It All Started with Adam

Ideas On Liberty
Economics on Trial
May 2001

by Mark Skousen

Adam Smith, that is. Having just completed writing a history of economics,1 I have concluded that, despite the protestations of Murray Rothbard and other detractors, the eighteenth-century moral philosopher and celebrated author of The Wealth of Nations deserves to be named the founding father of modern economics.

The reason: Adam Smith is the first major figure to articulate in a profound way what has become known as the first fundamental theorem of welfare economics: that the invisible hand of competition automatically transforms self-interest into the common good. George Stigler rightly labels Smith’s model of laissez-faire capitalism (Smith never used the phrase) the “crown jewel” of The Wealth of Nations and “the most important substantive proposition in all of economics.” He states, “Smith had one overwhelmingly important triumph: he put into the center of economics the systematic analysis of the behavior of individuals pursuing their self-interests under conditions of competition.”2

In short, Smith’s thesis is that a “system of natural liberty,” an economic system that allows individuals to pursue their own self-interest under conditions of competition and common law, would be a self-regulating and highly prosperous economy. Eliminating restrictions on prices, labor, and trade meant that universal prosperity could be maximized through lower prices, higher wages, and better products. Smith assured the reader that his model would result in “universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people.”3

Indeed it has. Published in 1776, The Wealth of Nations was the intellectual shot heard around the world, a declaration of economic independence to go along with Thomas Jefferson’s declaration of political independence. It was no accident that the industrial revolution and sharply higher economic growth began in earnest shortly after its publication. As Ludwig von Mises declares, “It paved the way for the unprecedented achievements of laissez-faire capitalism.”4

For or Against Smith

The most amazing discovery I made in researching and writing over the past three years is that every major economic figure—whether Marx, Mises, Keynes, or Friedman—could be judged by his support of or opposition to Adam Smith’s invisible-hand doctrine. Karl Marx, Thorstein Veblen, John Maynard Keynes, and even British disciples Thomas Robert Malthus and David Ricardo denigrated Adam Smith’s classical model of capitalism, while Alfred Marshall, Irving Fisher, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman, among others, remodeled and improved on Smithian economics.

For example, Keynes is unsympathetic to Adam Smith’s worldview. “It is not true that individuals possess a prescriptive ‘natural liberty’ in their economic activities. . . . Nor is it true that self-interest generally is enlightening. . . . Experience does not show that individuals, when they make up a social unit, are always less clear-sighted than when they act separately.”5 The basic thesis of Keynes’s magnum opus, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936), is that laissez-faire capitalism is inherently unstable and requires heavy state intervention to survive. Keynesian disciple Paul Samuelson correctly understood the true meaning of Keynes: “With respect to the level of total purchasing power and employment, Keynes denies that there is an invisible hand channeling the self-centered action of each individual to the social optimum.”6 Thus, I conclude that Keynesian economics, rather than its savior, is an enemy of Adam Smith’s system of natural liberty.

Karl Marx went even further. Instead of creating a system of natural liberty, Marx set out to destroy it. Modern-day Marxist John Roemer agrees. The “main difference” between Smith and Marx is: “Smith argues that the individual’s pursuit of self-interest would lead to an outcome beneficial to all, whereas Marx argued that the pursuit of self-interest would lead to anarchy, crisis, and the dissolution of the private property-based system itself. . . . Smith spoke of the invisible hand guiding individual, self-interested agents to perform those actions that would be, despite their lack of concern for such an outcome, socially optimal; for Marxism the simile is the iron fist of competition, pulverizing the workers and making them worse off than they would be in another feasible system, namely, one based on the social or public ownership of property.”7

Adam Smith as a Heroic Figure

By measuring economists against a single standard, Adam Smith’s invisible-hand doctrine, I found a fresh way to unite the history of economic thought. Virtually all previous histories of economics, including Robert Heilbroner’s popular work, The Worldly Philosophers, present the story of economics as one conflicting idea after another without resolution or a running thread of truth. This hodgepodge approach to history leaves the reader confused and unable to separate the wheat from the chaff.

My approach places Adam Smith and his system of natural liberty at the center of the discipline. Think of it as a story of high drama with a singular heroic figure. Adam Smith and his classical model face one battle after another against the mercantilists, socialists, and other enemies of liberty. Sometimes even his “dismal” disciples (Malthus, Ricardo, and Mill) wound him. Marx and the radical socialists attack him with a vengeance and leave him for dead, only to have him resuscitated by the leaders of the marginalist revolution (Menger, Jevons, and Walras) and raised up to become the inspiration of a whole new science.

But the “neo-classical” model of capitalism faced its greatest threat from the Keynesian revolution during the Great Depression and the postwar era. Fortunately, the story has a good ending. Through the untiring efforts of free-market advocates, especially Milton Friedman and F. A. Hayek, Adam Smith’s model of capitalism is re-established and in the end triumphs. As Milton Friedman proclaims, “To judge from the climate of opinion, we have won the war of ideas. Everyone-left or right-talks about the virtues of markets, private property, competition, and limited government.”8

Long live Adam Smith!

1. The Making of Modern Economics (Annonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe Publishers, 2001).
2. George Stigler, “The Successes and Failures of Professor Smith,” Journal of Political Economy, December 1976, p. 1201.
3. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (New York: Modern Library, 1965 [1776]), p. 11.
4. Ludwig von Mises, “Why Read Adam Smith Today,” in The Wealth of Nations Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1998), p. xi.
5. John Maynard Keynes, “The End of Laissez-Faire,” Essays in Persuasion (New York: Norton, 1963 [1931]), p. 312. Keynes’s speech was given in 1926, a full decade before The General Theory came out.
6. Paul A. Samuelson, “Lord Keynes and the General Theory,” The New Economics, ed. Seymour Harris (New York: Knopf, 1947), p.151.
7. John E. Roemer, Free to Lose (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988), pp. 2-3. Note the title, imitative, albeit negatively, of Milton and Rose Friedman’s popular Free to Choose (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980).
8. Milton and Rose Friedman, Two Lucky People (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 582.