Handbook of Economics and Ethics
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Handbook of Economics and Ethics

Edited by Jan Peil and Irene van Staveren

The Handbook of Economics and Ethics portrays an understanding of economic methodology in which facts and values, though distinct, are closely interconnected in a variety of ways. From theory building to data collection, and from modelling to policy evaluation, this encyclopaedic Handbook is at the intersection of economics and ethics.
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Chapter 65: Adam Smith

Jan Peil


Jan Peil Typing ‘Adam Smith’ into a search engine for scientific publications on economics retrieves an extensive literature about the principles of economics dated since the 1970s, when discussions on these principles were revived (compare Peil 1999; Tribe 1999; Wight 2002). Until then the works of Smith (1723–90) were of interest to only a small group of scholars on the history of economic thought. Outside this small circle of experts, Smith’s economic analysis and theories were considered outdated. His ideas however – such as those related to human nature and the market mechanism – were often quoted in support of the mainstream approach of (neo)classical economics or to invoke an opponent against whom it was easy to present alternative views on the economics subject matter and methods at hand. Adam Smith epitomized the trend in economics to conceive of an economy as a selfregulating mechanism: if individuals are free to act in accordance with their (human) nature – that is, in accordance with self-interest – the market mechanism will ensure a stable and optimal equilibrium. Various quotes are frequently used to confirm this interpretation of Smith: It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. (The Wealth of Nations (WN) I.ii.2) He, generally . . . neither intends to promote the publick interest,...

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