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

By Michael Fry | Go to book overview

9

THE PRESENT STATE OF ECONOMIC SCIENCE

Wassily Leontief

At the time of Adam Smith's death economics was in a splendid state: The Wealth of Nations presented a perfect, systematic synthesis of the contributions of his distinguished predecessors. His detailed, often eloquent factual descriptions of the economic structure—not only of the contemporary but also of many of the older societies—provided a solid basis for a convincing theoretical explanation of their day-to-day operations. Moreover, the long and broad historical perspective characteristic of an eighteenth-century philosopher enabled Adam Smith to trace the subtle interdependence between the structural and the corresponding functional changes that marked the development of the budding capitalistic system on the eve of its explosive growth. In reading The Wealth of Nations one is struck by concrete descriptions of the ongoing technological change and theoretical emphasis on the role it was bound to play in economic growth and the concomitant rise of private and public welfare. This was the time when the great French Encyclopedia, as well as the early volumes of the newly established US Census of Manufacturers, contained detailed, richly illustrated descriptions of various newly improved processes of production. Far from being dismal, economics was at that time a very fashionable discipline. Alexander Pushkin made the hero of his Byronic poem, Eugen Onegin, read The Wealth of Nations and discuss knowledgeably the balance of trade.

Two hundred years passed. The recent quarterly issue of the Journal of Economic Literature records the titles of some 450 books and 2,800 articles presumably deserving serious professional attention. It lists moreover the titles of some twenty new economic journals that have been launched in a single year. In spite of this extensive output, in the judgement of most outsiders and many inside observers, economics as a scientific discipline does not now seem to be in a very healthy state.

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