Adam Smith, Blacksmith of Economics
Adam, Adam, Adam Smith
Listen what I charge you with!
Didn’t you say
In the class one day
That selfishness was bound to pay?
Of all doctrines that was the Pith.
Wasn’t it, wasn’t it, wasn’t it, Smith?1
In his novel Immortality, Milan Kundera, a French author of Czech origin, notes the paradoxical and cruel reality accompanying the life after death of great figures. The legends created around them after their deaths often completely miss their main message and concentrate on secondary issues (often erroneously). A good example is the astrologer Tycho de Brahe, who served in the court of Emperor Rudolf II at the time when the ruler made Prague into the center of the Habsburg Empire. The astrologer — one of the figures who symbolize this extraordinary period for Czechs —is known by nearly everyone, not because of his discoveries, but because of his bladder. The legend in the Czech Republic goes that Tycho de Brahe would not dare to get up from a ceremonial dinner before the emperor, and he waited to urinate so long that his bladder burst at the table. This secondary and almost certainly untrue story ran completely roughshod over his truly immortal message.
Adam Smith, an exceptional English thinker from the eighteenth century who is universally considered the father of modern economics, met a similar fate. The thesis that the wealth of nations and individuals is based on selfishness, self-interest, and the invisible hand of the market is universally ascribed to him. This is also illustrated by this chapter’s introductory quote, where Stephen Leacock pillories Smith for the argument that “selfishness was bound to pay.” 2
It is as if already with a name like his, Adam Smith was predestined to a role as the father-economist of the scientific era, a man who brought older,
1 Leacock, Hellements of Hickonomics, in Sen, On Ethics and Economics, 21.
2 Ibid., 75. Also in Sen, On Ethics and Economics, 21.