How to think like Adam Smith
How to think like Adam Smith? In Smith’s tercentenary year, Professor Adam Dixon takes on this question.
Globally renowned as the ‘father of modern economics,’ Adam Smith is often looked to for answers. In the 300 years since his birth, this iconic philosopher and economist has been called upon to help us understand social issues, justify policy, and approach economic questions. We ask ourselves: what would Adam Smith think?
However, trying to ascertain this is arguably impossible. Smith wrote in a time that was pre-capitalist, pre-industrial, and pre-democratic. Our world – our problems and choices – look very different to his.
But is approximation useful?
In this lecture, Professor Adam Dixon will explore why we should be asking how Adam Smith would think, not what. He will use this approach to examine three contemporary challenges: the increase of state intervention, climate change, and the growth of AI.
This transcript has been automatically generated and so may feature errors.
Good evening everyone and welcome warmly to the Royal Society of Edinburgh this evening and particularly to those online I believe we have over 50 people joining us online this evening. I’m the Chief Executive Professor Sarah Skerritt. And it’s my pleasure to welcome you tonight. I have to do a little bit of housekeeping first. I think we’re going to wait for the housekeeping slides to come up. Perhaps. I’ll ad lib. Oh, no, here it is good. We’re not expecting a fire this evening. Although that might warm us up a bit, but I shouldn’t wish for that. So if the fire alarm does go off, we need to evacuate. My colleagues will show you we go out to the way you came in. Down the corridor here, turn right and assemble outside the dome where all names will be checked. Thank you very much. And I’d now like to give you a few words of welcome relevant to this evening. So I’m thrilled to welcome you all this evening to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. 2023 marks the Tercentenary of Adam Smith a celebration that has unfolded throughout the year and across the globe. With a special emphasis placed here in Scotland of course, with key events orchestrated by institutions like the University of Glasgow and Panmure House. The Tercentenary has been dedicated to reframing and contextualising Adam Smith and his work against a 21st century backdrop. A founding Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1783, a student, a scholar, and director at the University of Glasgow. Smith is today considered the father of modern economics. and is the most famous former student of the University of Glasgow. His pioneering work and thinking on political economy influenced individuals, organisations and governments to think again, about how our nation’s wealth is built and developed, and how a society can prosper. Today, many would call Smith the father of capitalism and free market thinking. And the Royal Society of Edinburgh, a beacon of the Scottish Enlightenment, hugely influenced by thinkers and iconic philosophers like Adam Smith. This year, and indeed this evening, the RSE wishes not only to commemorate his work, life and impact, but to bring his world changing ideas into conversations about the problems we face in society today. And we’re delighted to welcome Professor Adam Dixon, the Adam Smith Chair in sustainable capitalism, Panmure House, not to discuss what Adam Smith would think, but how. How might Adam Smith examine contemporary challenges like climate change, and technological disruption? Indeed, the RSEs own strategic plan launched in April this year focuses on three key societal challenges to be addressed through contributions of RSE fellows, and the Young Academy of Scotland members, climate change and environmental sustainability, economic prosperity and social cohesion and inclusion, and the RSE being well connected across Scottish academia, government and civil society uses its convening power to bring together key actors to address these pressing issues. As Scotland’s national academy, the RSE is a neutral place for discussion on issues that might be controversial and politicised. Discussions like this one. How should we be thinking about climate change and the rapid advancements of artificial intelligence? What frameworks models or perspectives might help inform how we address these challenges? So thank you to you all in this room and online this evening, for joining us to learn about and discuss Smith’s ideas and their relevance to the 21st century. My thanks to Professor Adam Dixon, and to Professor Martin Hendry for chairing this evening’s discussion, and I will now hand over to Martin. Thank you.
Many Thanks, Sarah. And good evening, everyone, and a very warm welcome from me too. I know the room may not be particularly warm, but the welcome most assuredly, is. My name is Martin Hendry, and I’m professor of gravitational astrophysics and cosmology, at the University of Glasgow, where I’m also vice principal in Clerk of Senate. But tonight, I’m mainly here waiting my RSE hat. I’m Vice President for Public Engagement, and I’m delighted to be hosting this evening’s event. So as Sarah said, The RSE is Scotland’s national academy, so just before I introduce our speaker, I’d like to first share a few thoughts of my own about the RSEs origin story, and the place of Adam Smith within that. So the RSE was created in 1783 by Royal Charter for the “advancement of learning and useful knowledge”, and our contemporary mission remains the same. The deployment of knowledge for the public good. The origins of the RSE are closely linked to the Scottish Enlightenment. That remarkable 18th century period, when Edinburgh’s intellectual climate fostered great leaps forward in the arts, sciences and social sciences, prompting the French philosopher Voltaire to observe that we look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilization. Now in the late 1700s, the most prestigious of Edinburgh as many clubs and societies was the Edinburgh Philosophical Society. And in June 1783, it transformed itself into the Royal Society of Edinburgh, with all 179 members of the Edinburgh Philosophical Society, automatically becoming founding members of the RSE. The first meeting of the new society took place in the old library of Edinburgh University on Monday, 23rd of June, and its founding members included the renowned economist and philosopher Adam Smith, as we heard from Sarah. So tonight’s event will explore Adam Smith as a key figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, a prime example of the stellar cast of founding members that would establish the RSE as an intellectual powerhouse, with its fellowship going on to comprise many of the visionaries whose ideas would lay the foundation of the modern sciences and social sciences. And as Sarah has also reminded us in 2023, the RSE has been marking the achievements and legacy of Adam Smith on the 300th anniversary of his birth. Smith is widely recognised as the most famous former student of the University of Glasgow. So that’s two of us that’s said that so it must be true. And it did. It’s a lot for me to see that as an astrophysicist because our other very famous alumnus is Lord Kelvin. It’s his bicentennial year next year, but I would acknowledge, well, Adam Smith has had 100 more years to acquire global fame than even Lord Kelvin. So so we’ll we’ll give the accolade to Adam Smith this evening. But the RSE has been very proud to collaborate with Glasgow University on celebrating that Tercentenary programme. And therefore tonight, we’re delighted that you can be with us for a real highlight of that programme. And who better to guide us this evening than Professor Adam Dixon, who holds the Adam Smith Chair and sustainable capitalism at Pamure House, and who in a few moments will share with us his lecture entitled How to think like Adam Smith. So Pamure House, which was rescued and restored by Heriot Watt University and Edinburgh Business School, is the 17th century townhouse located in Edinburgh’s Canongate, which is the only surviving residence of Adam Smith, who lived there between 1778 and 1790. It’s situated close to the Scottish Parliament, in the heart of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the house is an important monument to Scotland’s intellectual history. Turning now to Professor Dixon himself, he is responsible for developing and leading academic research at palmerhouse. His programme focuses, among other things, on the role of the global finance industry, the rule of the state, and the rule of corporations. Trained as an economic geographer and political economist, Professor Dixon brings an interdisciplinary perspective to this work. He holds a DPhil in economic geography from the University of Oxford, a Sciences Po and a BA in International Affairs and Spanish literature from the George Washington University in Washington, DC. So concerning the format of this evening’s event, Professor Dixon will speak for about 35 minutes. And I would ask you to hold your questions during that time. But after his presentation, I will join Professor Dixon on stage to discuss and explore with him more deeply some contemporary themes related to the question: “How to think like Adam Dixon”, and at that point, Adam Smith, Freudian slip, there you go. We’ll be celebrating your tercentinary in a few 100 years. And at that point, there will be ample opportunity for audience Q&A. So we’ll have roving microphones in the room here. And we will also invite questions from our audience online. So ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, without further ado, let me welcome to the stage Professor Adam Dixon, this time to share with us his lecture on how to think like Adam Smith.
