Journaltalk - "The Two Faces of Adam Smith"

"The Two Faces of Adam Smith"

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Author
  • Vernon Smith
Volume Number 65
Issue Number 1
Pages 1-19
Publication year 1998

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About Southern Economic Journal

Publisher Southern Economic Association
Grouping social sciences
Categories Economics; folk economics; evolutionary theory; political economy

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3 comments

  1. Vernon Smith seeks to solve the Adam Smith problem and reconcile what seem to be two inconsistent views of human nature in Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In Wealth of Nations, Smith’s invisible hand theorem proposes that it is not from benevolence, but rather “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another” which drives our behavior (1776; 1909: 19-20). In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith declares that there are “some principles in… [human] nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it” (1759; 1976: 9). Vernon Smith asserts that these two views are consistent if we recognize a “universal propensity for social exchange” (3). He proposes the following behavioral axiom: ““the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another,” where the objects of trade I will interpret to include not only goods, but also gifts, assistance, and favors out of sympathy, that is, “generosity, humanity, kindness, compassion, mutual friendship and esteem” (Smith 1759; 1976, p. 38)” (3). Vernon Smith then proceeds through historical, psychological, and experimental evidence to support this theory. Vernon Smith offers a very convincing and creative solution to the supposed Adam Smith problem. He makes crucial distinctions between reciprocated and non-reciprocated exchange. However, Vernon Smith seems to neglect the importance of non-reciprocated ethical behavior in Adam Smith’s work. Hanley (2010) elaborates on the distinctions between Adam Smith and Vernon Smith. He also points to divergences in opinion on intended beneficence and social vs. unsocial behavior. Vernon Smith asserts that Adam Smith’s explanation of beneficence is “utilitarian” and argues that it arises “from the expectation of reciprocal benefits” (17). This egoistic view of man may not fit neatly into Adam Smith’s conception which encompasses broader views on ethics and virtue.

    posted 25 Apr 2011 by Echo Keif

  2. Echo’s critique is insightful, and touches on Hanley’s recent appraisal of the article. I would like to suggest that while Vernon Smith’s experiments are very interesting, that his jumping off point misses a better way to reconcile Adam Smith’s two works.

    Although Adam Smith does attribute the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange to man as one of his most innate qualities, it is not the most obvious bridge between the two books. As a method of operation in the world, the propensity is important; as an explanation of the origin of our behavior, less so. The Adam Smith of the Theory of Moral Sentiments proposes a picture of man who receives input from the world around him about how he ought to behave. The man wants to be loved and to be loveable out of a concern for his self-interest. Both works address the content of self-interested behavior. The content which makes up self-interest in each book is explained differently, but they both amount to an exploration of self-interest in different frames. Paganelli (2008) even suggests that self-interest is judged with a more friendly result in the Theory of Moral Sentiments than in The Wealth of Nations.

    Self-interest, rather than the propensity to truck and barter, is perhaps the real tie between the two works. In the Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith addresses humanity in the full context of human interactions, while in the Wealth of Nations he addresses that part of society most affected by the virtue of prudence. The method of approach is therefore different, but the starting point for each is not so far apart as is often assumed.

    posted 29 Apr 2011 by John Robinson

  3. The Adam Smith Problem has beset philosophers and economists since the time of the man who is its source. What is the best way to integrate the insights of the Wealth of Nations with the ethical theory of the Theory of Moral Sentiments? While consensus has not yet been reached authors still try to resolve the tension. Vernon Smith, the father of experimental economics, attempted to resolve the problem by making an appeal to Adam Smith’s description of the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange.

    The propensity that Vernon Smith points to is certainly a component of Adam’s system, but in attempting to resolve the Adam Smith Problem by simply highlighting this propensity seems to ask forces other questions into focus. Assuming that Adam Smith had a singular vision of human nature in some sense, where does the individual’s propensity to exchange emerge? According to David Hume reason is a slave to the passions, which Adam Smith would have been familiar with as it affected the development of his own moral theory. Here a problem arises, if the propensity to exchange is simply the result of an innate principle of action, as Vernon Smith implies, then one needs to determine if this action falls under ethical scrutiny or not. If Adam Smith does not consider natural and uncontrolled actions of the individual, e.g. sneezing, twitching, worthy of ethical consideration as they fall outside of the realm of the individual’s control and thereby are incapable of being done in sympathy with the Impartial Spectator, then how does one square a natural principle with ethical analysis? Perhaps if Vernon Smith had described the propensity to exchange as some type of irreducible good then we could see that it could then serve as a reason for action that would first be described by and ethical system, i.e. it would be fitting to discuss in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, and then followed by sound advice on instantiating the good in ones affairs, i.e. the Wealth of Nations would give advice on making it a reality. The point of all this is to say that while Vernon Smith seems to be making a contribution to solving the Adam Smith Question, we are left with further questions that need to be answered.

    posted 06 May 2011 by Steve Kunath

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