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Homo Economicus

John Bradley
Adam Smith: What He Thought, and Why it Matters, by Jesse Norman, Allen Lane, 400 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0241328491 There are very few people about whom it can be said that they fundamentally changed the way we think about and interpret the world. In the field of natural science, as distinct from that of social sciences, it is easier to identify such revolutions in thought. Prior to any such change, the field of knowledge in question is often in a very unsatisfactory state. Old theories have been found to be inadequate. Data have accumulated, investigators grope their way through a fog towards a better way of thinking, but uncertainty reigns. Out of such uncertainty, and from a synthesis of a mass of uncoordinated knowledge and data, there emerges a dramatically new paradigm that changes the world forever. One thinks of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, published in 1642, which brought clarity and simplicity to the way that we think about such diverse phenomena as apples falling from trees and the motions of distant planets. One would include Charles Darwin in this select band, where the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859 changed the way that we understand and interpret the natural world and the role in it of living creatures, including humankind. In the early years of the last century, Albert Einstein initiated a major revolution in the way we think about space, time and gravity; here one cannot point to any single publication that heralded the change. In our modern era new findings tend to emerge first in scientific journals, are then discussed within the profession, and subsequently are often interpreted and synthesised by teams of collaborators. Nevertheless, the breakthrough of the Special and General Theories of Relativity are unquestionably associated with Einstein. The new book on Adam Smith by Jesse Norman provides a welcome opportunity to consider whether Smith’s innovations can be placed alongside those of people like Newton, Darwin and Einstein. In other words, did Smith do for the social sciences, and for economics in particular, what Newton, Darwin and Einstein did for branches of natural science? Here we are not talking about Smith being just one more contributor, even a significant one, to the evolution of what was then referred to as “political economy”. Rather, we ask if the publication of his two great works ‑ The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry…

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