Right, thank you, Martin. Thank you, Sarah, thank you to the RSE for inviting me here to speak on Adam Smith, not his actual birthday, but in the 300th year of his birth. And thank you so much for you all for coming here on this dark, slightly cold evening. And those of you listening online, perhaps some of you listening online, it’s warmer, where you are the heating, I have been told isn’t working. So that’s why it feels a bit colder. But we’re trying to recreate how it would be perhaps in the 17th, or the 18th century when Adam Smith was alive, and certainly it was much colder. So what would Adam Smith think about our world in 2023, as has already been said, as the father of economics, or as some conjecture, the father of capitalism, one would assume that Smith, if he were here with us with this evening, would have much insight to offer about a range of topics. I wonder what Adam Smith would think about, for example, the rise of China, or the state of democracy in the world today? Or what what do you think of the influence of social media, on our interpersonal relations? Why would we ask what Adam Smith thinks or why, what he thinks about a particular topic, Smith’s works, and not simply his two great master works. The Wealth of Nations and the Theory of Moral Sentiments are rich in insights from how markets and international trade work, and the problems of public and private monopolies to how we interact with our neighbours, and how we perceive ourselves in public. And short. There’s much to draw on from Smith and making sense of our world. Today. Like many great thinkers of the past, we are drawn to his works for answers, for guidance and wisdom, or as is often the case to appeal to an authority to justify an opinion or some course of action. Indeed, Smith has been mobilised for a couple of centuries now as an icon of the free market and as an AI con of limited government. Much has been written on this. For example, I would direct you to read Glory Liu, fine piece of reception history Adam Smith Smart America, which chronicles Smith’s influence on the American experience and the development of economic theory generally. While it is not hard to find passages in Smith’s work to justify free market thinking Smith’s work isn’t so easily pigeonholed into one corner of political and economic thought.
But still in the liberal tradition, and just as there are elements of Smith, that would one could label as right, or conservative or libertarian, there’s plenty of Smith to inspire social democrats and the left. Indeed, there’s another son of Riccati, the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who has found inspiration and Smith for his politics, reminding us that Smith was never some advocate for no nonsense capitalism. And perhaps that’s what explains the staying power of Smith. He can motivate diverse viewpoints. And from that diverse and robust debate. Well, when I’m working at Panmure House, the home where he lived for the last 12 years of his life, as Martin said, just off the Canongate, especially when I’m there alone, I sometimes imagine a conversation with him. I’ve sat in once was once his dining room where he hosted other luminaries of the Scottish Enlightenment such as James Hutton, the father of geology and Joseph Black, a chemist and physician, who was the first to identify carbon dioxide, a problem that we face in the 21st century. And I wonder what the conversation would be like, I picture a conversation, perhaps with a glass of claret that Adam Smith would have drank at the time and that is a nice read Bordeaux, with a thoughtful, but most importantly, careful thinker. After some pleasantries where were Smith comments on how nice the restoration is, at least after I, I explained that after he died, the building fell into disrepair, and at one point became a tannery. I imagine that we discuss what has happened in the 233 years since his passing, and certainly too much to cover in one evening. What would leave him in wonder? What would surprise him? What would he admire? I’d like to think that Smith would be fascinated. Just as he and his contemporaries were found fascinated with how history plays out how societies develop and change how ideas emerge and take hold, how empires grow and collapse or how we understand the cosmos and the natural world, how the human body works, what afflicts the human condition? And what constitutes art, music and literature? Would Smith be disappointed about where we’ve come? Or would Smith be pleased? Some perhaps many have taken Smith as being prescriptive. There are some that hold there is a Smith Smith model of political economy and by extension society, one that can be contrasted with models ascribed to Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes. Smith’s model is in short, leave markets alone, and they will provide Marx’s model is let the proletariat decide. Keynes’s model is have the state tweak the market to ops and optimise its efficiency. I must admit that I’m still looking for this so called model in Smith’s work. Perhaps I’ve not read his work closely enough. And yes, I’m aware of Smith’s reference to a system of natural liberty. But I don’t believe we can take that as a model derived from any real world experience, let alone treat it as a fully fleshed out blueprint to follow. I struggled generally with finding much of anything that is prescriptive, and Smith. To be sure, Smith was intrigued by the beneficial possibilities of markets, and the possibilities of further specialisation and unleashing innovation, abundance and individual liberty. Moreover, we know that Smith was highly critical of mercantilism, and the concentration of power by public as well as private entities. But there’s nothing like a manifesto to be found outlining what should happen, let alone what will happen. This doesn’t mean that Smith is devoid of normative judgments or critical policy recommendations. Indeed, Smith found slavery for example, abhorrent. In short, I don’t believe my conversation with Smith, would be a discussion about where whether or not we have followed his advice or not. We know that Smith painstakingly wrote and rewrote his works until his passing. Indeed, while living at Penn, Morehouse, Smith added additional third to the Theory of Moral Sentiments while also revising the Wealth of Nations and reffered drafting new works that went unfinished such dilla gins over time may suggest that Smith was working towards some perfect model of society, economy and human relations. I’m doubtful of this. For me, Smith is better seen, just like his contemporaries of the Scottish Enlightenment, as focused on understanding how society has evolved, not how societies necessarily should or will evolve, progress was not taken as inevitable. But this does not mean that Smith was devoid of imagining more ideal social, economic, and political conditions. In my conversation with Smith, I don’t expect I would get very far with questions of the type. Professor Smith, what would you think? Considering how diligent he was in writing, and then rewriting his works over decades? I imagine his response would simply be Adam, and yes, we fortunately share a name, I will have to get back to you. Indeed, Smith wrote in a period that was pre capitalist, pre industrial and pre democratic, our world is profoundly different from his who was able to vote in 18th century Britain, let alone anywhere else in the world. The answer is strikingly few. In 18th century Britain, general elections were decided primarily by property owners, the number of which was in the 1000s, not the millions who can vote today. To be sure ideas underpinning mass democracy were certainly brewing in Smith’s time, which drove debates on reforming Britain and revolutionary fervour in places like America and France. But modern mass democracy as we know it did not emerge until well after Smith’s death, and extending the franchise to include women didn’t come until the 20th century. We should also take care and referring to Smith as the father of capitalism. After all, the cap of the term capitalism didn’t emerge until the middle of the 19th century. The first use of the term capitalism is typically attributed to the French Socialist politician, historian and journalist Louis Blanc in his book, The organisation of labour or organisational new TV and French capitalism, for blanc was the appropriation of capital by some at the exclusion of others. The question is what capitalism is, and was it present, or at least more fully formed during Smith’s time. And this issue is not simply reducible to semantics. Now, I think the easiest way to define capitalism is to look at the works of those most critical of that. And that would, of course, be Karl Marx and Marxist scholarship. Generally, indeed, too few appreciate that capitalism as a concept is primarily of a Marxian vintage. And if you’re wondering, appreciating this, or engaging with Marxian scholarship doesn’t necessarily make you a Marxist, you just have to take the hit of being accused of being a bourgeois reformist. Now it is important though, in that to entertain multiple approaches and interpretations of economic and political life, and to do so I believe it is part of a healthy liberal tradition of scholarship and critical inquiry. Now too often, capitalism is conflated or offered simply as market exchange and commerce. But this is too simplistic. market exchange, wages, profits and other characteristics of what we take as commerce and trade are not exclusive to capitalism. But what is capitalism? To take Marx’s definition it is where capital subsumes labour and production, that is, the capitalist directs the labour process. Moreover, the economic system is capitalist when that system of social social relations predominates. By contrast, things like markets, profits, and even wages existed in antiquity and under feudalism. Yet the mode of production in these times was different dominated by different forms, such as slave labour or other types of servitude and peasant subsistence farming. During Smith’s time, merchant capital increasingly replaced the dominant form of production as the bonds of feudalism were broken down at least in Britain and parts of Europe. Smith observed the emerging productive explosion that specialisation generated as craft production was brought into factories for at least more sophisticated workshops. And this is perhaps why Smith is often seen as the father of capitalism. But can we say that 18th century Britain was capitalist, there were certainly emerging elements there of the point of though of what we think of is capitalism today was still in our emergence. Moreover, there was no such thing as a capitalist world system, international trade existed, but this wasn’t necessarily trade among capitalist economies. There was nothing like the complex global production networks that we have today.
