Adam Smith Would Not Recognize What We Call Capitalism



The Teaching Company has a wide array of lectures by what it calls “the world’s greatest professors.” I have purchased more than my share of their offerings, not because I often found them illuminating, and certainly not because I found the lectures scintillating nor compelling. Rather, I keep hoping that 1 or 2 of them might live up to the glowing recommendations fashioned by the firm’s marketing staff. Most lectures are quite ordinary, reminding you of the incredible talent it takes to talk and talk and talk with any chance at all of holding the attention of your audience.

Happily, I stumbled upon a tremendous exception. The historian of ideas, Jerry Muller at Catholic University, produced a thoughtful collection of lectures in the Teaching Company catalog called “Thinking about Capitalism. I learned a great deal from this series:

1. The importance of Edmund Burke as a sometime critic of capitalism

2. The complexity of Adam Smith’s analysis of market thinking.

3. The importance of recognizing the promise and hideousness of a market economy, dependent on the extent to which citizens insist on creating institutions that defang selfishness.

4. The tight link between the capitalist narrative and competitive market structure; the subsequent loss of any moral justification for capitalism once that structure is reduced to an intellectual antique stored in the modern economics textbook.

5. The importance of Smith’s Lectures on Jurisprudence for understanding Smith’s eventual fears of a capitalism of the dominant.

In brief, these lectures are the most sophisticated and nuanced treatment of capitalism I have ever encountered. They highlight the canyon of difference between what capitalism can be and what it has become.


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