University of Glasgow marks Adam Smith’s 300th birthday

Published: 13 June 2023

The University of Glasgow was joined by prestigious speakers and guests in commemorating the 300th birthday of its famous graduate, Adam Smith.

The University of Glasgow was joined by prestigious speakers and guests in commemorating the 300th birthday of its famous graduate, Adam Smith.

Tercentenary Week took place between 5-10 June, to coincide with the date that is believed to be Adam Smith’s birthday. It was part of the University’s ongoing events and activities to commemorate the tercentenary year of the founder of modern economics.

The week featured the Hunter Foundation Lecture Series, delivered by Gita Gopinath, First Deputy Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and Nobel Prize winner Professor Angus Deaton of Princeton University.

Gita Gopinath focused on Artificial Intelligence (AI), and what Adam Smith’s response would have been to this, if he was alive today.

She considered AI against the context of Smith’s thoughts on industrialisation, globalisation, market power and monopolisation, and regulation. “New technology and AI could change our lives in spectacular and possibly existential ways - it could even redefine what it means to be human,” she observed, before concluding that “harnessing AI for the good of humanity will require an interdisciplinary approach”.

Following her talk, Gita was joined by Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark for a fireside chat to furtehr explore the tehmes of her talk. 

Gita was also awarded an Honorary Degree by the University. 

Professor Sir Angus Deaton, who won the Nobel Prize in Economic Science in 2015 for his analysis of consumption, poverty and welfare, considered how today’s capitalist systems are failing to help people prosper and flourish: “Economic systems should help people prosper and flourish, but today’s capitalism is failing this basic test. Progress has come to a halt for many, not just material progress, but also progress in health and wellbeing.”

In identifying the part played by economics and economists in this failure, Sir Angus asked whether Adam Smith’s economics were part of the problem, or if his thinking has been misinterpreted. He concluded that regardless of this debate, there is much in Smith’s writings that can help economics.

Distinguished Professor of Economics at the University of Illinois, Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, delivered a lecture that was sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation.

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, and why she considers him the first true liberal.

Referring to Smith’s ‘equality of permission’, Professor McCloskey noted “As an economist, I believe in living in the real world. 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.”

She concluded: “When all said and done, ideas rule the world. Ideas matter.”

A day of academic workshops gave the opportunity for deeper thought into Adam Smith’s writings and his relevance to contemporary economic and policy debates.

The Adam Smith 300 Symposium was a fitting finale for the week. Panels led by world leading economists including Professor Sir John Kay (Oxford University); Professor Anne Case (Princeton University); and Glory Liu (Harvard University) discussed Smith’s legacy, and its relevance to the changing world.

At the Symposium, delegates were treated to a world first performance of musical composer and UofG alumna, Helen MacKinnon. 'A Symphony of Moral Sentiments' was commissioned for the tercentenary celebrations and was beautifully played by The Hallelujah String Trio.

They also enjoyed a specially curated display of some of the University of Glasgow’s world class collection of Adam Smith related books and manuscripts, including rare editions of his seminal works.

Students were given the opportunity to find out more about Adam Smith with a student led day, featuring a debate, exhibition and workshops. A UK wide competition challenged students to redesign the front covers of Smith’s books, The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, with judges praising the quality and diversity of entries received.

Sir Tom Hunter, philanthropist and founder of The Hunter Foundation, said: “The Hunter Foundation is proud to support this lecture series in honour of one of the founders of the enlightenment, a leader of the world…we truly hope his tercentenary sparks thought provoking insight into how mankind can move forward towards a new enlightenment of opportunity for all.”

Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, Principal and Vice Chancellor, University of Glasgow, said: “It was an absolute pleasure to be joined by so many experts, key speakers, panellists and Adam Smith enthusiasts during our commemoration events. I’d like to thank everyone who contributed to the week’s success.

“The hugely topical issues that were presented, discussed and debated have helped us to better understand how modern society, moral philosophy and economics globally have been influenced by Smith for the past 300 years, and how his influence has permeated across the centuries. We look forward to what lies ahead during the second half of our tercentenary year and I hope many more people will get involved in the events we have in store, in Scotland and beyond."

Tercentenary Week was held in partnership with the Adam Smith Global Foundation (Kirkcaldy) and Panmure House (Smith’s final home). During the week, the Royal Economic Society held their PhD Conference, with a focus on Adam Smith, and the Young Scholars Initiative (YSI) also ran a workshop for young and early career scholars working on Adam Smith.

Resources from Tercentenary Week will be added to the Adam Smith 300 website.

First published: 13 June 2023

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