We also must remember that the Industrial Revolution was only in its various the very early stages in 1776, three important things happen. That was the year that the Wealth of Nations was published, the Americans had the audacity to declare independence. And when James Watts the steam engine engines were first installed in a commercial setting, and I should mention also that like Smith, Watt was also a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Now we can take Marx’s formulation, the rise and consolidation of capitalism happened through its paradigmatic industrial form, only in the 19th century. But already in the 18th century, Smith was concerned about how the monotony of the emerging factory system and how further refinement of specialisation would affect workers, their well being and the human condition generally. For all we know, had Smith lived through the first half of the 19th century, perhaps, he too would be just as perturbed, shocked even at the working conditions in Britain’s industrial cities. Maybe he too, would call for revolution. Now, my aim here isn’t to be disinvited from speaking to a group of more liberal, libertarian minded individuals by referring to Smith, in the same space as Karl Marx, and insinuating that Smith may have become a Marxist. That is not my intent. My point, if somewhat provocative, is simply to emphasise that Smith’s world was very different from ours, just as it was in comparison to the world that motivated the likes of Karl Marx decades after his death. Hence, I want to propose that rather than asking what Smith would think, a question I often hear at Penn Moorhouse, we should be asking, how would Adam Smith think the former is impossible, the latter is possible. And that I would argue also is fundamental to the liberal tradition of critical and open inquiry. Trying to determine what a long dead thinker would say today I fear creates too much space for dogma by appealing to authority while robbing us of our own agency to think for ourselves. How then, can we think like Adam Smith
To be sure, such an exercise is still subject to historic graphical misinterpretation. And short, I don’t hold my interpretation to be sacrosanct nor exhaustive, I am a mere interloper in the extensive and rich body of scholarship devoted to interpreting Smith’s work, generous work, and generally that of the Scottish Enlightenment, where disagreements and varied interpretations abound. But diversity of thought and disagreement is to be expected, and is in fact what is beautiful and worth defending in an open and liberal society. Now, given my lecture this evening is being chaired graciously by an astrophysicist and yes, I hope there will be time for me to ask Martin what he thinks of the statistical probability. There is for extractor extraterrestrial life given the size of the universe, the question you should ask all astrophysicist, I will frame my my argument using one of Smith’s lesser known works sometime in 1750. In the 1750s, Smith drafted an essay which was published after his death entitled, The principles which lead and direct philosophical inquiries, as illustrated by the history of astronomy. Now why the so called father of economics was writing about astronomy may come as a surprise. But like many of his contemporaries during during the Scottish Enlightenment, and generally across the European enlightenment, writing across what today we would call scientific disciplines, or subjects was normal, multidisciplinary team and interdisciplinary interdisciplinarity was the norm. Why Smith’s history of astronomy is important. It’s not specifically as an historical review of how we came to understand the cosmos from classical antiquity to Sir Isaac Newton, but for how it outlines Smith’s philosophy of science. In short, it provides an outline for what Smith thinks is the purpose of the scientific enterprise. And this is a first step for understanding how Smith thought and how he would approach a question or problem. For Smith, the success of a scientific theory is in its ability to, quote soothe the imagination. In quote, the starting point for any inquiry is unfamiliar an unexpected phenomena, events and objects which disturb the imagination, in Smith’s words, what is new and singular excites that sentiment which in strict propriety is called wonder. What is unexpected surprise, and quote, neither of these feelings, the sentiments, wonder and surprise are positive. These emotions are unpleasant. The goal of science is to provide explanations for novel and uncommon phenomena which soothes the imagination and return us to a tranquil state. The scientific enterprise is thus driven by a psychological process, wonder and surprise trouble the imagination which drives curiosity. An explanation that is a scientific theory provides tranquillity to the imagination, leading to a positive sentiment of admiration. That is, what is great or beautiful. The way that the imagination is soothed is through familiarity, and simplicity, as the mind takes pleasure in the resemblances between different objects, a classification of an object or phenomenon is of little use, without reference to something else. In our minds, we have the predisposition predisposition to expect certain familiar sequences of events relying on our common sense to relate the familiar with the unfamiliar. When this process fails to soothe the imagination, we seek a scientific explanation. Smith may not have been able to foreshadow how challenging relating the familiar would become with the advancement of science in today’s world, but the general tenor of his argument still holds. And that is what popular science writers today do. Scientific explanation is derived for Smith. Through inductive observation, we build the story from the ground up from the real, not from the top down. Through the accumulation of many observations we can generalise but the scientist or philosopher is not content with simple induction. Common Sense generalisations require connecting principles. This requires moving from the placement of one event in a sequence to the comparison of sequences of events themselves. Here science goes beyond observable events to the provision of hypothetical models from which a wide variety of observable events can be deduced and effect in science as a necessary creative and imaginative element. But this is not sufficient. The superiority of one theory over another is in how well a theory fits or can predict and be confirmed by observable events. Smith, like others in the Scottish Enlightenment, particularly David Hume, were greatly influenced by the advances in natural philosophy, how they refer to science, then made by Newton in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, which served as the basis for the Scottish Enlightenment science of man which contributed greatly to contemporary social science. In some ways, Smith’s history of astronomy is an ode to the superiority of Newtonian science in comparison to its predecessors. Newton’s theory of motion, for example, was able to explain the movement of celestial bodies to the principle of gravity. For Smith, gravity is a familiar and simple fact, the, quote, reality of which we have daily experience, and quote, indeed, history has it, that Newton came up with the idea when he observed an apple fall from a tree in his garden. This image is something that is highly relatable to even the least initiated. You may recall from your days in primary school learning about gravitation, with a picture of a tree and an apple falling at least that was my experience in primary school. But this appeals to our common sense, which is a hallmark of much of Smith’s writing. Newton’s theory was furthermore superior, According to Smith is comprehensiveness. Newton was able to predict the trajectories of celestial bodies, which astronomers even then were able to verify empirically. Yet, praise for Newton should not lead one to believe that Smith was some kind of determinist or strict positivist. The history of astronomy is not a guide for how to conduct social science, where social and behavioural actions can be modelled the same precision as the physical world. Smith allows for creative creative speculation, such as his metaphorical use of the invisible hand or the impartial spectator, allowing for intermediate explanations for what we may not be able to observe, that we can imagine them, but which ultimately must speak to and speak from a reality, we can observe or have observed. And short Smith is a realist. What Smith is concerned with in the history of astronomy is explaining why science is explanatory, which is a psychological question. Again, the aim of science is to soothe the imagination. But how this psychological state comes to be. That is why scientific curiosity manifests as not reducible to some innate and natural inclination in the human mind. The scientific endeavour is a social phenomenon. In other words, Smith appends a sociological theory, this psychological theory of science, Smith’s effort in the history of assigning astronomy is quote, to trace it that is natural philosophy from its first origin and up to that summit of perfection to which it at present supposed to is supposed to have arrived, and to which indeed, it has equally been supposed to have arrived in almost all former times, and quote. Now what this statement suggests is that Smith’s admiration for Newton, for having sooth the imagination is not static. Newton ushered in a revolution in science, but Smith did not take it for granted that Newton’s contribution could not be dethroned or built upon, as has happened historically was science. notwithstanding his reverence for Newton, Smith did not forclose the possibility that someone like Albert Einstein would come along two centuries later to again revolutionise our understanding of gravity and the cosmos. And we have moved on from Einstein’s theory since as Professor Hendry I’m sure can attest to. And Stuart Smith was cautious in how he thought about the development of knowledge. Smith’s thinking is dynamic.
