Amartya Sen on Adam Smith

Although not specifically relevant to the typical topic area of my blog, Amartya Sen’s fine sketch of Adam Smith in the Financial Times is well worth a blog post.  It’s part of an excellent broader series on the future of capitalism edited by the FT’s Martin Wolf.

 

Smith never used the term capitalism (at least, so far as I have been able to trace), and it would also be hard to carve out from his works any theory of the sufficiency of the market economy, or of the need to accept the dominance of capital. He talked about the important role of broader values for the choice of behaviour, as well as the importance of institutions, in The Wealth of Nations ; but it was in his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published exactly 250 years ago, that he extensively investigated the powerful role of non-profit values. While stating that “prudence” was “of all virtues that which is most helpful to the individual”, Smith went on to argue that “humanity, justice, generosity, and public spirit, are the qualities most useful to others”.

What exactly is capitalism? The standard definition seems to take reliance on markets for economic transactions as a necessary qualification for an economy to be seen as capitalist. In a similar way, dependence on the profit motive, and on individual entitlements based on private ownership, are seen as archetypal features of capitalism. However, if these are necessary requirements, are the economic systems we currently have, for example, in Europe and America, genuinely capitalist? All the affluent countries in the world – those in Europe, as well as the US, Canada, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia and others – have depended for some time on transactions that occur largely outside the markets, such as unemployment benefits, public pensions and other features of social security, and the public provision of school education and healthcare. The creditable performance of the allegedly capitalist systems in the days when there were real achievements drew on a combination of institutions that went much beyond relying only on a profit-maximising market economy.

It is often overlooked that Smith did not take the pure market mechanism to be a free-standing performer of excellence, nor did he take the profit motive to be all that is needed. Perhaps the biggest mistake lies in interpreting Smith’s limited discussion of why people seek trade as an exhaustive analysis of all the behavioural norms and institutions that he thought necessary for a market economy to work well. People seek trade because of self-interest – nothing more is needed, as Smith discussed in a statement that has been quoted again and again explaining why bakers, brewers, butchers and consumers seek trade. However an economy needs other values and commitments such as mutual trust and confidence to work efficiently. For example, Smith argued: “When the people of any particular country has such confidence in the fortune, probity, and prudence of a particular banker, as to believe he is always ready to pay upon demand such of his promissory notes as are likely to be at any time presented to him; those notes come to have the same currency as gold and silver money, from the confidence that such money can at any time be had for them.”

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