Adam Smith's Legacy: His Place in the Development of Modern Economics

By Michael Fry | Go to book overview

1

THE OVERDUE RECOVERY OF ADAM SMITH'S REPUTATION AS AN ECONOMIC THEORIST

Paul A. Samuelson

Adam Smith had a powerful influence on the history of ideas, ideas of the educated non-economist public and most particularly of governmental policy-makers and their voter constituencies. David Ricardo's great influence was more narrowly focused on contemporaneous and subsequent economists. Macaulay's general schoolboy knew The Wealth of Nations but not Ricardo's Principles of Political Economy.

So to speak, Smith paid for his popularity with the lay public by being regarded among professional economists as 'old hat' and a bit prosaically eclectic. Ricardo, by contrast, wrote so badly as to provide that quantum of obscurity sufficient to evoke academic attention and overestimation. Karl Marx, it may be said, shared in the Ricardian tradition in more ways than is conventionally recognized.

As I reflect back upon what seems to have been a systematic undervaluation of Adam Smith in professional circles of six decades ago, I discern that a major responsibility for this lies with two scholars. It was David Ricardo himself who believed that Adam Smith's basic system was flawed at its core. Indeed, it was this critical view of Smith that caused Ricardo to write his Principles. The economists' world, blinded by Ricardo's reputation for brilliance and unable to recognize in his murky exposition the many non sequiturs contained there, accepted Ricardo's indictment at its face value.

The second authority influential in playing down Smith's worth was my old master, Joseph Schumpeter. Long before the Harvard days of his greatest reputation, the young Schumpeter's brilliant German work, Economic Doctrine and Method (1914), had patronized Smith with faint praise. Never did Schumpeter really alter this evaluation, as his post-humous classic of 1954 makes clear. Schumpeter seems to put ahead of

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