Adam Smith and the ethics of contemporary capitalism

Journal of Business Ethics 12 (8):621 - 627 (1993)
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This paper presents a theoretical elaboration of the ethical framework of classical capitalism as formulated by Adam Smith in reaction to the dominant mercantilism of his day. It is seen that Smith's project was profoundly ethical and designed to emancipate the consumer from a producer and state dominated economy. Over time, however, the various dysfunctions of a capitalist economy — e.g., concentration of wealth, market power — became manifest and the utilitarian ethical basis of the system eroded. Contemporary capitalism, dominated as it is by large corporations, entrenched political interests and persistent social pathologies, bears little resemblance to the system which Smith envisioned would serve the common man. Most critiques of capitalism are launched from a Marxian-based perspective. We find, however, that by illustrating the wide gap between the reality of contemporary capitalism and the model of amoral political economy developed by Smith, the father of capitalism proves to be the most trenchant critic of the current order.



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