But recall that Smith offers a sociological theory of science, concerned with tracing how science emerged and what social conditions are necessary for scientific progress. And here we can already see Smith’s underlying aims with writing the Wealth of Nations, the full title of which is an Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations scientific endeavour emerges to quote Smith, when law has established order and security and subsistence ceases to be precarious. The curiosity of mankind is increased, and their fears are diminished. The leisure which they enjoy renders them more attentive to the appearances of nature, more observant of her smallest irregularities, and more desirous to know what is the chain which links them together. In quote. Hence, for Smith, science is made possible through the emergence of the rule of law and of commercial commercial society. We’re increasing specialisation removes subsistence conditions, and provides for greater leisure time, at least for some, this was present first in Greece and the Greek colonies in Sicily, Italy, and Asia Minor. However, this institutional environment was interrupted after the collapse of the Roman Empire until the Renaissance started to provide the conditions again for the flourishing of scientific endeavour in Europe. This does not mean that knowledge production was completely interrupted, or that knowledge creation and scientific innovation elsewhere did not happen. Now, at this point, we can say that to think like Smith, is to assemble the facts across time and space, to understand and interpret what really happens or has happened. But as history and our world is necessarily complex, our explanations require abstractions or creative devices to render them simple and comprehensible to others. But this rendering of Smith Smith’s thinking is not complete. In fact, it is too simple. There is more at stake, we must ask, what are Smith’s values? What are his politics? What is the objective of his objectivity? Now earlier I mentioned that Smith and Marx are different thinkers, and I’d like to return to that difference. In 1845, Karl Marx penned a set of 11 Short philosophical notes the Theses on Feuerbach that would later inform the German ideology, which he wrote with Friedrich Engels, his co-author of the more famous and influential Communist Manifesto. The 11 thesis, which appears on his gravestone in Highgate Cemetery in London, is the most well-known. Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways. The point is to change it. This powerful statement has become a rallying cry for radical intellectuals and remains a powerful statement for many scholars and particularly self-declared scholar activists to this day. Now, Adam Smith, would probably read Marx’s statement with some maybe a lot of skepticism and likely retort that the capacity of the philosopher to change the world, at least in profound ways, is wishful thinking and verging on utopian hubris. He would likely say that this is not how the world works, weary of the aims of revolution and the grand plans of any statesman or intellectual. This does not mean that Smith would be flippant with regards to the social conditions of the working classes that motivated Marx and others to want to change the world and still do. Smith show deep concern for the plight of the poor and the working classes in his pre capitalist world. And he worried deeply about the human condition. But with Smith out to change the world, like Marx, the answer to that question would likely be No. Smith and his fellow travellers of the Scottish and MIT came of an age on the back of Newton’s triumph in science, they set forth to develop a new science of man inspired by Newton’s scientific method and his empiricism. Smith’s approach and that of his contemporaries is inductive, not deductive. Smith worked from the facts and appealed to our common sense. He theorised across patterns of observe the observable fact based on available information to derive General Laws of social development and human error interaction, like an apple falling from a tree. Smith’s uses the pin factory, the image of a pin factory to explain how the division of labour operates. And that is, would have been at the time even relatable to this 18th century audience. Just as I have done in lectures to undergraduates had them disassemble their iPhone to see where the parts come from to explain globalisation. Or you can ask students where their breakfast comes from, and hasn’t think about the world and how it is structured.
Now, as eminence Smith scholar Samuel fly, shoo, Fly, shoo, Fly Shekar puts it, quote to vindicate and why Smith wanted to use these devices was to quote vindicate people’s judgments with the supposedly better systems invented by intellectuals and quote, if the point is not to change it, then what role does the philosopher have to play? Smith’s work shows how progress has been won, if unexpectedly, but also how it is last. Smith’s work shows a certain fragility to social and economic development, there is no reason to suspect that progress cannot be reversed. Local circumstances and unexpected events historically have contributed to social cohesion, cohesion, and political development, such as the emergence of Republican democracy in ancient Greece and Rome. Yet examples of social breakdown and stagnation in the historical record are plenty. expounding wisdom of some kind, on what path to take would be a delicate operation, one that Will Smith would likely obscure the role of a philosopher in such a world as the late economic historian Donald which argued of Smith’s politics was, quote, to preserve a cool head to observe human conduct and assign the proper causes and consequences which meant that manners and customs had to be related to psychological propensity, propensities and circumstances, social institutions, to historical location, and quote, in other words, we can see Smith as a cool, calm and collected thinker. This is not an argument, however, for a dispassionate philosopher removed from society and providing reasoned observation from above. Smith and his peers were deeply aware of their own place in society and the weight of their arguments. They wrote from history but for their present, a Scotland that had only recently emerged from feudalism, and were a commercial society increasingly free of superstition and religious dogma was emerging. Smith was a realist, working from the facts to render an imminent critique of society. Smith was hence cautious and careful in his thought. But as Donald which goes further to highlight of Smith politics, quote, it was always necessary to defend such fundamental and instrumental values as liberty, humanity, tolerance and moderation in order to protect the benefits of civil civilised society from such characteristic disorders as faction enthusiasts ism, and superstition. Unquote. Many have seen Smith as a defender of commercial society, and I and by extension, what today we call capitalism. And here I agree with political theorists Paul Sager, who argues in a excellent recent book called Adam Smith reconsidered, that Smith recognised simply that advanced civilizations were commercial societies, assuming that no one wants to go wants to return to a pre commercial society with greater indigenous and violent forms of domination than living in a commercial society is the only option. To quote Sager, Smith’s attitude towards commercial society is best thought of as akin to how a fish might think about water to the fish offering a defence of water is ultimately beside the point. Some version of this thing has to be lived in one way or another, in quote, and taking Smith this way, is crucial, as it removes Smith as a putative defender of commercial society, to one where the question that can be asked is what kind of commercial society or capitalism for that matter we want to try and live in. For Smith the emergence of modern liberty in Europe after feudalism and the breaking of the power of the great lords Lords was a major turning point and one not at all expected. again turning to cigars reframing of Smith as a political thinker, quote, modern Liberty was in the properly global perspective of pervasive political domination that Smith urged his audience to recognise a major historical achievement to be celebrated precisely because its benefits extended to unprecedented numbers of ordinary people. In quote, the rule of law and the separation of powers provided for the regular and impartial administration of justice, there was a degree of predictability and equal standing in the affairs of ordinary life. Smith put freedom in a historical frame. For much of human political history domination reigned, it was the default norm. Contemporary observers would be right in pointing out that the extension of liberty in Smith’s time was still very limited. And here I will contradict myself and say that I have no doubt that Smith would not dispute this. But major progress had been made, that cannot be discounted, and progress had been has been made since and to be sure, there is still much progress to be made. Rather than taking Smith as a prophet of liberalism in the modern sense of the of the term, Smith can be taken, as our Segarra argues as a theorist of non domination. Smith was concerned with showing how power and domination operated, what its origins were and what conditions were necessary for its removal. Few institutions survived Smith’s onslaught, just as Smith was critical of power and domination exercised by the state or the church. He was likewise critical of slavery, the merchant class, and what today we would see as a multinational or state capitalist enterprise, the East India Company, if we can simplify how to think like Adam Smith, if that’s even possible for such a great thinker, the key takeaway is as follows. Adam Smith thinks principally from the real, not the ideal, what has happened, and why, who holds the power and why. What does this mean for individual liberty and the prosperity of society generally, this does not mean we cannot imagine a different world. But it does mean that Smith’s thinking has a degree of scepticism on the likely likelihood or even desirability of grand plans. History has shown that progress is one but also lost. My lecture this evening certainly has not done justice to the scope, and depth of Adam Smith’s work, let alone the countless scholars and thinkers who have interpreted his work, there was more than one way to approach Smith. But as I mentioned, in the beginning of my lecture, diverse viewpoints and reasoned debate, are what makes an open society worth defending. For me, Smith is an invitation. Smith is an invitation to debate where our world has come and where it may be going. On that note, I would like to invite you to join me in that dialogue with Martin, thank you very much.
