Adam Smith Was Never Selfish

Economics is known for being heartless; for a long period of time, what mattered for an economist was the mere aggregates. Economics bid adieu to ethical and moral considerations in the years following the industrial revolution in Europe in the mid-1800s and positioned itself as a ‘social science’ with no consideration for ‘social welfare.’ The positivism in Economics was strong to such an extent that the economists who reigned the throne of mainstream Economics never regretted for leaving behind the rich tradition of the subject, which was rooted in ethics, morality and human emotions. For them, Economics was just a tool to manage the money economy and it had nothing to do with value judgments or the problems of the individuals at a micro-level. While this tectonic shift was opposed by a few handfuls of Economics fraternity across academia, it had the backing of government bureaucracy and corporate world.

Big billion businesses wanted tools to forecast the demand in the future and Economics was the only avenue where they could find these tools. Economists, in turn, found this as an opportunity to keep their subject relevant even at the times growing disregard for the social sciences in general and the mocking at Economics specifically by bullying it as an extension of astrology, where we see a lot of predictions based on thousands of assumptions and yet, no progress in giving precise forecasts. In order to attain this, economists had to find a source that can add credibility and legitimacy to their claims that Economics is a positive science and not normative. And the man that they found for the purpose was none other than Adam Smith, the father of modern-day Economics. Who else can offer more legitimacy than the founder of the discipline itself!

For the several decades following, Adam Smith and his philosophy (or ‘his science’, in the words of a positivist) was butchered cold-bloodedly without any regard for his ideological orientations or love towards ethics and moral sciences. How many of us know the fact that Adam Smith, who is known for propagating ‘self-interest’, was the man who taught ethics, morality and political economy at the University of Glasgow. Had he been alive today to see how the world interprets his works, he would have had died in a moment’s time out of the agony and pain that he may suffer from seeing such misinterpretations.

In fact, Smith never called self-interest as ‘self-interest’; and his idea of self-interest as self-love was far beyond the human trait of selfishness. Even when Smith said that humans are self-prudent, he didn’t forget to propose that prudence is the virtue only helpful to an individual whereas humanity, justice, and generosity help the social spirit to survive. We all wanted a butcher, a brewer and a baker who never serves out of social responsibility but only out of self-interest. But what we failed to read and understand further was that the Smith also proposed the scope for mutually advantageous trades and transactions that can take place between various individuals. We were all plagued with a confirmation bias to such an extent that we always read Adam Smith as a man who propagated selfishness. Alas! Smith was never so selfish!

The way Adam Smith was interpreted can be termed as an instance of intellectual bias; after all, people will see only what they wanted to see. And this is not just confined to the domain of Economics; it is there everywhere! Look around us. Try to understand our contemporary Indian society. We hate homosexuals because some religious text somewhere in the past told us that they are impure. We don’t want women to enter certain places of worship or we don’t want women to be our parish priest or we do not want a woman to be an Imam. While interpreting those religious texts, we only took time and effort to use them as a means for oppressing feminist liberty. Our media always want a Pakistan that wages terrorism against India and not a country that fulfils more than 18% of our ‘Fruits and Nuts’ imports.

Coming back to the case of Selfish Smith, he was never a proponent of self-interest over social values and ethical considerations. He never opposed social assistance for the poor in the name of free and fair trade; he just criticized certain outcomes of those ‘Poor Laws’, which at times can become counter-productive. We all took time to read and proclaim his ‘Wealth of Nations’ while conveniently forgetting about another equally seminal work of Smith titled ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’. Smith was never selfish; rather it was the economists, trying to make Economics a positive science, who were gravely selfish!

Picture Credits: The Economist

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