200 Years Later, Adam Smith Still Shows Way to Progress

By Paul A. Samuelson. Paul A. Samuelson, institute professor emeritus of economics Technology, won the Alfred Nobel Memorial Prize . He has often served as an economic adviser to Democratic presidents and presidential candidates. | The Christian Science Monitor, July 31, 1990 | Go to article overview
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200 Years Later, Adam Smith Still Shows Way to Progress


Paul A. Samuelson. Paul A. Samuelson, institute professor emeritus of economics Technology, won the Alfred Nobel Memorial Prize . He has often served as an economic adviser to Democratic presidents and presidential candidates., The Christian Science Monitor


ADAM SMITH died 200 years ago this month. But phoenix-like, his vision of market freedom has taken a new lease on life.

Pop culture paints its pictures in crudest tints. So to speak, Karl Marx and Adam Smith have met in a Wagnerian duel these last seven decades, and Adam has roundly defeated Karl.

Never mind that matters are not quite so simple. It is West Germany's mixed economy, and not the pure capitalism advocated by the Austrian-born economist Friedrich Hayek that has incited to envy the footloose East Germans.

But why quibble about what will seem details to several hundred million inhabitants of Eastern Europe?

Smith was well named Adam. He really is the founding father of economic science. Quite apart from his being in the winning camp of ideology, Smith's stock as an original economic theorist has risen strongly during my lifetime in academia.

There are many bright stars in the heaven of economics. But I say, surely the three brightest of all are these:

- Adam Smith, 1723-1790, a Scot.

- Leon Walras, 1834-1910, a Frenchman.

- John Maynard Keynes, 1883-1946, an Englishman.

I might call Smith the economists' Aristotle; Walras, our Newton; and Keynes, our Einstein.

Smith's "Wealth of Nations" with its laissez-faire arguments was well-timed, being published in 1776 just when America's democratic capitalism proclaimed its independence. In Britain, the original home of the industrial revolution, Adam Smith's fame was instantaneous.

Not quite so in Germany. In that yet-to-be-developed region, the gospel of free trade was regarded as apologetics for British capitalism, which had begun with a head start over the rest of the world.

There is a paradox here. You might say that it was the backward German economy that needed most the ideology of economic deregulation. De facto, Manchester liberalism had evolved pretty much autonomously, so that the academic scribblers were only catching up in their doctrines with what already existed.

Instead, however, the German reaction was a wooly Romanticism that glorified its own lack of logic. Nationalism was extolled at the expense of cosmopolitanism and glory was valued beyond a long and comfortable life for the individual citizen.

Back in the summer of 1953, when Henry Kissinger was still a junior academic, he asked me whether I would mind admitting to my Harvard International Seminar an applicant who had been a Storm Troop Officer. Regarding World War II as having ended in 1945, I espoused free trade in ideas. The applicant in question turned out to be an eager disciple of Milton Friedman. From Charybdis to Scylla!

"We Germans," he said, "are tired of politics and armies. We want to cultivate our gardens. Work hard. Make money. Let my money make more money for me. For me, not for them and not even for us."

The ghost of Max Weber (1864-1920), who associated the rise of capitalism with the Protestant ethic, must have smiled.

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