Thank you very much for a fascinating and thought provoking lecture. And I was especially pleased to hear the extended references to Adam Smith’s history of astronomy. It’s an essay that I read myself some years ago, I revisited it anticipating this event this evening. And I would echo all that you said about the approach that it represents that exemplifies in the way that Smith thought about signs, I was especially struck by your own reference to how Amy Stein came along and built upon the work of Newton. And I think there’s also in my experience, a little too unhealthy fascination with asking for a standard thing rather than the more pertinent question, which is who instead would think so that’s another common thread between those two figures. So we’re going to open to general questions in a little while. But first of all, we’ve got some contemporary topics that we’re going to explore together that may offer the audience some stimulation for their own questions. But first,
Do aliens exist?
Well, let’s get that out of the way. Absolutely. Well, again, you noted that Smith would work from the real rather than the ideal. And I think I point to this area that was developing around that same time was a deeper understanding of the notion of probability and through the work of people like Reverend Thomas Bayes and Laplace and others. So I think again, we haven’t met them yet, at least I don’t think so. People say stuff about full car can you know, places around there being the useful capital of the UK, but I think nonetheless, it’s such a big universe, so many planets, discoveries that we’re becoming You know, clear, well, not the planets part, but the stars, at least to Smith that I think he liked me but take the view, as Carl Sagan put it, that if it is just as that it’s an awful waste of space.
Yes. That’s a good way of pointing it. Well,
I have to give the credit to Carl Sagan. But nonetheless, it’s, I think, an apt description. And it’s very exciting to live in a generation when possibly we could make that discovery. So again, it’s great to hear that that’s something that interests you as well. So, um, in terms of other maybe somewhat more sobering contemporary topics, then is there life in the universe? You know, the first one I wanted to explore with you is the whole issues around state intervention. This is something where we’re seeing significant growth in state intervention across the world, including in supposedly liberal political economy. So how should we think about that through the lens of Adam Smith?
Right. So I mean, first, firstly, to say that, again, the image of Smith, I’ve tried to portray, and that of the Scottish Enlightenment generally is one of open and critical dialogue and debate, and saying that we shouldn’t be too prescriptive. And anything I say, shouldn’t be treated as sacrosanct, or exhaustive or the final word, I think it’s having that that level of humility, which when I read Smith, and read about his life, and the period is that there was a level of humility that I think we need for discussing some of our grand challenges. But I think it’s taking that sense of of asking hard questions and looking what has happened, and using the good methods of social science that we have. And science to to answer these questions is positive, while at the same time recognising that there is still political values that are worth worth fighting for and worth worth discussing. So we can’t be completely objective. But you know, so what we wanted to do this evening is then talk about these particular kinds of things. And here’s where I would invite audience participation to offer insight and thoughts, though don’t give too long of a lecture. But as you mentioned, in terms of state intervention, and why I chose this as the topic is, in part, because that’s reflects a lot of the kind of research that I do generally as a as a, as a social scientist. But also, in part, because I think, for any of you that are looking at the world today, not simply here in Britain, but over the last 20 years. And what we see is a return of the state. And that’s not to say that the state has left. But the period of what we would call neoliberal globalisation has shifted, we see the rise of China, which some call is a state capitalist economy. But again, if we look at what’s happening in Europe, and in particularly in the United States, the kind of liberal Paragon, look at how significant government spending is. And partly this is offered as a means of addressing climate change. So we look at the inflation reductive Reduction Act in the United States. Or you’re the European Green Deal or debates in, in the UK about, you know, how do we kind of compete with these really large economic bloc’s, Europe, China and the United States. But in short, we see all over the world the rise of or much more activist state. And I think for those that think of Smith as a, as a classical liberal, and I think there’s a lot to be said about in truth in that is that the state being back is confronting, right. So I think there’s a lot of causes a lot of consternation for those particular those that I think would describe themselves as libertarian, they’re saying that there’s even more state. And I would like to ask a few questions about, you know, that and, you know, in terms of, because when we think about the state when we think about the public private divide. Smith isn’t so specific. Right? I mean, obviously, he, he’s generally in favour in his pre capitalist kind of pre industrial time of, of freeing individuals to kind of make those decisions, you know, the kind of major massive kind of industrial conglomerations that we have today didn’t exist then. And, you know, arguably, in Smith, there’s, I think, a way of allowing for particular state even in when he talks about his system of natural liberty talks about public works, and, you know, what constitutes public works, right. So he’s thinking about bridges and, and, and things like water. But he also includes things like public education, right. And you know, when you think about the scope of that, and I think I’ve read, some people say, Yeah, but he’s only talking about primary education, anything after that it’s, you know, should be for the private sector, but then they actually think Well, yeah, but we’ve advanced Just in, you know, education has become massive. And then you know, you can’t just simply go into primary school and expect to get a job. I mean, you have to have higher levels of learning. And so, you know, it forces us to ask these some really important questions. And that’s why I say it’s, if we just go with what Smith said, you know, he might have a different, different, you know, take on things today. Now, one interesting thing about kind of thinking about this public private divide is not being so specific as we think of, you know, privatisation is great, except when you privatise water in England, and it turns out to be a disaster, and the outcomes aren’t actually good. And so you can imagine contexts where it’s not so simple to kind of take this line of the state should stay back. However, you know, the problem of over enthusiastic, I think, expectations, this sort of man of system he talks about, and the concentration of power, I think, would have Smith, if we look at him as being kind of cautious on, you know, when you see the rise of the state now in terms of attract, you know, going after these big, big problems as being necessary. And I think those on the left are get excited about it. And those on the right, though, these days, you look across, like right and left, and they’re all one bigger state, which I think is interesting.
