HPS Colloquium - Joel Isaac. “The Twentieth Century’s Adam Smith Problem”

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Location: 310 DeBartolo

 “The Twentieth Century’s Adam Smith Problem”

Joel Isaac

This paper presents a counter-history of Adam Smith's reception in the twentieth century.  Instead of itemizing the many but superficial attempts to claim Smith's mantle by economists and political scientists, the paper explores the puzzling irrelevance of Smithian ideas in development economics and in growth and trade models emerging from the neoclassical tradition.  Smith's absence seems especially striking in connection with Allyn Young's pioneering but ultimately marginalized attempt to construct a Smithian growth theory in his seminal 1928 essay on increasing returns and economic development.  Displaced from mainstream economics, these ideas emerged instead in the history of political thought in the 1970s and 1980s.  The intellectual topography that emerges from this account yields some valuable insights into the recent history of the social sciences.

Dr. Joel Isaac is a lecturer in the history of modern political thought at the University of Cambridge.