Did Freakonomics Find the Real Adam Smith?

podcast biography adam smith biography podcast review

Sarah Skwire for AdamSmithWorks

The Freakonomics podcast offers provides a solid introduction to Smith’s life and work, and a useful outlining of the perennial questions one hears about Smith. But it fails to live up to the aspirations of presenting a fuller, more human Smith and avoiding modern, political party tug-of-wars over his legacy.  
The third and final episode of the Freakonomics series on Adam Smith, "Can Adam Smith Fix Our Economy?" opens by dedicating a lot of airtime to an incredibly useful discussion with Maha Rafi Atal, from the University of Glasgow, on the important and much-neglected topic of Smith’s writings about  the East India Company. The discussion touches on questions like globalization, colonialism, monopolies, and companies so large they are practically countries in their own right. It’s fascinating both from a historical angle and from its pertinence to modern day concerns. It also avoids, throughout the discussion with Atal, the temptation of trying to drag their interviewee into the trap that Freakonomics claims to disdain, but keeps shoving people into--the attempt to put Smith firmly into one modern political party.

Some of the guests on the podcast, particularly playwright and author John Yule, are happy to do that, however. One has the sense that Yule is trying to “rescue” Smith from conservatives, and particularly from “the enemy” Margaret Thatcher. (By the way, unless Thatcher’s handbags were considerably more capacious than mine, I suspect that the rumor that she carried Wealth of Nations in her handbag is, as they say, greatly exaggerated.) Glory Liu and Eamonn Butler are more nuanced in their political understanding of Smith, with Butler suggesting “I don’t know that he’d be a member of any party, really” and Liu more or less declining to engage with the question of Smith and his imaginary 21st century political choices.

Craig Smith usefully pushes for a nuanced reading of Smith, and for an understanding that, because Smith’s work is poised at the beginnings of a modern commercial society and focused on exploring the good and bad that could arise from it, it does him a disservice to try to present him as simply pro or con any particular issue. He is, as Donald Winch noted, “infuriatingly balanced.” We are probably most accurate when we allow him to be so.

The episode closes with a visit to Smith’s gravesite and to Smith’s final home, Panmure House, which now hosts Smith-inspired debates and lectures and hosts a center to research sustainable capitalism.

The Freakonomics series on Smith is an interesting listen, and the many friends of AdamSmithWorks and EconTalk who are interviewed certainly acquit themselves well. But in the end, I remained unsatisfied. I’m not sure the discussion ever really accomplished the goal of presenting a fuller, more human Smith, and I’m certain that it never found a way out of the trap of politicians and activists pushing and pulling Smith’s work to make it align with their preferences, rather than trying to determine what Smith really said.

That said, the series provides a solid introduction to Smith’s life and work, and a useful outlining of the perennial questions one hears about Smith.