Kolkata, India

What would Adam Smith do?

By Charlotte Morris

As we mark Adam Smith’s tercentenary, global conversations are revealing a deeper understanding of his life and work, and sparking debate about his political and personal beliefs. Whether you view him as an economist or philosopher, it’s evident that his ideas are still inspiring those who are seeking solutions to society’s biggest inequalities – including academics at the University of Glasgow.

Rosalind Searle, Professor in Human Resource Management and Organisational Psychology, was aware of Adam Smith from an early age, but didn’t always view him favourably. “Growing up, my dad was an accountant," she says, "we had an old edition of The Wealth of Nations, and so, perhaps unsurprisingly, I saw Smith as an economist who’d been hijacked by the right-wing school of thought. It wasn’t until I began to investigate him through my studies that this changed. So much of what Smith was working on resonates with my own research about people feeling disenfranchised, and inequality gaps.”

The dignity of a living wage

As Director of the EAWOP Impact Incubator, Ros is working as part of a global collective to ensure everyone has access to a living wage. The ethos behind this is psychological, she argues.

“Employers see the living wage as a cost, but it’s more than that. How we perceive what we are paid is more impactful than the wage we are actually paid. If an employee feels valued, they are more likely to perform better, feel happier at home and achieve healthier outcomes.”

This work led to what she describes as an epiphany. “Adam Smith and I are talking about the same things. We are both passionate about ensuring people have the means to realise their potential and be part of a society that values them. Our work considers why people’s perception of fairness matters so much. If people don’t see fairness happening, it creates huge difficulties for society. One example being the huge bonuses energy leaders are receiving as the result of a market blip, which for many, quite rightly, feels massively unfair.
"This is how revolutions happen, and it’s why Smith was so worried about the French Revolution happening in the UK." Professor Rosalind Searle

Building on dreams

Professor Sayantan Ghosal, who is current holder of the Adam Smith Chair in Political Economy and an academic ambassador for UofG’s Addressing Inequalities research beacon, agrees. His research in Kolkata, India, is empowering female sex workers to envisage a future that's different from the status quo, using a process known as Dream Building. “It’s not about getting women out of sex work,” the Adam Smith Business School academic explains. “Rather, it’s creating an environment where women are working in the safest conditions possible. This includes AIDS prevention and a self-regulation board that works with the community of sex workers to prevent trafficking. We were also observing patterns of behaviour in saving money and looking after health, and addressing issues such as agency, happiness, stigma and shame.”

How does sex work in India link with Adam Smith? There’s a clear connection, says Sayantan. “In the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith makes the point that morality arises from emotions, whereas The Wealth of Nations is about economics. And the work I am doing connects these key aspects of Adam Smith. Which is right, because without linking emotions and interests, you can’t hope to make sense of empowerment.”

"No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable."  Adam Smith, from The Wealth of Nations.

However, Smith was also a realist, argues Dr Maha Rafi Atal. The Assistant Professor in Global Economy is shaping an alternative to globalisation and how we tackle climate change, informed by her knowledge of Smith’s thinking. “Adam Smith believed that people are capable of experiencing empathy towards those who are different to them. Yet in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he acknowledges how hard it is for human sympathy to extend across national and cultural distance. He’d have harsh words for how today’s governments conduct themselves, but he wouldn’t be surprised to discover these economic issues have becomes items of geopolitical conflict. Indeed, he advocated policies that were designed to take this heat out of geo trade – and his advice would certainly have been helpful today!”

Corinne Fenech is a PhD management student with the Adam Smith Business School. Her research into ethical blindness aligns with Smith as both a realist and moral philosopher. “Very rarely are things clear-cut in this life, and often, idealistic views clash with reality,” she says. “We have so many distractions that it’s difficult to really get to know ourselves, and often end up making decisions that go against our own values without realising. Smith knew how important it was to take time to know yourself, and I think he’d have been concerned about the many distractions that prevent this from happening today.”

“The first thing you have to know is yourself. A man who knows himself can step outside himself and watch his own reactions like an observer." Adam Smith

If Smith were still around...

What would Adam Smith have made of his tercentenary events? Corinne believes he would have approved. “I picture him taking the subway and heading up to the University wrapped up in his cloak on a rainy day. I imagine him looking at his own statue, marvelling at how a boy who grew up without a father could have accomplished so much. And he’s maybe thinking: “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” – and quietly enjoying the impact his legacy is having, 300 years on.”

This article was first published in April 2023.

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