Acton Institute Powerblog

The Fallacy of Adam’s Fallacy

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

Duncan Foley’s new book, Adam’s Fallacy, is the latest installment among the critics of free-market economics to spin economic history according to the received wisdom of today’s Center-Left intelligentsia. Lest this statement be too harsh, let it be shown that Foley himself reports that his intention in writing the book is not to get bogged down in historical and textual analysis of the key economic texts of the last three-hundred years but to tell his own “imaginatively reconstructed” account of the broad sweep of modern economic history.

If you tend to be a “splitter” as opposed to a “lumper” where historical figures and key texts are concerned, you should heed Foley’s admonition and be warned that Adam’s Fallacy is his “own take on economics and exploits the great figures in the history of political economy shamelessly for [his] own ends.” If your ends don’t happen to match Foley’s ends, then you may find yourself disgruntled like me. But, at the very least, you can take heart that you were warned twice, once by Foley and once by me.

Stephen Grabill


  • C Self

    I am very grateful that someone like you is keep clarifying the importance of that – even economic theory requires clear moraland phylosophical base(Love and dedication to the self and others are the ones to produce good of anything) .

    I never read both books you mentioned here. I am not sure if I am qualified to say anything. However, I just wanted to mention that I immediately thought of "It’s a Wonderful Life" which is shown on TV around Christmas time about every year.
    I know that it takes lots of conscious efforts of many people on the economic level to create Heaven. Yes, good so-called economic calculating mind is necessary to be successful, but it is not the most essential.

  • Stephen Perry

    There is, it seems to me, a philosophical refutation of Foley’s interpretation. If the pursuit of self-interest is morally problematic then what are we to make of the axiom of action, that all men act to improve their situation, or as the ancients would have said, "all men act for the good?"

    Every "good" chosen by acting man is seen by him as being in his self-interest. Even sin is seen as a good thing by the person who chooses it. Even the "altruist" (and I must confess a Randian distaste for that word, even if I find much to dislike in her thought) does his "altruist" and "non-self interested" thing because he believes himself to be better for doing so, even if he doesn’t expect reward in heaven or other "tangible" benefits.

    In the workings of the market, the overwhelming majority of the actors and their transactions are morally neutral or benign (it’s not really a matter of vice or virtue if I buy a newspaper this morning, for example), while a great many aim at various undoubted goods, so it is really no surprise at all that leaving people to "seek their own advantage," [which they can only realize in the marketplace by serving the advantages of others (since they must have something to exchange that others value)] tends towards the advancement of society as a whole. This is what "social cooperation" means. What Foley’s complaint boils down to is that free men have not in the past and are not expected (by him) in the future to pursue those exchanges and transactions that he thinks are beneficial. To which the only philosophically correct reply is, "Butt out!"

  • Gene Pierce

    Adam Smith never said that a person who benefits society acts out of alturism or that alturism is necessary for a good to be moral or even that alturism is necessary for a good outcome to have a higher moral value than those acts made from a concern for the self interest of the actor, rather that generally good results come from enlightened self interested actions. The quote cited in the article, “that neither Smith nor any of his successors has been able to demonstrate rigorously and robustly how private selfishness turns into public altruism.”, misses the point Smith and his defenders make which is God so arranged the world that selfish actions will lead to good to society at large. Really, not a bad observation and certainly a Divine Solution to an intractable problem.

  • J. Ankrom

    It appears at a glance, Foley confuses monopoly with free-market. It is obvious that free market competition will result in benefitting all whereas, monopoly (generally translate: government) will always result in the oppression so abhorred by the socialists clamoring for it.