Adam Smith Slavery Controversy Can be Settled by his Writings

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According to Britain’s Daily Telegraph, the grave of Adam Smith in his home city of Edinburgh has been included in a citywide review as being a site linked to “historic racial injustice.” The Telegraph summarizes:

His inclusion is justified with a comment claiming he “argued that slavery was ubiquitous and inevitable but that it was not as profitable as free labour”, according to documents seen by the Telegraph.

Smith’s gravestone and his statue on the Royal Mile will now be considered by the council’s “Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review Group” led activist Sir Geoff Palmer, which will report on how memorials linked to “oppression” can be “re-configured”.

The Edinburgh review must have been superficial. If they had read his works they must somehow have missed the many condemnations of the institution of slavery and the sympathy with which he viewed the enslaved.

Many, like this article from the Adam Smith Institute in the UK, point to passages from the Theory of Moral Sentiments or the Wealth of Nations. In his Lectures on Jurisprudence, he was even more explicit—slavery was economically inefficient and for that reason, slaves should at the very least be paid but economic reasoning itself led to the conclusion that the institution should be abolished, as had happened in Western Europe. There is no justification for Edinburgh’s linking of Smith’s grave to slavery.

However, let us accord Smith the title of “the father of modern capitalism.” Many believe that capitalism was based on slavery, particularly in America (here’s an example.) Is this not enough to condemn Smith? Once again, Smith’s own writings refute that.

Smith’s brilliant insight about capitalism was that there is an invisible hand in free markets that guides economic interaction to promote the general welfare. Smith makes it clear in his writings that in societies dependent on slavery, the invisible hand does not work that way. Instead, it benefits the rich at the expense of the poor and enslaved—precisely what the anti-capitalists believe, yet Smith makes it clear that this is not the free market at work.

Indeed, it was the early free marketers’ insistence that pursuing prosperity required the abolition of slavery that led pro-slavery writer Thomas Carlyle to dub economics the “dismal science.” In a racist tract called (sic) “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question,” Carlyle says:

And the Social Science—not a gay science but a rueful—which finds the secret of this Universe in ‘supply and demand,’ and reduces the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone—is also wonderful. Not a gay science, like some we have heard of; no, a dreary, desolate, and indeed quite abject and distressing one; what we may call, by way of eminence, the dismal science.

It takes quite some twisting of the ideas to equate Smith’s anti-slavery thoughts with those of the racist hacks who rejected his economic insights.

Another fine article on the subject by the Adam Smith Institute’s Matt Kilcoyne is available at The Spectator.