Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Smith, human nature, and modeling assumptions

I keep a blog for the history of thought class to help assess class participation. I try to have a post up for every lecture. The one I just put up this morning might be interesting for readers here to muse on and respond to.
"Smith makes a lot of assumptions about human nature. He says that we have a natural propensity to truck, barter, and exchange, that we are naturally self-interested, and that we are naturally fairly equal in abilities. We learned yesterday that he also thinks humans have a natural preference for the country and for agriculture.  
Although his model is non-technical, these are still modeling assumptions. How do these assumptions compare to the assumptions about economic agents today? Why are they different (in other words, what's different about the way our models work that leads us to keep some of Smith's assumptions and drop others)?"

The first three, put together, give us a lot of Adam Smith. The fourth assumption is more relevant for his growth theory in Book III and some of his commentary on policy. That's not as relevant for our models, but what's interesting to me is that we've dropped several of the first three assumptions too, but we've managed to get similar outcomes by adding others.


  1. Smith's anthropology is much better than most modern anthropology. That's a low bar, and I think you need to read the two books together to get a clear picture of his anthropology, but it's something.

  2. Considering what a death trap pre-modern cities were, he may be right due to a selection in favor of preferring country living.

  3. Out of curiosity Daniel Kuehn, how does Adam Smith's moral philosophy fit into his political economy, in your view?


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