Thursday, 11 March 2021

"Smith was on the side of the angels..."

This week marks 245 years since the publication of The Wealth of Nations, one of the most important books ever written. An Adam Smith Institute commemorative email reminds us, at this time, that ignorance never sleeps:
Smith revolutionised our understanding of commerce. He explained how trade enriches our lives and his works laid the foundations of a whole new field of study: economics.
    Today though, Adam Smith’s legacy is under threat from those that would rewrite history.
    Smith’s grave and statue have been linked to “slavery and colonialism,” according to Edinburgh City Council.
    The grave and statue are being reviewed by the SNP-Labour Coalition Council’s Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review Group. Their claim rests upon a quote by Adam Smith that said “slavery was ubiquitous and inevitable but that it was not as profitable as free labour“.
    This is an extraordinary mischaracterisation.
    Smith not only argued that slavery was morally reprehensible, but also provided intellectual ammunition to the abolitionist movement. The link Adam Smith has to slavery was as one of the authors of that vile practice’s destruction.
    Smith, writing in the 18th century, thought slavery would continue. He could not have foreseen humanity’s subsequent liberal turn.
    But it is abundantly clear that Smith thought slavery was grotesque. Smith wrote, in no uncertain terms, that slave owners’ “brutality, and baseness, so justly expose them to the contempt of the vanquished.”
    Smith also argued that slaves are inefficient workers, because they cannot keep the fruits of their labour. His arguments against slavery were used by abolitionists.
    Smith was on the side of the angels, holding humanist views well ahead of his time.
Hat tip to Brian Micklethwait, who points out that "the links, all in the original email, are well worth clicking on."

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