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. Continue reading