The Wealth of Nations: Adam Smith and the Origins of Political Economy

Instructor: Raphaële Chappe
Pioneer Works
159 Pioneer Street
Red Hook, Brooklyn

Adam Smith is generally regarded as the father of political economy and of “classical” economics. The Wealth of Nations provides the earliest comprehensive account of market society as a decentralized, “well-governed” system in which prices coordinate the efficient allocation of resources in a competitive economy. It is a multi-faceted work of epic sweep, introducing complex concepts such as the labor theory of value, the benefits of free trade, productivity and the division of labor, categories of economic analysis (profits, wages, interest and rent), and the determination of prices, as well as the famous images of the “invisible hand” and the pin factory—while also delivering a history of money and of Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire. Today, Smith is is still viewed as a crucial thinker in the field of economics—although plenty of economists these days never crack open his magnum opus. In this six-week course, we will attempt to formulate the central message of The Wealth of Nations in the context of Smith’s moral philosophy, and to trace Smith’s influence upon other major political economists.

The first half of the course will center upon The Wealth of Nations itself, as we explore Smith’s major insights on progress and economic growth; the origin of the “invisible hand” and whether there is a contradiction between the perfect competition of the invisible hand and the world of increasing returns described by the pin factory; whether Smith ought to be read as an unconditional apostle for economic liberalism and laissez-faire or if and how he anticipates many of the shortcomings of such a system; and whether the labor theory of value is still defensible today. We will follow these discussions with an exploration of the tension between Smith’s defense of a capitalist society and his moral philosophy, by studying excerpts from Smith’s other major work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, coupled with selections from David Hume’s Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. Finally, we will read selected writings from major figures such as Ricardo, Marx, Polanyi, Keynes and Kalecki. We will discuss their interpretations of Smith, as well as their major points of departure from his analysis. The course will conclude with an assessment of Smith’s contribution to our understanding of industrialization and market society, and the relevance of The Wealth of Nations in the twenty-first century.

Course Schedule

Thursday, 7:30-9:30pm
April 09 — May 21, 2015
6 sessions over 7 weeks

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