Why Adam Smith remains a towering presence in the modern landscape

The University of Glasgow’s most famous alumnus, Adam Smith <i>(Image: .)</i>
The University of Glasgow’s most famous alumnus, Adam Smith (Image: .)

In the fifth and final part of our week-long commemoration of his tercentenary, we examine the place of Adam Smith in the 21st Century. A range of students, research associates, visiting research fellows and lay readers examine the lasting legacy of this extraordinary man . . . and how he is viewed today


Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Glasgow, spoke this week of how incredible it would be to see scholars from all over the world come together to work with the great institution in commemorating its most famous alumnus and evaluating Adam Smith’s 300-year legacy.

He could, perhaps, not have imagined just how much of a success the week would prove to be.

Working with key UK and global partners, the University has hosted academic workshops, lectures, public talks and exhibitions, with visitors fully and actively engaged in the conversations.

Throughout the week renowned Adam Smith experts have also helped to examine or re-examine his great literary achievements, The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and how these still have such relevance in the world of today.

Dr Craig Smith, Adam Smith Senior Lecturer in the Scottish Enlightenment at the University of Glasgow, spoke of how the economist, philosopher, educator and writer researched and employed immense amounts of empirical information, all at a time when such data was often impossible to source.

He also highlighted how the sustained positive effect the Scotsman’s sheer joy of sharing knowledge and new ideas helped forward not only peer thinking but still resonates now in learning establishments all over the world.

Helping us to delve more deeply into Smith’s work, Dr Maha Rafi Atal, Lecturer and Assistant Professor in Global Economy at the School of Social and Political Sciences in the University of Glasgow, noted one of the primary things he was writing about was the necessity of labour to be truly free in all its aspects – and what this meant for his personal commitment to abolishing the slave trade.

Kathleen Riach, Professor of Organisation Studies and British Academy Midcareer Fellow at the University of Glasgow’s Adam Smith Business School, left us in no doubt about the importance of Smith’s 21st Century legacy, noting in particular: “We absolutely know his work influenced women thinkers and writers during his life and through the 300 years ever since.”

As part of the Hunter Foundation Lecture Series for the tercentenary, Gita Gopinath, First Deputy Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, presented an engaging talk on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and how Adam Smith would have viewed its role, if he were alive today.


Gita Gopinath


Gita, who was also awarded an Honorary Doctorate, considered AI against the context of Smith’s thinking on industrialisation, globalisation, market power and monopolisation, and regulation.

She noted in maximising efficiency, Smith would have been wary of stifling its ‘invisible hand’. However, given his concerns for workers’ freedoms and his interest in an economy that benefits all, he would have been concerned about the impact AI could have on employment.

Gita concluded harnessing AI for the good of humanity will require an interdisciplinary approach, adding: “We need to summon up every ounce of our empathy, the very things that make human intelligence so special.” She was then joined for a chat with BBC Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark and answered questions from the audience in the University’s Bute Hall and online.

Another highlight in the Hunter Foundation Lecture Series in Bute Hall was Professor Sir Angus Deaton’s lecture: ‘Economic failure or failure of economics?’ Sir Angus, who won the Nobel Prize in Economic Science in 2015 for his analysis of consumption, poverty and welfare, and is a Professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University, noted: “Economic systems should help people prosper and flourish, but today’s capitalism is failing this basic test.


Professor Sir Angus Deaton


“Progress has come to a halt for many, not just material progress, but also progress in health and wellbeing.”

In identifying the part played by economics and economists in this failure, Sir Angus asked whether Adam Smith’s economics were part of the problem or could the trouble be placed with the way he has been interpreted. 
He concluded there is much in Smith’s writings that can help economics – and economies – do better today.

The University of Glasgow also had the pleasure of welcoming Professor Deirdre McCloskey, Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, English, and Communications at the University of Illinois, Chicago.


Professor Deirdre McCloskey


In her talk, chaired by Dr Craig Smith, Professor McCloskey discussed the influence of Adam Smith, his views as a deeply egalitarian man, and why she considers him the first true liberal.

Addressing a packed audience, Professor McCloskey said that “as an economist, I believe in living in the real world. I understand we can’t all be equal at the starting line”, before going on to discuss Smith’s idea of “equality of permission”, and while we’re not able to control the start we have in life, who our parents are, or where we’re born, this new custom of equality of permission encouraged people to “have a go”, whether it’s in work, education, or other endeavours.

During her talk, Prof McCloskey also reflected on The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which she considers to be Smith’s greatest work, and how Smith’s ideas around equality don’t apply to family and friends, saying “we love our family and friends, in a widening circle, and then the love gives out, and our sense of justice has to take over”.

