The Real Adam Smith

A Course with Thomas Patrick Burke

Six Thursdays, February 26 to April 2, 2009

Adam Smith is renowned as the father of economics and also pilloried by some as the emblem of capitalism.  On both counts he is more often honored (or condemned) than read.  Surprisingly, even many economists do not seem to have read him.  Yet his two great books and other writings contain profound insights that still have much to teach us.  The news reports show us each day world leaders desperately striving to solve questions that Adam Smith solved definitively over two centuries ago.  What can government do to rescue the economy?  How can productivity be increased?  What does the wealth of a nation consist in, and why are some nations wealthier than others?  Adam Smith is not an ideologue.  He does not hesitate to criticize capitalists, for example.  He analyzes carefully and dispassionately the way an economy works and how it relates to government.  Along the way he offers us many an acute observation about human nature. While the course will focus mainly on The Wealth of Nations, it will also include The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, the year of the American Declaration of Independence.  The battle between the American colonies and the government of Great Britain was largely the product of economic forces that Smith illuminated.  When the victorious States came together in Annapolis is 1786, it was still the economic problem that was uppermost in their minds, and that led to the call for a further convention in Philadelphia the following year, which unexpectedly produced the new national Constitution.