Radical Heroes

Adam Smith

Adam Smith (1723-1790) is widely viewed as the founder of “political economy”, the field of study out of which modern economics, sociology, political science among other fields grew. Smith is best known for his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, which highlighted the role of individual self-interest and division of labor through market in promoting social progress. However, Smith was also a keen student of moral psychology and his Theory of Moral Sentiments saw human motivations as rich and nuanced. Rather than praising self-interest as such, therefore, he sought to create social institutions that would channel self-interest towards a greater social good in a way that “moral sentiments” could not hope to in the increasingly complex, diverse and far-flung trading empire of Great Britain. To achieve this, Smith hoped to dismantle feudal institutions that stood in the way of social progressed and channeled ambition towards conflict, and instead harness ambition, through economic rather than violent competition, as a cooperative force of mutual gain. Always a skeptic of concentrated power, he was as fearful of industrial as government power and warned of the dangers of corporations dominating markets.