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Adam Smith's America: How a Scottish Philosopher Became an Icon of American Capitalism


Adam Smith was one of the most influential and iconic figures in the evolution of American economic thought. In her book Adam Smith’s America: How Scottish Philosophers Became Symbols of American Capitalism, Glory Liu, a lecturer in Social Studies at Harvard, traces the reception and influence of Adam Smith’s ideas in American thought, politics, and culture from the eighteenth century to today. She draws on a wealth of illuminating archival material to tell the story of how an obscure Scottish philosopher captured the American imagination and shaped American economic and political philosophy. On April 21, the Institute of Area Studies, Peking University, specially invited Glory Liu to give a lecture, which was titled Adam Smiths America: How a Scottish Philosopher Became an Icon of American Capitalism. The salon was moderated by Kong Yuan, an associate research fellow of the Institute of European Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and the discussion was attended by Prof. Zhang Yongle, deputy director of PKUIAS; Kang Zixing, associate professor, Beihang University; Zhao Yutao, assistant professor, Sun Yat-sen University; and Zhang Zhengping, associate professor, Zhejiang University.

At the beginning of the Salon, Glory Liu said that her perspective in writing her book was “a history of the reception of Adam Smith’s thought”. Although the book was called Adam Smith’s America, it was really about America’s Adam Smith and how Americans encountered, reinterpreted and debated Adam Smith throughout the ages, she said.

In order to highlight the main ideas and themes of the book, Glory Liu employed Collini’s method of the four stages of canonization:

1. The author’s works are living resources. At this stage, the author’s works are immediately relevant to the political debates that surround the author’s life. His ideas, pronouncements and opinions might get invoked in major discussions on substantive issues.

2. People begin to invoke the author’s ideas, including declaring themselves his followers or seeking to be recognized as followers. An opposition subsequently emerges in tandem.

3. The intellectual authority of the author takes hold. For Collini, this is a crucial turning point. Most authors, he claims, only pass through the first two stages. And so, what distinguishes this third phase about intellectual authority is that the symbolic value of a thinker appears to matter much more than the content of his ideas. Thus, the author merely becomes a totem or a mascot—that is, a recognizable image for followers to align themselves with or distance themselves from.

4. The author is canonical or becomes canonical. While the author in his work may not have “current political resonance”, he is nevertheless recognized as having acquired a kind of classic status or has become an object of purely scholarly inquiry.

For stage one, Liu outlined Adam Smith’s significant contributions to the humanities. During Smith’s lifetime, an elite cadre of American statesmen and thinkers saw his works as contributions to science and the enlightenment of man. Both The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations were well known and important texts during the founding era.

As for the second stage, Liu recounted how Adam Smith’s perspective and writings became the catalyst for the emergence of a new discipline. By the mid-19th century, those who had the occasion to write, comment on or engage with Smith’s ideas could be sorted into the categories of disciples and detractors. With the development and institutionalization of the academic field of political economy, Adam’s signature oeuvre, The Wealth of Nations, became the agreed upon departure point for the discipline.

As far as the third stage is concerned, Liu said it was difficult to determine exactly when Adam Smith’s authority became established. According to Collini, an author can be said to have become an authority when he/she becomes a symbol or a part of a tradition in more general cultural terms. With respect to Smith, this was evident in the debates about tariffs and laissez-faire in the last quarter of the 19th century, Liu said.

In the last stage, there is no question that in both academic and public discourse, Smith has attained the status of a classic thinker; however, the fact that he is and has been an object of scholarly inquiry in no way detracts from his political resonance or practical importance.

Liu called attention to why we constantly return to his ideas. Per Liu, Smith introduced a way of seeing the world, a world on the cusp of social, political and economic transformation on a global scale. Most importantly, he dared to ask a set of central questions that had not gone away—indeed, that Liu believed would never go away: What kind of a commercial society do we want to live in? Does the rule of law guarantee the basic security of our life and our possessions from the violent domination of private or public actors, groups, or individuals? What happens when wealth and power align in politics? Liu wrapped up her introduction by stating that if we were interested in these issues, we would be more likely to approach them through the lens of Adam Smith’s views.

In the discussion session, Prof. Kang Zixing first commented on Lius speech and asked two questions: “How did American elites, especially the founding fathers during the revolution, think of Smith’s plan for America? Were there any echoes on this issue in America?” and According to many scholars, the financial crisis of 2008 challenged Smith’s significance in the field of political economy. How do American scholars think of Adam Smith political economy after 2008, especially in regard to the government of Trump and Biden?” For the first question, Liu said that in her research, she didn’t find much about how Smith’s thoughts on the American Revolution may have been used by the revolutionaries. That could be because Smith’s opinions were considered quite radical and dangerous at the time. For the second question, Liu said she had speculated a bit at the very end of her book. Per Liu, 2008 was a turning point for Smith scholars. People looking at Smith’s “Moral Theory” in connection with his political economy understand why Smith might have thought that high levels of economic inequality were objectionable, because inequality distorts our sympathies.

Liu’s presentation was followed by Zhang Zhengping’s comments and ideas. Zhang Zhengping mentioned that there might be three stories behind the American reception of Adams Smith. The first story was the rise of US as a national state since 1776 and the history of its competition with Great Britain and other national states. The second was about rediscovery, or different interpretations of Smith’s other books, such as The Theory of Moral Sentiments and the Lectures of Jurisprudence. The third story was about the understanding and misunderstanding of Adam Smith’s works.

Further comments were made during the discussion by Zhao Yutao. She said that the political reasons for the ideological reading of Smith deserved further explanation, for example, we could ask: What were the reasons for the success of the Chicago School? What was the political context in which they gained influence? Zhao Yutao then gave her own answer: We can place the rise of the Chicago School within the context of the Cold War when the rise of the USin global capitalism and neoliberal policies enhanced the political and ideological power of the US as an alternative to Marxism and interventionism. More importantly, US industry, including manufacturing and finance, reaped enormous profits from the global free market. To a considerable extent, as long as the US benefits from neoliberalism, Americans will be subject to the authority of the Chicago School. As long as the US remains the most powerful force in modern capitalism, the American understanding of Smith will shape the global scholarly discussion of Adam Smith. With this in mind, we can better understand why, even though global Smith studies are very rich, it has focused in the past and present on debates on American topics. In this sense, we can say that Adam Smith will always be the Adam Smith of the US. The “Smith of the world” has always been influenced by the “Adam Smith of America”. At the same time, the relationship between Smith’s economics and its political and moral implications still needs to be studied. We need to consider further whether there is a tension between Smith’s economics, morality and political philosophy.