How Misreading Adam Smith Helped Spawn Deaths of Despair

Angus Deaton in Boston Review:

One of the many pleasures of being a Scottish economist is being able to acknowledge Adam Smith as a predecessor. Smith was one of Scotland’s greatest thinkers in both economics and philosophy. I grew up in Edinburgh and was brought up to recognize Scots’ many achievements but was never told about Smith. Many years later, when I was inducted into the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Smith was mentioned, but only as a conveniently placed friend of the Duke of Buccleuch who helped the Society obtain its Royal Charter—that is, as a sort of well-connected lobbyist. Smith and David Hume were internationally renowned in their lifetime; the mathematician Michael Atiyah notes that their fame induced Benjamin Franklin in 1771 “to undertake the lengthy and tiresome journey by stagecoach to a small, cold, city on the northern fringes of civilization,” but Smith’s fame seems to have waned with time, at least at home.

Smith was not only a great thinker but also a great writer. He was an empirical economist whose sketchy data were more often right than wrong; he was skeptical, especially about wealth; and he was a balanced and humane thinker who cared about justice, noting how much more important it was than beneficence. But the story I want to tell is about economic failure and about economics failure, and about how Smith’s insights and humanity need to be brought back into the mainstream of economics. Much of the evidence that I use draws on my work with Anne Case as well as her work with Lucy Kraftman on Scotland in relation to the rest of the UK.

More here.