Adam Smith and his Inflated Reputation

Adam Smith is widely regarded as the progenitor of all economics–the singularity, the common ancestor of all economists, the beginning.

This is wrong.

Turgot, Cantillon, mercantilism, scholasticism, and Aristotle predate Smith among many other economic ideas and people who wrote about economics. All are featured in part one of Rothbard’s history of economic thought, aptly titled Economic Thought before Adam Smith, where you find this gem of a quote:

Adam Smith is a mystery in a puzzle wrapped in an enigma. The mystery is the enourmous and unprecedented gap between Smith’s exalted reputation and the reality of his dubious contribution to economic thought.

And in Wages and Capital, you can almost hear F.W. Taussig sigh when he says,

During the first half of the present century […] it was the custom to treat all earlier contributions to economic thought as of little account, and to begin the history of the subject with the Wealth of Nations.

He goes on to delineate Smith’s versus others’ contributions in a kinder way than Rothbard:

On some subjects, and notably on those which most attracted the attention of his contemporaries, Adam Smith gained much and directly from his predecessors. The mercantile ideas, in their cruder forms, had been refuted by a long series of writers, by North and Hume among the English, by Boisguillebert, Cantillon, and the whole line of the Physiocrats. The functions of money in domestic and in international trade had been fully and adequately discussed by these writers ; and much had also been done toward clearing up the subject of money by writers who, like Locke and Steuart, were still befogged on international commerce and the balance of trade. On credit, paper money, and banking there had been active discussion since the close of the seventeenth century, when banks began to exercise their functions on a considerable scale, and paper-money experiments came to be tried in almost every form. Adam Smith was abundantly familiar with the literature of his subject, and accepted without hesitation what had been accomplished by his predecessors. The famous attack on the mercantile sys- tem bears, indeed, the unmistakable marks of his vigorous and independent mind, in the reasoning as to the limitation of industry by capital, and in the general discussion of foreign trade. But the ground had been prepared for it by a long line of writers; and the upper tier of the educated public was prepared to accept ‘his views at once.

The subjects of production and distribution show Adam Smith, not perhaps at his best, but at his freshest. Here he broke new ground. On the division of labor and its causes and effects, the functions of capital, the partition of income into wages, profits, and rent, the causes determining the amount of each form of remuneration, on all these topics he started economic thought on new lines, and on lines that have been substantially followed since his time. The very novelty of his investigation made it inevitable that his results here should be more crude than on the subjects which had been worked over by two or three generations of previous thinkers ; a defect which, rightly considered, makes the debt of science to him so much the greater.

Even on these subjects, it would be a mistake to consider Adam Smith as an unaided pioneer. The division of labor, and its consequences in bringing exchange and necessitating a medium of exchange, had been noted by a long series of writers, from ancient times to modern. Further, some stimulus to his thought on capital doubtless came from the general reaction against the treatment of interest and money by the mercantile writers. The older and cruder notions as to the importance of an abundance of specie had been effectually exploded before he began. As these exaggerations in regard to the importance of plentiful specie crumbled away, it was inevitable that other ideas connected with them should be overhauled and reshaped. The function of money having become clear, interest could no longer be explained as affected simply by the abundance or scarcity of money. The better understanding of the medium of exchange, again, directed attention to the nature and qualities of the commodities whose barter was seen to be facilitated. All this paved the way to the consideration of real capital, and the real machinery of production. In such indirect ways Adam Smith probably got a stimulus to his speculations on capital and interest, and so, by a natural progression, on capital and wages.


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