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“Adam Smith was on the side of the angels …”

The following is the text of an email that I and all the many others on the Adam Smith Institute email list received today, from the ASI’s Eamonn Butler:

Today marks 245 years since the publication of The Wealth of Nations, one of the most important books ever written.

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.

The links, all in the original email, are well worth clicking on.

As Eamonn Butler says, it was liberals, which then meant people who prized liberty, who put slavery on the defensive. It never completely went away, and socialists, national and otherwise, gave it a whole new lease of life in the twentieth century, although lease of death might be a better phrase. And in doing this socialists provided several more mountains of evidence that Adam Smith was right about slavery’s inefficiency, as well as about its brutality and baseness.

11 comments to “Adam Smith was on the side of the angels …”

  • George Atkisson

    “You will own nothing and be happy” is but the latest iteration and justification of would-be masters for creating and owning slaves.

  • Paul Marks

    Slavery had been outlawed in France back in the Middle Ages – by that strange man “Louis the Quarrelsome” (Louis X) he declared (which had long been ACCEPTED) that slavery was against natural law and Christian doctrine, and when various people tried to explain “all that is true, but……” he would not listen to them.

    He also let the Jews back into France and granted charters to various provinces safeguarding their traditional rights – which lasted up to the French Revolution of 1789. And he largely eliminated SERFDOM (yes the French Revolution claimed to have got rid of something that was mostly gone centuries before – certainly there was no mechanism to bring back someone who left the land in France – which is the bedrock of serfdom). He died after two years on the throne whilst still in his 20s – perhaps worn out be all the arguments and disputes he had with ….. well just about everyone. His legal judgment was not applied to the French Empire because there was no such thing at the time, and by the time a large scale French Empire did emerge (essentially the 1700s), most people took religious and natural law a lot less seriously than people did in the time of the Louis X in the Middle Ages.

    I remember being told about a French film where a knight time travels into the future – and finds out about his own “cultured” (i.e. decadent and cynical) descendants, and being so disgusted by them that he did not care that they were murdered during during the French Revolution. Even the “Sacred Blue” (the knights who wore blue sashes, which they swore would be covered with their own blood before any harm came to the King) had become a dining club by the 18th (think what “sacred blue” translates into in French), they were not a vast amount of use to King Louis XVI and his wife and children, or anyone else.

    Still I am sure the left could find reasons to attack Louis the Tenth.

    As for Adam Smith – slavery has been repeatedly attacked in the English courts, going way back into the Middle Ages. The difficulty was that a court would declare that such-and-such a person was not slave – because there could be no slavery in England, but this case would only effect that individual, it was not GENERALISED.

    It took a Scottish Judge on the English bench , Mansfield, to make a judgement (in the early 1770s) and GENERALISE it.

    A Roman idea of stating principle and then applying it generally – rather than the Common Law procedure of “Joe Bloggs has, after months of expensive legal disputes, been shown to not be slave – because slavery is against the Common Law, right now TIME FOR DINNER”.

    The importance of the Somerset case was that it was generalised to all “slaves” in England and Wales – not that there were very many of them.

    By the way Scotland still had white slaves at this time – including some working down mines. This was also got rid of in the time of Adam Smith as being inconsistent with the principles of law.

    Roman lawyers had accepted that slavery was against natural law – but held that the “law of all nations” showed that natural law could not be put into practice in this area. And Saint Augustine (against other Christian thinkers) agreed that slavery was wrong – but nothing could be done about it.

    Sometimes it was accepted that not all societies kept slaves – Pliny the Elder reports that in Ceylon there was no slavery, but he had never been there himself (so this may be wrong). And the main Byzantine military manual (the Strategikon) points out that their enemies the Bulgars do not keep slaves – not even captured Byzantine soldiers (who are sent home at the end of a war). The Byzantines would have no reason to to whitewash (if I may use that word) their enemies – and as the Bulgars were next door, the military manual would be laughed at if got such a big matter wrong. I wonder if modern Bulgarians know this about their ancestors – they should be proud of it.

    The big area of slavery in the time of Adam Smith was the great empires – including the Ottoman Islamic Empire, although most groups of people in the world kept slaves.

    Europe has been subject to slave raids for many centuries from the 7th century to the 19th century – I will not upset Central Office by mentioning who those raids were by.

    Adam Smith feared that the profits of the colonial slavery would mean that it would prove practically impossible to eliminate.

    This underestimated the great movement that grew up in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

    Although this movement might be better described as “fundamentalist Christian” (to use modern language) rather than liberalism.

    Although many of these fundamentalist Christian anti slavery campaigners were also liberals – CLASSICAL liberals (both in the Whig and Tory Party).

    Of course their enemies did have arguments against them…..

    In the United States Republicans were sneered at as supporting northern industrialists who “treated their workers worse than slaves” (a LIE – but one that the modern left would love).

    The stereotype of the Republican – dressed in Puritan Black walking down Mainstreet with “a Bible in one hand – but a pistol in the other hand, and a well used account book in his back pocket” was born in “Bleeding Kansas” in the 1850s (where, for example, three Alabama men were SKINNED ALIVE – because they were “un Godly men” who threatened people with violence to spread sin of slavery) – but it is still very much a living stereotype of a certain sort of Republican.

    Some decades late Wyatt Earp’s “Vengeance Ride” against what he regarded as the forces of evil in Arizona springs to mind. But then both Virgil and Morgan had been shot down unjustly and so had many other people by a group of thieves (sometimes called “The Cowboys” – “thieves, rapists, murderers and possibly even Democrats!”). Someone who comes to believe they are an instrument of justice against the evil – can be rather scary, although walking through a hail of gun fire, as Mr Earp did at one point, is also rather magnificent.

