Why Do We Remember Adam Smith?

A drawing of a man standing up, with one hand holding a cane and the other pointing at a book
Portrait of Smith by John Kay, 1790. Public domain, Wikimedia

My last post tried to answer the challenge that Adam Smith should not be considered the founder of economic science, since he did not make any original analytical contribution. Of course, there is another way to answer Mueller’s challenge is to consider another aspect: if Smith did not make any analytical contributions, why is he considered the father of economic science?

Part of the answer lies in the availability of books. Yes, Smith was familiar with Richard Cantillion’s Essai, as would have the French liberal economistes (Turgot, , Bastiat and Quesnay). Although the essay was written in 1730, it didn’t appear in French press until twenty-two years after his death, was ignored in the nineteenth century, then rediscovered by William Stanley Jevons in the 1920’s. Cantillon showed early drafts of his book to many of his acquaintances, including David Hume and those mentioned above. We could add to this list Antonio Serra’s Breve trattato delle cause, che possono far abbondare li regni d’oro, e argento, dove non sono miniere (1613), of which only a few copies floated around until its recent translation into English with facing pages. (Readers interested in the contributions of the “pre-Smithians” are encouraged to consult Hutchison’s Before Adam Smith: The Emergence of Political Economy, 1662-1776.)

Another part of the answer lies in the type of synthesis Smith was attempting in writing The Wealth of Nations. Looking through James Bonar’s catalog of Adam Smith’s library, it is astounding how literate Adam Smith was in the works of the ancients as well as his contemporaries writing on the topics of state finance, international trade, and money. While there were many economists before Smith, no one had yet written a systematic treatment of these issues (with the possible exception of the late Scholastics, but that’s another story). Intellectual historian Dierde McCloskey has gone as far to call Smith “the last of the virtue ethicists”. Perhaps this is why Schumpeter calls Smith’s Wealth of Nations “a great performance”, written by someone “no doubt equal to the task” of coordinating the ideas of his predecessors.

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