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History of Political Economy 34.1 (2002) 55-82

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The Rise of Adam Smith:
Articles and Citations, 1970–1997

Jonathan B. Wight


In 1971, Kenneth Boulding posed a brazen question: “After Samuelson, who needs Adam Smith?” This was an apt query, coming a year after a scant two journal articles had focused on Smith or his work. Indeed, why should scholars bother to read or write about an eighteenth-century economist? An efficient market model of scientific progress suggested by George Stigler (1969) would hypothesize a linear flow of advancement such that new knowledge embodies all old knowledge worth keeping.1 If true, then “there is as little to be gained scientifically from reading old texts as there is from prowling old bookstores for undervalued rarities” (Anderson, Levy, and Tollison 1989, 174). As Stigler (1969, 218) concluded, “The economics of 1800, like the weather forecasts of 1800, is mostly out of date.” [End Page 55]

Despite the theoretical attraction of the efficient market hypothesis, the marketplace itself did not seem to agree. Boulding's tongue-in-cheek query was answered by a flood of scholarship on Smith, numbering more than six hundred articles and thirty books over the subsequent twenty-seven years. Reviews of this burgeoning literature are undertaken elsewhere (Brown 1997; West 1988, 1978; Recktenwald 1978), as are assessments of Smith's stature (Tribe 1999; Samuelson 1992; Stigler 1977; Black [1976] 1995). These surveys provide ample qualitative discussion of Smith's reascendance.

The present article adds a complementary quantitative analysis and classification of this literature. A number of questions arise. First, amid all the “noise” in the data, how would one measure whether attention to a long-dead figure has actually risen or fallen? For example, is the rise in interest “real” after controlling for scholarship inflation? Second, even if scholarship is found to have risen in real terms, how have the sources of this scholarship changed? If the rise over time is limited to history of thought journals, then this could indicate little mainstream interest, and the efficient market model could be vindicated on that account. Third, to what extent can a test of the efficient market model shed light on the process by which new discoveries take place in economics?

Accordingly, this article develops a methodology for analyzing the “resurrection” of scholarship on Adam Smith in several measurable ways. Journal articles and citation counts are the primary sources of data, and both require careful screening and adjustments. The results reveal aspects of the progression and perhaps even progress in the discipline, with Adam Smith being the catalyst for a spirited, interdisciplinary conversation. Further, the study provides evidence for rejecting the efficient market model in the case of Smith over the time period studied, suggesting that progress in the social sciences may to some degree benefit from a recursive, rather than purely linear, method.

Historical Overview

Smith's reputation has risen and fallen several times since his death, reaching a peak in the mid- to late nineteenth century, concomitant with the rise of laissez-faire trade policies in Britain (Black [1976] 1995, 63). By the mid-twentieth century Smith's prestige was at a nadir for a variety of reasons (Peil 1999, 8). The technological success of the Soviet Sputnik program had led many postwar economists to become enamored of [End Page 56] development planning (Todaro 2000, 621). Meanwhile, the ascendance of Keynesian macroeconomics and its rejection of laissez-faire doctrines contributed to the perception that Smith's views were obsolete. Graduate education shifted toward formal mathematical techniques, and the history of thought as a core field in both graduate and undergraduate programs went into decline (Barber 1997, 90–93). Ever greater specialization within the discipline produced practitioners with less patience to unravel grand theories of classical economics and more likely to take away from Smith's work “caricatures,” “clichés,” “prejudices,” “distortions,” and “silly criticisms” (Recktenwald 1978, 66, 66 n). Joseph Schumpeter's appraisal was oft repeated, that Smith lacked originality.2

The bicentennial of The Wealth of Nations in 1976...


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pp. 55-82
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Archived 2005
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