Was Adam Smith Really Like Freakonomics Suggests?

podcast biography adam smith biography podcast review

Sarah Skwire for AdamSmithWorks

The Freakonomics podcast offers criticisms of too-left or too-right interpretations of Adam Smith but fails to present the connections between Smith's two major works. Skwire takes on episode 2 of "In Search of the Real Adam Smith."
The second episode of the Freakonomics Radio series on Adam Smith, "Was Adam Smith Really a Right-Winger?" leaves the question of Smith as a person aside, and dives fairly heavily into some inside baseball about the Chicago School of economics and how it has interpreted Smith.

That Chicago interpretation, the podcast suggests, has been picked up by conservatives and used in support of free market ideas that, depending on who you ask, may or may not have been supported by Smith. By far the largest part of the podcast is given over to left and right interpretations of Smith and criticism of how the other side has gotten it wrong. It serves as a fine example of the ways in which Smith’s work is used. I found myself much in sympathy with Glory Liu’s aggravated observation that, 
You have people from both sides of the debate — free trade and protectionism — being, like, “Ah, but Adam Smith —.” “Oh, look at what Adam Smith said.” “Oh, even the apostle of free trade said that the home market was really important.” And so you start to see that, like, the intellectual authority matters. It’s not Smith’s ideas that matter that much anymore. It’s his authority.
I wanted more ideas. So this episode came alive for me with the discussion of “Das Adam Smith Problem,” which, again in sympathy with Liu, I tend to see as a “pseudo-problem.” (Das Adam Smith Problem, in fact, seems to be the Smith studies equivalent of the authorship debate in Shakespeare studies. It’s something about which everyone has heard, about which a lot of non-specialists have intense and often odd opinions, and in which specialists are entirely uninterested.) The nuanced responses of Dennis Rasmussen and Glory Liu to questions about Das Adam Smith problem served to emphasize how unhelpful it is to try to claim that either Wealth of Nations or Theory of Moral Sentiments offers us the “real Smith” or that there is some meaningful and insurmountable fissure between the two works.

Much like the modern politicians who wrangle endlessly over how Smith would vote on 21st century issues, this kind of approach to Smith simply misses the point. You can spend your time on it, but what’s actually been accomplished as a result?

It’s not surprising that an economics podcast would focus on the economic debates about Smith. But it is disappointing that--in a series that began by pointing out the problem of the “tug of war” between the left and the right over whether Smith is a “sympathy” guy or a “free market” guy--it is not until a full hour into the 75 minute second episode that we get much discussion of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Happily, it is EconTalk’s Russ Roberts who provides that discussion, so we are in good hands. Frustratingly, Freakonomics mostly invites Roberts to talk about how TMS is vastly different from WON, perpetuating Das Adam Smith problem all over again, rather than inviting him to highlight connections and interplay between the works. That’s a task that Roberts is uniquely qualified to do, and I would have loved to hear him do it.

Want more?
Glory Liu on the Smith Questionnaire
Steven Horwitz's Seeing the Invisible Bridge in Adam Smith
Dennis C. Rasmussen's The Infidel and the Professor: The Friendship of Adam Smith and David Hume
Russ Robert's Adam Smith: Moral Hypocrite? (Defining Ideas, Hoover Institute)