“A Visible Hand: Modern Lessons from Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments” by Professor Paul S. WILLIAMS
Professor Paul S. WILLIAMS
Research Professor of Marketplace Theology and Leadership
The University of British Columbia
For a long time the debate over the relative merits of state capitalism versus liberal capitalism was dominated by considerations of efficiency, fairness in international trade, and stages of economic development. In recent years, especially since the global financial crisis, these debates have been coloured by more explicit consideration of the moral legitimacy of the neoliberal paradigm. Does the visible hand of the state provide a better balance for society between the wealth-generating capacity of the market and the broader concerns of human flourishing? In this paper I explore this question through a return to one of the foundational thinkers of the modern market economy, Adam Smith, and give particular attention to the first of his classic works, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, originally published in 1759. Whereas the Wealth of Nations is concerned with the broad institutional structure of political economy, Smith’s Theory sets out an understanding of human nature that underpins that later work. I argue that attention to the anthropological assumptions of alternative economic paradigms not only sheds new light on the current debate, but also indicates the direction for a more hopeful way forward in understanding how the market mechanism can better serve the common good.