Political Economy Project hosts talk about the modern relevance of Adam Smith

About 50 students and community members gathered to hear Trinity University economics professor Maria Paganelli talk about Smith’s work, The Wealth of Nations.

by Varun Swaminathan | 10/4/22 5:05 am

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On Friday, September 30th, the Political Economy Project hosted a lecture entitled “Why Read Adam Smith Today” led by Trinity University economics professor Maria Paganelli. Paganelli spoke to about 50 students and parishioners about the importance of reading Adam Smith’s 1776 treatise, The Wealth of Nations.

In the talk — the first in a series of events hosted by the PEP this fall — Paganelli discussed the historical context of The Wealth of Nations, modern ideological attitudes toward Smith, and the “big questions” raised by the work and are still relevant today. Her prepared presentation was followed by a question and answer session with the audience.

Prior to the lecture, Professor Henry Clark – who serves as PEP’s program director – said in an interview that he hoped students would engage with the speaker, calling her a “strong believer” in the Socratic approach to teaching, which involves asking questions place.

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Paganelli opened the presentation with reasons why The Wealth of Nations is a bit out of date. Notably, she noted that Smith’s political examples centered on a now greatly shrunken British Empire, and further noted that many of his economic theories have been disproved. Then she compared The Wealth of Nations to the Bible, noting: “You may not agree with all of the content . . . and yet you read because you find something useful, even if some of the ideas are off the mark by today’s standards.”

Although Paganelli called some of its content outdated, he argued that readers should turn to Wealth of Nations “for the questions, not the answers,” the work raises. According to Paganelli, the original title of the work is actually “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations”, where the keyword is “Inquiry”. And that key question, Paganelli explained, is how to build an ideal economic system.

“Given the imperfect and imperfectable nature of mankind, what would a just system that also promotes the good of mankind look like?” said Paganelli.

Towards the end of her lecture, Paganelli drew attention to the “silent revolution of commerce” – a phenomenon described by Smith, in which commerce and production lead to order, good government, liberty and security.

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A Q&A session followed Pagnelli’s presentation. When asked about the concept of “quiet revolution,” Paganelli replied that commerce had peacefully replaced the feudal system and the church, stating that no army could have eliminated either institution without bloodshed.

In response to a student question about the connection between Smith’s writings and modern foreign aid and imperialism in Africa, Paganelli noted that the historical context in which Smith wrote this work was radically different from that of today.

“The eligibility for foreign aid was different at that time because it was unimaginable,” she said. “The closest you can get is, ‘How do I relate to other countries under my control?’ … in both situations, [Smith’s] The answer would be trade.”

Clark said in an interview that many “converging streams” led to Paganelli’s selection as the first speaker of that academic year. He said she was originally invited to speak in Dartmouth in April 2020, but that visit was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Her presentation has been postponed to this September to serve as a prelude to the PEP’s year-long schedule of activities centered around Smith as he turns three hundred years old in June 2023 – the 300th anniversary of his birth.

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Arne Grette ’25, a member of the PEP Executive Council, said his class and interest in international trade motivated him to attend Paganelli’s lecture. Though centuries old, modern international trade theory “still boils down to what Adam Smith wrote in the 18th century,” Grette said.

According to Clark, a number of Dartmouth students, faculty and non-Dartmouth faculty will travel to the University of Glasgow in June 2023 for a series of events related to Smith’s work. Paganelli, who also serves as the current President of the International Adam Smith Society, will be on the non-Dartmouth faculty.

The next PEP lecture, a labor history lecture by Clark entitled “Workers as Traders: What Every Student Should Know About Labor History,” is Tuesday, October 4 at 5 p.m. at the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy.

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