1895. Adam Smith between two worlds.

Provocation 103, Smith between two worlds.

Smith is like Einstein: the image is so powerful that we do not see much of what came before or after. Adam wrote at a time when interest in all things human was shifting to interest in science and quantification. History has treated him as more the source of laissez faire economics (he never uses the phrase) than he was. His real contribution was to legitimate discussion of the wealth of a society as a whole. The result of ignoring his integrative view of a whole society  is we have quantified but not narrative economics. That is causing us lots of problems because quantitative projections are harder to shift to include new factors: climate, war, inequality, governing not able to handle complexity it created. (important to read Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies and Schumpater’s discussions of creative destruction).

To put it simply: culture, and economics, went from the group world of Hunter gathers to agricultural  empires and feudalism to an individualized focus  and Smith was part of that transition.

The future of economics will improve if we re-embrace Smith’s more profound thinking about the morality of sentiment (who are we as human beings) and the sources of societal wealth  (how to manage the world of nature and institutions for social good).

The literary world of Adam Smith with its deep curiosity about how people lived was glossed over by abstraction and quantification because of calculation’s usefulness to power, administration, and commerce. But the over quantified and under explored texture of human  life has led us to over population, militarism, inequality, climate problems. In the pursuit of money we have becomes stupid about the system we live in.  Can we get back to the humane task ?

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