Next year is the tercentenary of the birth of Adam Smith. One of the pillars of the Scottish Enlightenment, Smith’s ideas were crucial to helping establish the global economy we see today.

But for someone so influential, it is remarkable how little we discuss his work. Even for people like me who studied economics, the so-called ‘Father of Economics’ rarely enters classrooms. More broadly, whilst many Scots, particularly those in business and politics will have heard of Smith, few will know much beyond the fact that he was born in Kirkcaldy, studied at Glasgow, and wrote about an apparent ‘invisible hand’.

In many ways, this is understandable. Not many of us sit down for an evening to read 18th-century moral philosophy. But this lack of knowledge has sometimes led to a characterisation of Smith as an unflinching advocate of laissez-faire economics, dogmatic libertarianism and selfishness. Sadly, this reflects, not an accurate reflection of Smith’s ideas, but an attempt by some to use his name to further their own political aims.

Yes, Smith is a proponent of what we today recognise as a modern commercial society. He believes in the power that commerce can have to improve living standards. But he does not shy away from the negative consequences it can bring or the fragility of that prosperity.

He is sceptical of the role of bureaucrats deciding on all aspects of economic and social life. However, he acknowledges the positive force of government in making wise laws to guard against exploitation and in helping individuals achieve their potential, including through public education.

Smith himself benefited greatly from education. At the University of Glasgow, we are proud of being his intellectual home. He was both a student and professor at the university, and he returned toward the end of his career as Rector. At Glasgow – with partners around the world – we are running a programme of events in 2023 to generate a renewed interest in Smith and his ideas.

In launching this project, we have been struck by how many of the issues that Smith writes about are relevant today. Of course, the context is different – the industrial revolution had barely even started when Smith arrived in Glasgow – but the underlying societal challenges are remarkably similar.

For example, in his most famous work: The Wealth of Nations, Smith speaks about how society needs to realise that the true nature of ‘wealth’ is not how much gold it has or the profits of a few merchants. Instead, a nation’s wealth should be measured by the extent to which its people “can afford to enjoy the necessaries, conveniences, and amusements of human life”. Today we are still debating about how to improve living standards – or wellbeing – not just for the few, but the whole population.

Crucially, Smith is a ‘political economist’ and not just interested in understanding economic trends. He seeks to make the case for the institutions and structures in our society – such as the shape of markets – to be cohesive, fair and resilient. As we face complex intergenerational and global challenges, be it the climate emergency, rising inequality, or the cost-of-living crisis, there is much we can apply from Smith’s writings to today.

Smith is a strong advocate for trade for example, but he was not blind to its potential negative outcomes. Trade between nations has the potential to lead to benefits at the aggregate, but for individuals the outcomes can be much less positive.

Brexit was, in many ways, a reaction by people who had lost out on the supposed gains from internationalisation. But putting up barriers with our most important trading partner – as evidenced by current rising costs and falling exports – makes us worse off in the long-run.

Smith also famously writes about empathy. His concept of ‘fellow-feeling’ helps to explain our willingness to support families caught up in the war in Ukraine and why the cost-of-living crisis pushes us to want our politicians to do more to support the most vulnerable in society. His ideas also explain why businesses, at the height of the Covid-19 lockdown, often went above and beyond to support their local communities and employees through the crisis.

Smith writes too about the potential risks from what we would now call crony-capitalism and how the balance of power can shift away from individuals and consumers. We see such concerns playing out in debates about the power of social media firms to monitor and influence our decision-making through the tracking of our behaviours and online profiles.

Elements of what Smith says deserve to be challenged, including some of his remarks and judgements on gender and social class. Moreover, while his work explicitly critiques slavery, it is important not to forget his ideas were developed at a time when many values surrounding empire were unquestioned.

But that said, perhaps the most important reflection to take, is not something he wrote, but rather in the way he conducts his work.

He discusses his ideas with other key thinkers of the day, some he agrees with and others he strongly disagrees with. He challenges conventional thinking and the power of elites to shape policy, not by attacking them but through the power of his arguments.

He cautions too of ‘speculative physicians’ with simple answers to complex problems and is not afraid to return and revise his own ideas as his knowledge grows.

In today’s often toxic political culture and binary policy debates, a recognition that the big global policy challenges that we face require careful thought and, above all, respectful discourse between different sides of an argument, is perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from one of Scotland’s most famous sons.

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