The issues Adam Smith wrote about are still relevant today

Published: 7 December 2022

For The Herald, Professor Graeme Roy argues that as Adam Smith's ideas were crucial to helping establish the global economy we see today, it is remarkable how little we discuss his work.

By Graeme RoyProfessor of Economics at the Adam Smith Business School, University of Glasgow

Next year is the tercentenary of the birth of Adam Smith. One of the pillars of the Scottish Enlightenment, Smith’s ideas were crucial to helping establish the global economy we see today.

But for someone so influential, it is remarkable how little we discuss his work. Even for people like me who studied economics, the so-called ‘Father of Economics’ rarely enters classrooms. More broadly, whilst many Scots, particularly those in business and politics will have heard of Smith, few will know much beyond the fact that he was born in Kirkcaldy, studied at Glasgow, and wrote about an apparent ‘invisible hand’.

In many ways, this is understandable. Not many of us sit down for an evening to read 18th-century moral philosophy. But this lack of knowledge has sometimes led to a characterisation of Smith as an unflinching advocate of laissez-faire economics, dogmatic libertarianism and selfishness. Sadly, this reflects, not an accurate reflection of Smith’s ideas, but an attempt by some to use his name to further their own political aims.

Yes, Smith is a proponent of what we today recognise as a modern commercial society. He believes in the power that commerce can have to improve living standards. But he does not shy away from the negative consequences it can bring or the fragility of that prosperity.

He is sceptical of the role of bureaucrats deciding on all aspects of economic and social life. However, he acknowledges the positive force of government in making wise laws to guard against exploitation and in helping individuals achieve their potential, including through public education.

Smith himself benefited greatly from education. At the University of Glasgow, we are proud of being his intellectual home. He was both a student and professor at the university, and he returned toward the end of his career as Rector. At Glasgow – with partners around the world – we are running a programme of events in 2023 to generate a renewed interest in Smith and his ideas.

In launching this project, we have been struck by how many of the issues that Smith writes about are relevant today. Of course, the context is different – the industrial revolution had barely even started when Smith arrived in Glasgow – but the underlying societal challenges are remarkably similar.

See the full article in The Herald

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First published: 7 December 2022