This interview was published in the December 2015 issue of Man and the Economy journal, founded by Nobel Prize winning economist Ronald Coase. For access to full text, subscription to the journal or payment for the individual article is required.
Holding a PhD in economics from Monash University, Australia, GZ SUN now teaches economics at the University of Macau, Macao Special Administrative Region, China. His research interests are mainly microeconomics and the history of economic thought.
His joint work with collaborators helped establish the theoretical foundation of a literature on endogenous labor specialization. He has also published at times on topics in axiomatization, public choice, theory of the firm, evolutionary economics, etc., and on less-dismal-than-normal topics such as general equilibrium analysis of how large-scale societies of ants self-organize. Among the services he has provided to the scientific community of economists, the commitment he currently takes most seriously is his editorial job at a new journal, Man and the Economy, founded by the late Mr. Ronald H Coase.
His book The Division of Labor in Economics: A History provides, for the first time, a systematic and comprehensive narrative of the history of one central idea in economics, namely the division of labour, over the past two and a half millennia, with special focus on that having occurred in the most recent two and a half centuries. Quite contrary to the widely held belief, the idea has a fascinating biography, much richer than that exemplified by the pin-making story that was popularized by Adam Smith’s classical work published in 1776.
Grégoire Canlorbe: Adam Smith’s treatment of the division of labor in his magnum opus has given rise to much debate and controversy over his priority.
It has been sometimes alleged that his views were essentially plagiarism of the opening chapters of Anne Robert Jacques Turgot’s Reflections on the Formation and the Distribution of Riches, published a few years earlier. The two books show indeed remarkable similarities in content.
Other analyses consider that Smith’s thought had been anticipated in broad outline by the treatises of ancient Greek or Chinese philosophers. Kuan Chung, Hsün Tzu and Ssu-ma Ch’ien, as well as Xenophon, Plato and Aristotle among their Greek counterparts of the “Axial Period” of human civilization, had indeed already carried out sophisticated developments on increasing returns to specialization and the relation of specialization to the market mechanism.
What would you retort to these recurring claims in defense of Smith’s profound originality in the history of ideas?
Guang-Zhen Sun: Doubtless, Smith’s greatest achievement in classical economics is simply founding it, laying down a novel and powerful superstructure for what would come to be referred to as the classical political economy, into which many previously existing but otherwise scattered ideas are well weaved into a coherent body of thought and analysis. On top of that, Smith’s main priority in the intellectual history of the division of labor rests on two separable but closely related pillars of his economics: his historical jurisprudence, and his integrative analysis of the market and the division of labor. These two facets, in my view, constitute much of the core of his scholarship in economic science. This statement needs a great deal of elaboration, a task we can hardly expect to undertake in an interview, of course. But let’s take it as a good excuse to discuss a difficult topic in a conversational manner.
Grégoire Canlorbe, a journalist, has conducted several interviews for journals and reviews such as Man and the Economy, founded by Nobel-Prize winning economist Ronald Coase, Arguments, and Agefi Magazine; and think tanks such as Gatestone Institute. He’s also collaborating with sociologist and philosopher Howard Bloom on a conversations book. Contact: email@example.com