Ganeshan, for example, you know, multinational conglomerates didn’t really exist. But when there was the East India Company, for example. So, you know, this mess perspective on that, yeah, so
what’s really interesting about Smith in some of his writings of the East India Company, so it was really critical. But one thing I because I do a lot of thinking on on state owned enterprises, and sovereign wealth funds, and I’ve written a lot about those, and I interact with actual existing ones today, and what’s interesting is that his critique of the East India Company is not so much as it being this, this, you know, kind of state owned, if you like, operation, what he was critical of is that it took on sovereign powers. So it was a company that then went to India and then became the sovereign. And in in the process, any of its commercial aptitude was lost, because it confused. It’s, it’s, it’s what it was doing. And so, you know, in my interpretation of this for the 21st century, I think to myself, well, and I think about this in terms of actually analysing actually existing state owned enterprises and state owned institutional investors is that many of them are being set up, as, you know, in the in the in the guise of being operating like private sector actors and competing, like private sector actors, in a way that they’re they’re trying to shed as much of their sovereign kind of attachment, they might be owned by a government, but they’re actually operating and trying to compete in global markets, just as a private company. And I wonder what what would Smith think about that? And how he would think about that. And, you know, it’s not so simple to say that, and I think, you know, so that’s where you have to be careful in kind of having a prescriptive view of Smith. And it’s more about when we think about the concentration of power, right. So what he would be concerned about is a very large, you know, state company that purports to be private and competing on private markets, you know, crowding out competition and making and disrupting markets. But
I think there’s a lot more to unpack there, but perhaps in the interest of time, because, again, yeah, we can dig into that with the audience in a few minutes. But the second of our big themes that we want to explore with you, I guess, is climate change. So, you know, I hope that there’s little doubt know that we must address that as a matter of both mitigation and adaptation. And but the challenge is that our global economy has been fueled by hydrocarbons for so long. And that’s not easy to accomplish. So what perspectives does thinking like Adam Smith bring to that highly challenging question, even if the details were not far in the future from Smith’s perspective? So
I think, what, what is valuable in Smith is that, again, thinking of as not being prescriptive, as he’s he wants, he allows for experimentation. And that’s why he likes markets, right? Because it allows for this kind of diversity of action. And, as you mentioned, there’s few doubt that we need to do something about about climate change. But again, you know, our economy has been driven by hard hydrocarbons since from, you know, the time that Smith was actually starting to, you know, to write and then, and it’s not so easily kind of unpacked. So I think, you know, an ode to when we think about, you know, how we address climate change. It’s on the one hand, it’s an issue of technological innovation. But then there’s also the bigger issues around and I’ll come to you on, on adaptation and mitigation in the places in the countries that really matters, right. So I think, what we don’t know is what mitigation strategies and what technologies will necessary saralee work, I mean, we have a lot of experiments on going. But it isn’t necessarily clear which ones will work and be the end, I don’t think it will ever be one particular solution. And, and I think this shows that there’s important. There’s important kind of role for markets and experimentation. Now, the bigger question, though is, it goes back to the other point about how much state intervention is needed and where and that’s where you see a lot of, you know, governments throwing a lot of subsidising when they are already over subsidised car hydrocarbons too much. But I think it’s you know, how there’s even even when you see a lot of projects that are now it’s like, the US government’s funding a lot of things. Now, with interest rates going up, a lot of those projects are even not kind of, of interesting. And so it’s I think it’s the way Smith would approach that is how can we allow for further experimentation? I think that’s what we’re actually doing. Right? So I mean, you think it’s there’s quite a bit of things happening. But I think the bigger challenge is the real transformation. And as much as we would like to go to net zero here in the UK or other advanced economies, it you know, our emissions are so little, currently, I mean, past emissions, it’s another story, but they’re so so low that we can go to net zero, but that’s not going to change the climate, what really matters is making you know is will India go net zero will subSaharan and go after. And those are countries that want cheap, reliable energy. And so the the question is that and they want it for their own development. And this is where I think the question for Smith would be in this as a question for us. I think this is the question that’s going to happen at COP 28 is that it’s you compare and contrast, Glasgow, 26, and then cop, 28, and UAE. And I think it’s a different, it’s interesting to see. And sorry, if I’m going off on a tangent, I tend to do that. But it’s interesting to see how Glasgow was held up quite high. And then because UAE is hosting it, and it’s a hydrocarbon rich country, it’s almost being boycotted by some people, because it’s not taken as as legitimate. Yet, it’s that part of the world. And it’s the developing world that looks at this as saying, Well, wait a minute, you know, it’s great for you in in the north to advance climate change mitigation. But, you know, we’re the ones that are going to have to suffer and adapt, and how are you going to facilitate that? And I think what Smith would want to see is, yeah, how can we make markets work better to to get the innovations out there and get those diffused? But I think he would also, you know, yeah, be concerned with with some of the grand pronouncements that you have from governments that come around, but we’re going to tackle this and he would show some scepticism not saying that we shouldn’t do that. But he would approach it that
way. Yeah, that seems consistent with what you were saying, again, about coming at things from a position of reality rather than idealism. Okay, so to again, just set the scene for the broader discussion that will follow in a few minutes, or our third theme to throw into the mixer is technology and AI. So, you know, that’s not one where we can look to Adam Smith for insights on the technological impact. But what about insights on some of the broader socio political issues that we’re now confronting in that sphere? Right.
So I mean, the thing I think with, with AI and technology general is, was there’s two points. One is that I think we, we often, you know, when when we think about the transformational potential is that we often overestimate, but then at the same time, underestimate the distress disruption, partly because we don’t know what will be disruptive. So I mean, we take AI, for example. And there, you know, we have seen enough progress to think, okay, it’s going to be disruptive. But this the jury’s still out, well, how disruptive will it be to the labour market, and we’ve seen that across the last 200 plus years that through technological change, yet disruption, there’ll be people that lose out on work and stuff, but then we’d seem to be able to move to a situation where were people in one, you know, when the technology’s moved on to so there’s always that Labour labour market issue. And I think, you know, going to Keynes, you know, I’m still waiting for that the what Keynes wrote about where, you know, the we work with a 20 hour week, and we’re still we’re still trying to get there. And every time we have all these new new kinds of technologies, we don’t seem to be getting more. It just seems to be changing things. And I think the bigger questions which Smith would be interested in around artificial intelligence, which again, you know, I’m not offering something that’s necessarily super unique, but I think he would be asking the questions that we’re asking about this Who controls these algorithms? Who controls our data? Who controls the use of these? And how is that governed? Right? And is it public and private, and we, we saw just a couple of weeks ago with open AI, the kind of really interesting company almost goes blow blew up, because you know, there was a big fight between the nonprofit board. But then at the same time, the what nonprofit board didn’t want the CEO to push further because they were worried about the the advancement, but I think it probably mainly came down to the struggles of the nonprofits, or more idealistic to the issues of wealth, AI requires a lot of computing power. And that requires a lot of money and a lot of chips and a lot of investment. And this is where the kind of energy and a lot of energy, right, and so this is where the kind of ideal of but then you come into that situation of how its governed. And you see that being played out in a private corporation, as well as in the broader, you know, debates that we’re having. With there’s a few weeks ago, the AI Summit here in Britain about, you know, who controls these things? And I think those are the the questions that Adam Smith would, would ask, right is, you know, you know, how do we balance between fostering and creating innovation, versus kind of like constraining it, I think that’s always the thing as you if we over regulate something, then we kill it before it’s, you know, provides us the, the emancipatory kind of potential with it. And, you know, I think he would also be concerned with the surveillance society aspect issues around privacy, and how in particular, it liberal governments, though it seems to happen, and even in Liberal governments kind of the overuse of data for nefarious purposes, or invading our privacy. And I think but the other question, and this kind of gets to, you know, Theory of Moral Sentiments, kind of perspective of Smith is that he would likely be concerned, as I think we all are, and have been for the last, you know, the, since particularly smartphones came around is about them. What does it mean, and social media is the erosion of real life, interactions and human human creativity, I mean, those trying to think about what chat GPT means for teaching, and students and think about everyday, and it’s really quite sad, because, you know, you think, you know, that we have to worry about that, because students are not motivated to write and do things. And, and, you know, just the sense of, you know, I mean, this is why it’s so great to have a room full of people to speak to and see in real, real life. It’s great, though, that we have people that are able to join in, and listen, I think that’s also useful, useful. So I think it’s, you know, understanding that the erosion of our of our kind of human condition, and particularly in young people, so these kinds of questions that we ask, and that’s how that’s how we would, you would wonder how its regulated, I
presented a discussion recently about the impact of generative AI on learning, teaching and assessment. And I was expecting my colleague to say something like, you know, it makes you wonder what the value of i was expecting them to finish, you know, a degree would be, they said, makes you wonder what the value of being human is. Yeah, you know, which was taking it one step further, but I suppose that’s the trajectory we’re on. Anyway, hopefully, that’s given you a good flavour of a range of topics that we would encourage you to, to know join in with, or indeed, other questions or comments that you have. So I open it to the floor. And we’ve also got the opportunity to hear questions from our online guests as well. So over here, we’ve got roving microphones. So if you wait till the microphone arrives, that way, our guests online will hear you loud and clear as well. Thank you.
