer in the Scottish Enlightenment at the University of Glasgow, Professor McCloskey discussed the influence of Adam Smith, his views as a deeply egalitarian man, and why she considers him the first true liberal.

Addressing a packed audience, Professor McCloskey said that "as an economist, I believe in living in the real world. I understand we can’t all be equal at the starting line", going on to discuss Smith's idea of "equality of permission", and while we’re not able to control the start we have in life, who our parents are, or where we're born, this new custom of equality of permission encouraged people to "have a go", whether it's in work, education, or other endeavours.  

During her talk, Prof McCloskey also reflected on The Theory of Moral Sentiments, what she considers to be Smith's greatest work, and how Smith's ideas around equality don't apply to family and friends, saying "We love our family and friends, in a widening circle, and then the love gives out, and our sense of justice has to take over". Making this idea relatable to the present day, she explained, we don't buy a pizza with friends only to eat it ourselves or offer to sell them a slice...but with strangers, no one objects.

Before taking questions from the audience, Prof McCloskey closed her lecture by reflecting. "When all said and done, ideas rule the world. Ideas matter."  

Watch the full lecture on YouTube

About Deirdre McCloskey

Deirdre McCloskey occupies the Isaiah Berlin Chair in Liberal Thought at the Cato Institute, Washington, and is Emerita Professor of Economics, History, English, and Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

She has written two dozen books - the latest forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press as God’s Economy: Public Theology for an Age of Innovism - and some 500 scholarly and journalistic pieces in economic theory, economic history, rhetorical theory, philosophy of science, literary criticism, gender studies, theology, ethics, legal and political theory, and statistical theory and practice.

She taught 1968-80 in economics and history at the University of Chicago and has taught and visited widely, as at Erasmus University of Rotterdam and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

A fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, she holds 11 honorary doctorates.

Image credit: © Deirdre Nansen McCloskey

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