News, On Campus

Experts Speak on Adam Smith and Capitalism in Two-Day Campus Event

Nearly three centuries after his death, Adam Smith continues to influence socioeconomic thinking and academia, according to Jerry Muller, professor emeritus of history at the Catholic University of America.

“The reason that Adam Smith has been read and ought to be read is because he is probably the greatest social scientist ever—greatest in the range of topics to which he applied his mind and to the acuity and subtlety with which he explored these topics,” Muller said.

Muller spoke at an event on Thursday that was the first part of a two-day conference co-sponsored by the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy and the Institute for the Liberal Arts. Speakers discussed Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, and the state of capitalism today. 

In addition to Muller’s keynote address, the event also involved a roundtable discussion moderated by Boston College political science professor Ryan Hanley. Participants also included Emma Rothschild, a history professor at Harvard University, and Amartya Sen, a Harvard professor and Nobel Prize–winner in economics. 

In his speech, Muller said Smith’s continued impact on socioeconomic theory can be attributed to his extensive contributions to the field of public policy.

“It is because of its demonstration of the variety of unintended consequences of social action that The Wealth of Nations is the great training manual of public policy—for the role of intellectuals who seek to influence public policy is to try to anticipate the unintended results of proposed measures,” Muller said.

Muller said recent scholarship in the United States also still continues to study Smith’s views on social and economic inequality.

“Smith was deeply committed to alleviating poverty, but he didn’t emphasize equality,” Muller said. “He thought a certain degree of social hierarchy was inevitable.”

According to Muller, Smith argues in The Wealth of Nations that the poor in a rich society can be materially better off than the rich in a poor society, pointing to the developed market economy of the United States as an example. 

“Without the assistance and cooperation of … thousands made possible through the web of exchange in an advanced capitalist economy, even a very average person would not have many of the possessions and services that they take for granted,” Muller said. 

According to Muller, however, Smith also states that this model of capitalism can have unintended consequences, including current environmental issues. 

“Today, we might point to environmental damage as another example among many of such unintended, but anticipated double-effects of market activity,” Muller said.

April 16, 2023