Thank you very much. Indeed, Chris gar, Edinboro University Business School in terms of discombobulating experience, experiences, I would have thought, and Smith would find it wildly exciting the extent to which the model of the market that you had is gone kind of global and, and that, that almost retreat from feudalism can’t be taken for granted. And certainly, China the change there from authoritarianism and so on America following suit. So and the division of labour has gone global, but the thing that perhaps it wouldn’t have anticipated and that would have shocked him, is the extent of global concentration. There are now very few well 80% of sectors are not fragmented. They’re not national, they are global. What in my book will be called Global oligopolies, his pin industry by 1980. There’s only four major global players. So surely, going back to the East India Company, you That is the thing that would have, he’d have loved to see updated and debated. So.
Right. So I mean, I guess the question is, is our markets functioning as they should, in the Smithian sense of, you know, he thinks of the concentration, right. So his idea was, you know, and this, I think, is what’s important about, but that is exactly the point of not trying to actualize Smith from the 18th century to this day, because when he was thinking about the pin factory, when he was thinking about market interactions, it was actually much, much smaller scale. And, you know, he talks about the brewer and the butcher and the baker, and these are kind of small businesses. And now we have these massive, global, highly concentrated, increasingly, some of those are state owned, concentrated kind of forms of capital, and that, you, right, have an effect of how much market competition is there, right, and how much of this thing and this I think he would be potentially disturbed by. But at the same time, I don’t want to get actualize his thought and say that he would think, Oh, this goes against the model that I have. Because again, we have benefited massively from the the extension of the division of labour in terms of, maybe it’s not good for us, but we’re able to have much more stuff, right, and, you know, not in such a case for kind of consumer kind of society, but at the same time, it is reflective of, you know, we’re able to create more from less. And those large, you know, those large corporations and large kind of conglomerates come together for a particular reason. I think the bigger issue is who’s creaming off the profits, right? But the actual productive aspects, you know, is one one, I think is not necessarily to say that markets aren’t working.
Other questions when they’re?
Hi, thank you for your lecture and glad to be part of this discussion. I guess I have two questions. Kind of a two part question. So the first part being, in our present age with so much critique around the capitalist model, do you think that it is actually possible for a society, whether that be as individuals or collective nation and beyond? Do you think that it’s possible for us to continue to evolve without a capitalistic incentivization whether that be through technology, through medicine, through business, through education. And also, the second part being, I guess, discussion around how capitalism has actually lifted people out of poverty globally, by creating extra resources. Yet, it’s thought that if we all had our needs met, and we lived in the Roman garden, and we had a universal basic income, we will continue to innovate, and to cut edge of science and write poetry and whatnot, but actually, you need a bit of suffering, to push yourself in into a situation that has that deprivation, which is where you actually create resources. So I’m just wondering how that all plays in into the hand of this conversation and how we continue to move forward and develop, if we actually have our needs met? Would that actually sink us? And the second part being that is there a way to function as a society without capitalism? Or is that actually impossible? Okay, just revert into the key? Yeah,
no, no. Fascinating question. I mean, so I think so. So I’m not a galleon like Marx was, so I don’t expect that, you know, we’re going to kind of come to a fifth stage. And I, I mean, I’d like thinking about, you know, how capitalism, you know, evolves. I’m very sceptical that it will collapse, though it could again, this is going to be speculative. And this, I think, you know, Smith would not speculate that, you know, you know, the Roman Empire lasted for 1000 years or something like that. So, it’s not that what we have now is, I mean, I think some people always think it would be collapsed. But think to say, and this is what Marx or Smith would likely say, if you were able to kind of observe what has happened is, he would be he would, he would, he would say that look how dynamic capitalism is and how much it is. It’s the most dynamic and this was even Karl Marx was able to recognise that capitalism was a very dynamic and innovative system. And I think the question goes to is that if you take those kind of like, as you mentioned, I think some of the the scarce resources and some of the the drive that that will, you know, you know, it’s like, if you get a trust fund, what do you do you kind of waste it. And you know, and I think you have to have that particular drive. And I, in as much as I’d like to think about, there’s an ideal form after that’s kind of less harmful. Socially and ecologically. I’m kind of less I’m sceptical, that that will, will come about. And I think the the, when you look at the experience of China, which the CCP, you know, you can say it’s the Communist Party of China, but at the same time, it’s lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, partly because it’s capitalist, and it’s become part of a capitalist world system. And, yeah, that capitalist world system has its has limits, but I don’t suspect that it’s going to collapse anytime soon. And I think Smith attitude or Smith, how he would approach it, he would probably say, I mean, if you look at the 20th century, people say, well, they tried something different, though, some people would say that, you know, the Soviet Union was was state capitalist, and it was wasn’t actual existing socialism. But that’s another debate. But he would say, Well, what is the historical record shown? And really, it’s if you capitalism has been persistent, and it’s unlikely to collapse anytime soon.
We had a question in front, just before recommend to that, I just wanted to note that I was struck by the comments in your lecture about the emergence of scientific thinking in societies that have reached the point where they’re no longer essentially worrying about where the next meal is coming from. And that I think, is interesting. Tekin with your fascinating question, that if you go too far, and maybe that yeah, you know, we lose the drive for innovation for for scientific inquiry, if if our lives become, you know, too, too easy?
Well, I mean, I don’t think it’s a question of things being too easy, because it’s, you need that, that ease to, you know, we need to not be worrying about subsistence and precarity. And this is where I think when we look at Smith, and when he was concerned about the division of labour, and he was worried about the monotony of it, and he was worried. That’s why he was it was a proponent of public education, cuz he was worried about, you know, those that would just sit and work in a factory all day. Yeah. And that’s why he wanted public works. And, you know, there’s kind of one of this flourishing of culture and other thing to kind of, you know, promote, you know, he saw the downsides of the further specialisation and this I think, for us as a liberal open society, we can’t just sit there and think that the market is going to, I mean, the market provides, but at the same time, we want we to allow that agency, we need to make sure that those worse off debts can still participate. Because we want them to, you don’t know who the next Einstein is going to be Virtru. You know, this is why we don’t want to have a closed society, we want to be able to create the opportunities for people to flourish, sometimes creating the opportunities for flourishing is about, you know, allowing markets to do their thing. But sometimes it’s also about creating those conditions for people for science and, and inquiry and, and free time for people to think. I think that’s important.