Making this idea relatable to the present day, she explained, “we don’t buy a pizza with friends only to eat it ourselves or offer to sell them a slice ... but with strangers, no one objects.”

Before taking questions from the audience, Prof McCloskey closed her lecture by reflecting. “When all is said and done, ideas rule the world. Ideas matter.”

Altogether, these experts and many more key speakers, panellists and guides at the commemoration events have helped us to better understand how modern society, moral philosophy and economics globally have been moulded by a single Scotsman for the past 300 years . . . and will surely continue to be.

The week will culminate with a Symposium at the Adam Smith Business School in the University’s Gilbert Scott Building, where the theme will be ‘Bringing Adam Smith’s ideas and legacy into conversations around contemporary issues’.

Guests from all walks of life will be able to enjoy panel discussions that will incorporate topics such as: ‘The History of Smith: Why Scotland? Why Glasgow?’; ‘Smith’s Economics: Would Smith be surprised by today’s modern economy?’; and ‘Smith’s Political Economy: What can we learn from Smith about today’s political and policy debates?’.

Finally, today we can also hear exclusively from members of both academia and the public attending the Symposium and get their personal views of the intellectual endowment of Adam Smith and how he is viewed today.


How are Adam Smith and his works viewed today? A panel of young people give their verdict ...


Jan Jasinski 
Undergraduate Student


Before approaching the work of Adam Smith, I’d only known him as the ‘founding father’ of capitalism and modern economics, as he’s often referred to in the popular imagination, mostly due to his thoughts in The Wealth Of Nations. However further study would suggest he might not have liked that title at all – instead he probably would describe himself as a moral philosopher.

But he was a whole lot more than that. During his time as a lecturer right here at the University of Glasgow he covered a whole multitude of subjects, including morality, ethics and, as we would probably now name it, jurisprudence. There were also some elements of religion and, of course, political economy.

One of the main goals of the tercentenary commemorations was to go beyond the obvious, and highlight the full depth and breadth of his knowledge and teaching. I hope we’ve achieved just that.

My favourite Adam Smith quote is:
“The expense of the institutions for education and religious instruction, is likewise, no doubt, beneficial to the whole society, and may, therefore, without injustice, be defrayed by the general contribution of the whole society.”


Ana Paula Londe Silva
Research Associate


Adam Smith discussed the economic disadvantages of slavery in several parts of The Wealth of Nations. By highlighting the benefits of free labour, Smith contributed to the anti-slavery debate arising in both Scotland and England. Several Nineteenth-Century abolitionists built upon Smith’s arguments to defend emancipation.

Unfortunately, the influence of Adam Smith on discussions about slavery and colonisation continues relatively unnoticed in the present.

The tercentenary commemorations allow us the public space to openly discuss less-known features of Adam Smith’s political economy and philosophy, which are still relevant to understand the contemporary world.

My favourite Adam Smith quote is: 
“Fortune never exerted more cruelly her empire over mankind, than when she subjected those [African] nations of heroes to the refuse of the jails of Europe, to wretches who possess the virtues neither of the countries which they come from, nor of those which they go to, and whose levity, brutality, and baseness, so justly expose them to the contempt of the vanquished.”

Hiroyuki Ota
Visiting Research Fellow


Adam Smith is as relevant today as he was 300 years ago because his thinking is so deep and profound.

You are immediately aware of this in the measure of his every sentence, whether that be in The Wealth of Nations or Theory of Moral Sentiments or notebooks and letters. While he may be popularly associated with the idea of capitalism, Smith was wary of purely business motives. His thinking went far beyond numbers.

It’s refreshing, therefore, to find 300 years after his birth that an entire new generation is currently engaging this week and hopefully far beyond with his thinking about some of the primary tenets of economics, politics, psychology and moral choice.

My favourite Adam Smith quote is:
“If we examine the most celebrated and remarkable of the different theories which have been given concerning the nature and origin of our moral sentiments, we shall find that almost all of them coincide with some part or other of that which I have been endeavouring to give an account of; and that if everything which has already been said be fully considered, we shall be at no 
loss to explain what was the view or aspect of nature which led each particular author to form his particular system.”


Ellen Mainwood 
Manager of Campbeltown Picture House


Adam Smith’s life and thoughts, despite the male-dominated Eighteenth-Century context in which he lived and wrote, I think relate very much to our own time and experiences.

He speaks about incredibly important social issues and the way we think of each other in society, whether for good or for bad.

That’s still relevant to the way we behave today and I hope that the tercentenary commemoration events have been able to bring even more people closer to his work.

My favourite Adam Smith quote is:
“Happiness consists in tranquillity and enjoyment. Without tranquillity there can be no enjoyment and where there is perfect tranquillity there is scarce anything which is not capable of amusing.”