Since January, along with colleagues at the University of Glasgow, I have been leading on a project to commemorate the tercentenary of the birth of Adam Smith.

Smith’s ideas have been crucial to helping our understanding of the economic society we see today. As a student, professor, and rector at the University of Glasgow, many of those ideas were formed in this city. In recent months, we have been taking Smith and the university around the world. Such is his legacy and ongoing relevance, by the end of the year we will have hosted events in more than 15 locations from Chicago to Beijing and Nairobi to Santiago. Next month, we are bringing the world to Glasgow with more than a week of public talks, student competitions, theatre shows and workshops. We will also be putting on display some of our Smith archives, from early drafts of his work through to personal artefacts of his time at Glasgow.

These events are more than a commemoration. A key aim is to support a better understanding of Smith and his writings. While many ‘know’ Adam Smith, this rarely goes beyond the recently created caricature of Smith as an advocate of unconstrained laissez-faire economics and self-interest. This undermines the breadth and plurality of Smith’s work. Yes, Smith did speak of the benefits that arise from a well-functioning commercial society, and the importance of markets and the incentives that they create, in driving prosperity. But first and foremost, he was a moral philosopher. His first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, sets out his views on the importance of not just considering our own self-worth, but the worth of others.

For Smith, morality is based on a process of ongoing learning – it is something we all need to work at and cannot take for granted. How we engage with each other and see ourselves in each other’s shoes is how we develop our moral sense of behaviour and our sense of the difference between right and wrong.

In his work on economics too, Smith did not shy away from the negative consequences of economic activity or the fragility of the prosperity it creates. He saw the value of government, particularly in providing education, as crucial in delivering that prosperity.

Of course, there are limits on how much we can take from Smith for modern debates. Mercantilism and basic personal freedoms were the big issues in Smith’s Glasgow. There was no National Health Service or welfare state. He was writing more than two hundred years before the declaration of a climate emergency. Spaces for public debate were far more restricted than in 2023.

But the principles that shaped Smith’s thinking still resonate. The times and issues are different. The underlying but interlocking questions of morality and economics are similar.

For example, Smith pushed back against the idea that the wealth of a nation was to be measured in how much gold a country had, or the riches of a select few merchants. Today we might add to that, what is the “wealth of a nation” if it doesn’t also consider its environmental and ecological sustainability? Smith also highlighted the dangers from elites – and big business – in capturing and exerting undue influence over political activity. In his day, it was the East India Company. Today, it might be the influence of multinationals, digital oligarchs, or the continued power of patronage.

Our second aim therefore, is to use the tercentenary to support debates - much in the spirit of the Scottish Enlightenment – about the economy in 2023 and our future prosperity. On June 5, we’re joined by Gita Gopinath, the deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund, for a talk about the direction of global economic policy in light of recent economic crises. On June 8, Nobel Prize winning economist Sir Angus Deaton will discuss his views on where capitalism has gone wrong in recent years and the need to re-establish the moral element of Smith’s work into economic policy. Then on Saturday June 10, we are hosting a day of talks, music, and dramatisations of Smith’s life, and exhibitions.

All these events - and many more – are open to the public. Details on how to take part can be found on the university’s Smith 300 webpage.

Graeme Roy is professor of economics at the University of Glasgow’s Adam Smith Business School