Thank you. So let’s go to that question in front.
Hi. So I was wondering, I thought it was interesting, this question about increased state intervention and how you said, both the left and the right, today seem to want more state intervention intervention. And it got me thinking, why is that? And what aspects of society today make people want more interventions? And just thinking about what you said about the decreasing social interactions between people today with technology? I wonder, is there some kind of a lack of trust between fellow citizens and people would have less trust in private enterprise or for private companies to do things for good and not just for profits? Do you have any thoughts on that?
Technology at work? So the at the answer, the first question, I think is, is it depends on where and how so I think when I say the right and the left, you’d look at the take the United States, for example. You know, the Republican Party likes to think you know, they’re, you know, they’re the budget responsible ones yet they they increase spending, they vote for all the kind of massive spending massive spending increases and they have done for decades. You look across Europe, those parties considered populace, do you look at their pros or their programmes, and they’re they’re quite heavy on kind of state intervention and kind of social programmes. So that’s why I say that it’s not simply a easy kind of left, right, split. But what we mean by state intervention generally, I mean, part of things are, they’re driven by, in the global context, the rise of China, as well. So European governments, I think, across the end in North America as well, they’re, they’re responding to China’s state capitalism by becoming their own kind of state capitalist. I think that’s one. One point to point out that the second question on on trust. I mean, this is where if we want to think like Smith, he, he didn’t necessarily have a preference for public or private. So in as much as we’d like to think of Smith as this critic of, of big government, that’s true, but at the same time, he wasn’t necessarily that doesn’t mean that he necessarily would have trusted a private authority as well. And I think that’s an important point to take from Smith is that he, he was kind of what wouldn’t necessarily put his trust in the state more than than a private, private company. And I think that’s the way we should, it’s good that we should trust in a democracy or governments. It’s bad if we don’t, but I think, you know, that doesn’t mean as active citizens, we should just kind of sit back. Right. So I think it’s the more about the active citizen aspect of it. That would be important for Smith.
Thank you. And I think Hannah has a question for mine. Maybe you’re gonna read it for Asana?
Yes, I am. Indeed. Yes. We’ve got a question from an online he says, If Adam Smith’s basic principles is to first assemble the facts, how should we deal with a world where facts are disputed?
Great, great question. Fantastic
question. So I think it so I would say that the woods, you know, it’s by Yeah. So one thing is like, we should assemble more facts. I think Smith would say that we can be objective, in some facts, and we can debate the other ones. But I think it’s that idea of, of an open society where we have we foster debate that we kind of can work towards, we know what are the facts? And what aren’t the facts? Right. So I think it’s it’s not sort of putting people in camps saying, These are the facts. And it’s through that dispute. And that’s why we should have more debate and more open, you know, where’s people I think, are afraid to debate things, or, because, but I think if we find out through debate and through conversation, we could have come to agreement on what the facts are. And I think disagreement is fine. Right? I think that’s, that’s what we have to accept in an open society.
If I may, just waiting, making a virus, you know, to some extent, we both are tonight, but But particularly, um, you know, looking at this login knowledge made useful, and looking at the legacy that the Royal Society of Edinburgh has, you know, for me, what’s really critical is it being properly informed to be but that’s hard to shape in the modern world, because there is so much misinformation out there. So last week, I was at an event called signs in the parliament over dynamic air, of course, to Hollywood. And, you know, I think what we sought to discuss and debate in a healthy way with with our elected representatives was the value of education more broadly, but particularly in science and, and I put forward the view that perhaps the most important thing that we can convey through education in the 21st century is that ability to tell the difference between the the information and the misinformation. And that for me, although you’ve used as an appropriate code word, facts, you know, actually, you know, facts are always going to be subject to one’s assumptions. But equipping people with the tools to be able to make those judgments for themselves, it’s critical,
I think, just to follow on I mean, there’s what I find kind of somewhat concerning, is the I mean, you, you mentioned that there’s so much in misinformation, and I think there’s a risk of governments and regulators to wanting to censor, you know, sensor what they think is misinformation. Because I think a lot of these efforts to censor misinformation, you start peeling across pulling it apart, and you think, well, they made this assumption that’s misinformation because of these particular assumptions. And I think it’s that’s where I think the question is more important. That’s where Smith I think we’d be more interested in is what is what is the reaction to disputes on the facts? And I think if, you know, and this takes us into the question of censorship, which I think he would be very sceptical of as as actually working, right? So the the way you fight misinformation is not by, you know, saying it’s more information. So by providing more facts and providing more space, but it’s also about, you know, educating the citizens. And I think it’s also about allowing for people to disagree on different points
in order not to illustrate that point, I firmly agree with that. Yes. I respect the position of potential disagreement. Are there any more questions from the room? Or indeed from online? Yep, got one at the back.
I just want to say, what do you think are some of the limitations of Smith’s thinking in today’s world? Where do you think, to what extent can we apply Smith’s thinking? Is it to the extent of thinking about AI that we find some limitations within Smith’s thinking or within terms of generate over technological advancement? Because I think you mentioned before that Smith’s time is quite limited in the sense that it was pre capitalist and pre democratic. And how do you reconcile that essentially?
So I don’t. So I think that the point about him being in a different period, there’s still a lot and Smith that we can use to inform us on contemporary issues. Right. So again, I think going back to the point of his time was different, but he was still interested in, you know, who controlled things, what was the power? Right. And I think that so many of the questions that we debate with today is, well, who’s controlling this? And who, who’s deciding how, how, a particular course of action, so I think, you know, things like AI, many of the governance issues are not, not necessarily new to, to what we faced in terms of technological innovation in the past. And so that’s why I think, looking at Smith Anniken. The point too, is that, you know, we’re celebrating Smith here this evening, but there’s so many other thinkers, and that’s why the kind of the message I wanted to give about is that, you know, we can look to Smith, but he’s not the only thinker. And again, it’s the bigger point is that it’s our own agency, and our own kind of capacity to think and ask these questions. Yeah, referring to, you know, some of these past thinkers, but for guidance or for wisdom, but to also not just put them up as an icon. And that’s why I think many, you know, Smith Knight might not be appropriate for every social, economic or innovation problem that we have. But there’s still a lot of insight that that we can draw from him. But I think it’s this it’s, for me, it’s this the spirit of Smith and more importantly, the the spirit of the Scottish Enlightenment and what it kind of brought for the creation of the modern university in the modern modern world in ways that it forces to ask questions systematically, and to research and to, but to also be creative in thinking about the possibilities and being honest about what we know and what we don’t know. Well,
sadly, our time is almost stuck. It seems like a very positive note in which to end as we acknowledge the contribution that Smith made to that Scottish Enlightenment and the legacy that it’s created for all of our society, but specifically the Royal Society of Edinburgh. So we’re delighted that you’re able to join us to share and the celebration of Smith’s legacy. And I’d like to thank everyone in the room for joining us this evening, and also, our our guests online. So let’s thank Adam again. Thank you. Thank you so much.