Adam Smith Has Something for Everyone

From the American Founders to communist meme creators, people have long claimed Smith's endorsement for their ideas.


"In political oeconomy, I think Smith's wealth of nations the best book extant." So Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend. Three hundred years after Adam Smith's inauspicious birth in Kirkcaldy, it's not hard to make the case that it's still true.

Claiming the endorsement of the greatest of the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers for one's own arguments has been a successful rhetorical gambit for at least as long as Smith's books, The Theory of Moral Sentiments and An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, have been available to the public.

Jefferson's lifelong opponent Alexander Hamilton lifts entire passages from Wealth of Nations in his "Report on Manufactures" to Congress, for instance, only to be met—as Yuval Levin notes in his anniversary tribute to Smith at National Review—by James Madison, citing Smith (rather more credibly) in opposition to Hamilton's proposal for a national bank.

This pattern established by the American Founders has continued to the present day, when one will often hear progressives summoning Smith's words to battle for the causes of antitrust, publicly funded schooling, labor unions, taxing the rich, and more. Economist David Friedman vets the legitimacy of these claims and finds them mostly wanting in "Adam Smith Wasn't a Progressive" (page 22).

Neocons such as John Bolton and David Frum, at the height of their powers in the early 21st century, frequently invoked (and often misquoted) Smith's line that "defence…is of much more importance than opulence"—ripped from its proper context, which was an extended defense of free trade.

One might think that Smith's reputation would rise and fall with capitalism itself, which he is sometimes said to have "invented" or even "fathered." But at a time when capitalism as a concept is troublingly unpopular, Smith's compassionate and insightful words about the poor still make regular appearances in the posts of the Facebook page "Quotes from Capitalists that Inadvertently Provide Support for Communism," sometimes fetchingly styled on a red background in bright yellow letters to drive the message home for even the most obtuse and speedy scroller.

There's a reason that everyone still wants a piece of the odd Scottish bachelor after all these centuries. In an age when one can make the case to melt down nearly every statue of a once-revered figure, Adam Smith remains startlingly unproblematic. He was scathing about the slave trade as well as the mistreatment of Native Americans. His compassion for underdogs and his delight in the improvement of the circumstances of the poor shine though the archaic prose, as does the sincerity of his self-scrutiny. As his namesake, economist Adam C. Smith, notes in this month's interview (page 41), Smith's effort to be descriptive rather than proscriptive, as well as a healthy strain of anti-elitism from a man who lived his life among elites, have aged well. There is every reason to think future generations will continue to find Smith appealing enough to co-opt.

Smith is so voluminous, so compelling, and so pragmatically knowledgeable on so many subjects that there is something for everyone in his work. It is also true that the man was rarely succinct. Meandering prose tends to lend itself to multiple interpretations, which is both an asset and a liability for the longevity of his legacy.

Throughout this issue, you'll find some of Reason's favorite people sharing some of their favorite Adam Smith quotes. Nobel laureate Vernon Smith explores Smith's ideas about the division of labor in his musing that "the universal opulence of a well-governed society," which "extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people," rests on "the assistance and co-operation of many thousands" (page 16). Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, author of several books in the Smithian tradition, probes the meaning of Smith's friendship with the scandalously atheistic David Hume (page 28).

EconTalk's Russ Roberts reminds us of a rare pithy observation from Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments that "man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely"—that is, to have the respect and admiration and friendship of his peers, but also to truly deserve those things (page 29). Atlas Network's Tom G. Palmer goes deep into some of the few unpublished papers Smith allowed to remain unburnt to explore his famous observation about humanity's "propensity to truck, barter, and exchange" (page 26). Cartoonist Peter Bagge even summons Smith's ghost to chastise those who would use his words for their own misbegotten ends (page 48).

The quote closest to my own favorites comes from Dan Hannan of the U.K. House of Lords: "By means of glasses, hotbeds, and hotwalls, very good grapes can be raised in Scotland, and very good wine too can be made of them at about thirty times the expense for which at least equally good can be brought from foreign countries" (page 19).

The enthusiastic polymathic approach embedded in this quote is Smith at his most endearing. He's arguing for a big thesis, sure. But you don't have to buy the thesis to appreciate the interesting information about viticulture in cold climes and the insight into the price of claret. For this reason I have always loved the index for Wealth of Nations above all else. Opening to a random page yields these gems:

Cabbages, half the price they were forty years ago, 95–6

Catholics established Maryland, 589

Cato, advised good feeding of cattle, 166

Coach, a man not rich because he keeps a, 93

Colleges, whether they have in general answered the purposes of their institution, 759

Commodities, the natural advantages of countries in particular productions, sometimes not possible to struggle against, 458

Conceit, man's overweening, often noticed, 124

Smith understood that the stuff of the world matters—how it's made, how much it costs, how it's traded—and that to understand humanity we must consider both the spiritual and the material.

It was once taken as a given that there was a tension between Smith's two books, with Theory of Moral Sentiments styled as a work of moral philosophy and Wealth of Nations as an economics textbook avant la lettre. The Germans even named this "Das Adam Smith Problem." You won't find that term elsewhere in this issue, because we—like most of today's Smith scholars—do not think there is a problem to solve. Smith wanted to understand the world and the people in it. There is not such a huge gap between who people are in their hearts, and who they are in a bustling marketplace. We are sympathetic and self-interested, in both places, everywhere and always.

At Reason, of course, we believe that the magazine of free minds and free markets is one of Smith's many true heirs. Like Smith, we believe that the free movement of people and goods across borders is a powerful force worthy of respect and appreciation. Like Smith, we marvel at the ingenuity of that "invisible hand" and seek to chronicle its many manipulations. And like Smith, we see tremendous value in simply describing and puzzling through the world in all its weird splendor—from cabbages to conceit.