An Interview With Adam Smith (No, Not That One)

The so-called father of capitalism was not available for comment, so we talked to another economist, Adam C. Smith.


On the occasion of his 300th birthday, Adam Smith—the Scottish Enlightenment luminary and so-called father of capitalism—was not available for comment, despite attempts to contact him via Ouija board and seance. Smith was undeniably one of a kind, a pathbreaking thinker in his own time and a philosopher whose insights in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations still apply in ours.

But he is not the only Adam Smith. For this special anniversary issue of Reason, we spoke with another, less-deceased economist named Adam C. Smith, this one a professor at Johnson & Wales University who was reachable via Zoom.

Bearing the name of Adam Smith has had a profound impact on his life, he says. The name has its perks, says Smith. He's used it to his advantage professionally, striking up conversations with a wide array of economists from Paul Krugman to Vernon Smith (no relation).

In March, he spoke with Reason Editor in Chief Katherine Mangu-Ward on his namesake's uncancellable legacy, the influence the man he calls the "original Smith" has had on his work, and all the bad jokes he's been forced to endure through the years.

Reason: Adam Smith, tell me the story of your name.

Smith: My grandfather Bruce Yandle is an economist. He is a retired professor and former dean of the college of business at Clemson University. And he was working in Washington in 1982 when I was born. My mother, originally Kathryn Yandle, married a Smith—Leo Smith—and thought it would be cute and clever to name their firstborn child Adam in honor of him.

What's funny is when my mom called him in and said that, my grandfather said, "You're going to name him Bruce? That's a terrible name, don't name him that." And she said, "No, we're going to name him Adam." He thought that was just terrific. No one had any idea that I'd be foolish enough to actually follow through with the namesake, up to becoming a professional economist. But at least the original intention was to honor my grandfather.

What do you hate about being named Adam Smith?

I can't say I hate any of it. The original Adam Smith has been, thankfully, uncancellable. Smith's thoughts, even with an 18th century context, were very ahead of their time and have held up well. Thank God I'm not named Michael Jackson.

The only place that I find tension with the name is at professional conferences. Now, I will say that if I walk into an economics conference and introduce myself, people start getting out of hand very quickly. But I've learned to live with that.

What do you love about the name?

I've managed to find really great conversations with people who are very, very far ahead of me in their professional careers. It's a wonderful icebreaker. I would just say that sometimes too much ice gets broken in those conversations and people can be very lame about the name.

I love this observation that Adam Smith is oddly uncancellable. If you dig just below the surface of most writers of his era you're going to find trouble. Are there cancellable sentiments in his work that are as-yet undiscovered?

There are two things that have helped propel him through history. One is that even though Smith was very well-educated and lived among the elites of Edinburgh, he was cynical about elite institutions, not just with laws and legislative action but also with education. Smith has a very well-known chapter where he really takes educators to task, basically calling them a bunch of rent-seekers who try to keep their positions without actually educating students. So there's an anti-elitism thread in Smith's work that I think has been attractive to even people in his own time, but especially those afterward.

The other thing I should mention out of Theory of Moral Sentiments is it's less about what we should do and much more about what society deems appropriate and inappropriate. So instead of advocating for particular values that would ultimately have to be context-specific, and thus get him in trouble, he's talking about the larger game of conduct.

If Adam Smith were writing today, he's not writing about the pin factory. What is he writing about? Or does he produce the same books, essentially, because the truths captured in his work are timeless?

He's a moral philosopher. While he would recognize modern economics, I feel like Smith would feel like modern economics has missed the point in a lot of ways. It's become too much about optimization and achieving equilibrium levels as opposed to action, conduct going through markets—the reality of it all.

I think the other thing Smith would have a lot of problems with are some of the derivatives from economics that have spilled into philosophy. Here I'm specifically talking about effective altruism, which in my opinion makes many of the same mistakes as conventional economics—emphasizing optimal behavior too much as opposed to conduct.

Connect Adam Smith's work to your work for me, in particular your work with your grandfather on the concept of Baptists and bootleggers.

Bootleggers and Baptists, the theory that my grandfather proposed—while, ironically enough, he was at the Federal Trade Commission—comes out in '83. The innovation within theories of regulation and public choice is that my grandfather showed that there needs to be moral cover for self-interested action.

Bootleggers—or rent-seekers, as we normally call them—are pretty well-understood in the literature: people acting in politics using their self-interest in a similar way that they would with markets. The layer that I really appreciate is the Baptist layer. I think a lot of us in public choice areas of research or libertarianism dismissed moral justification for intervention as a silly veneer that is on top of a lot of self-interested political action. Whether that's true or not is almost irrelevant.

Here we can go back to the original Smith. Smith is again going back to the games we're playing, and what's viewed as appropriate or inappropriate. So we can view Baptist cover, let's say, as being inappropriate. But if that is not the way it is viewed by most people playing the game, then our opinions kind of go into the null set.

It doesn't really matter that we are cynical if most other folks are not. Baptists are going to continue to provide cover for bootleggers because there's both demand and supply for that. There's people who believe in those moral claims, and there's people who want those moral claims to be validated in the public sphere. As long as that's the case, you're going to have Baptists. If you're going to have Baptists, you're going to have bootleggers.

The insight that I think Smith provides in Theory of Moral Sentiments is that that's actually an expectation, because that is in itself a political process as opposed to a market process. It cannot be removed. It is part of the thing itself.

What are you working on now?

One of them is a Substack that is directed by my mother, Kathryn Smith. I write for it and my grandfather also writes for it. It's called Bootleggers, Baptists, and Everything in Between. What we wanted to do was capture all of the bootlegger-and-Baptist conversations that are going on out there and bring them into a central hub. When my grandfather and I wrote the Bootleggers & Baptists book that came out through Cato in 2014, that was mainly just a popular treatment of the theory. It was mainly about getting out what the theory is and having some easy examples to follow.

I think where this Substack might go is perhaps a sequel to that book that maybe will even be written with my grandfather. It would be kind of like what's happened with bootleggers and Baptists since the original proposition. Because it's still a very popular term. I've seen it anywhere from public choice articles to Wall Street Journal op-eds. The theory is kind of going viral, not quite in the way that "the invisible hand" has, but in a way that I think is meaningful and needs to be captured.

The other passion project I have is that I've been working on economic mobility for a number of years. I think mobility is one of the things where, if we believe in markets and the power of markets in getting people to where they want to go, then economic mobility should be something that we're very excited about.

Tell me the best joke that you've heard about your name.

At an Institute for Humane Studies conference, I introduced myself to a fellow graduate student and he immediately said, "Well, I'd shake your hand, but it's invisible."

This interview has been edited for style and clarity.