    But like them or loathe them – that was the sort of Republican who got rid of slavery. Although they might have had some problems with the “free trade” part of the Adam Smith message – even laissez faire Republicans such as Warren Harding or Calvin Coolidge rejected the free trade part of the doctrine – although President Garfield had been (indeed he has been a member of the Cobden Club).

    The dream of America as a moral Republic (the shining city on a hill) free of foreign entanglements (and trade brings dependence – or so was feared) – yes mixed with a close connection to manufacturing interests (the well used account book in the back pocket).

    Adam Smith warned that when businessmen get together, even for the most moral purposes, they end up (even if they did not start out intending to) making agreements to restrict competition.

    The Republicans were the party of the factories and foundries and the mines (as well as a lot farming to – large scale commercial farming and ranching) – seeing the derelict towns and cities that have grown up over recent decades must disgust any person who is not dead inside.

    But tariffs are NOT the way to bring back America as it was – and, remember, that was the intention of Donald John Trump, he did not personally benefit from tariffs, he was trying to bring back the industrial cities and towns from the ruins they have collapsed into. And even he knew they would not work – hence his hope he could make-a-deal to end tariffs in return for REAL (not pretend) access for American EXPORTS.

    Tariffs are not the way home – but a lot of Wall Street types creating “money” from nothing and dishing it out to people (via government transfer payments and so on) to buy Chinese made consumption goods is no good – no good at all. IN Marxist language – “Finance Capitalism” replacing “Industrial Capitalism” just is not going to work, not for a nation of over 300 million people.

    The present course will lead to collapse and slavery – and I am not using those words lightly, I mean them literally.

  • Paul Marks

    Yes George Atkinson.

    Our World Economic Forum Overlords (“Build Back Better”, “Great Reset”, “Stakeholder Capitalism” for “Sustainable Development”) – and their beloved People’s Republic of China. The number one producer of C02 on the planet – but then it is only the West producing CO2 that is evil.

    Remember it is “YOU” who will own nothing, the elite will still keep private ownership. Just not ordinary people.

    If, at some point, their beloved PRC decided to take the Corporate Elite of the West and use them for dog food – it would be hard to feel any sympathy.

    They learn nothing….

    For example, Hollywood has sold everything for the “Chinese market” – Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, artistic self respect, everything. All for “access”.

    In February the Chinse movie theatres had a record time (no “lockdown” in China – that is for Western idiots and traitors) – hundreds of millions of revenue….

    And the share of that massive market for Hollywood films?

    14 million Dollars – and that was gross, not net.

    In short – Hollywood has prostituted themselves (has sold out every principle) for NOTHING.

    It is the same with the rest of Western Big Business – they have sold out and their 30 pieces of silver turn out to be just bits of excrement.

  • APL

    Edinburgh city council would be better served objecting to actual slavery that actually oppresses people, now, today, in places like China, Saudia Arabia, or the still occupied Tibet.

  • Deep Lurker

    “You will own nothing and be happy” has older echos among advocates for slavery:

    A Southern farm is the beau ideal of Communism; it is a joint concern, in which the slave consumes more than the master, of the coarse products, and is far happier, because although the concern may fail, he is always sure of a support; he is only transferred to another master to participate in the profits of another concern; he marries when he pleases, because he knows he will have to work no more with a family than without one, and whether he live or die, that family will he taken care of; he exhibits all the pride of ownership, despises a partner in a smaller concern, “a poor man’s negro,” boasts of “our crops, horses, fields and cattle;”, and is as happy as a human being can be.

    – George Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South: or, The failure of free society
    google books:

  • Mr Ed

    Has anyone linked any statutes of Karl Marx to slavery yet?

    Just asking for a friend.

  • nesalpers

    Add “Adam Smith” to the archival list.

    Not sure how much longer archive.org will be around, with all the copyright/legal challenges.

    Google books has convinced the libraries of the world to let them scan everything. No one else gets permission to do so, because copyright.
    How far do you trust Google to preserve our books in the spasm of book-burning in our (present)?

    We each personally have the technology to store all the libraries of the western world on something the size of a wallet, but not the legal permission.

  • When some defenders of slavery at the end of the 1700s argued that blacks were innately inferior, Pitt the Younger (Tory prime minister, urging the abolition of the slave trade in parliament), reminded them of how some Romans had thought the same of their British ancestors. (For example, Cicero warned his fellow senators not to buy Caesar’s British slaves, despite their cheapness, because they were too stupid to be used on any but the crudest tasks.)

    This shows

    1) how an education in western civ offers arguments against racism and prejudice

    2) how Smith, having a similar education to Pitt, may similarly have acquired and/or justified his belief in the absence of any innate inferiority of black slaves to their white masters.

    (Pitt may have got the idea, or his confidence in it, from Smith, who IIRC wrote earlier than the first debate where Pitt said it.)

    Smith’s real crime is what I said in the last post but one. When you are in the business of condemning for alleged unique slavery guilt the one culture that abolished it (first internally and then worldwide) from choice, you need to erase a lot of people, including the man who pointed out that, in his day, it was worldwide except in the heartland of western civ, and who was also the explainer of that western civ’s capitalism, without which the evangelical-driven abolition movement would not have had the power to make slavery rare world-wide.

  • The Jannie

    Yet again, the ugliness of the SNP’s gang hut at Holyrood is matched only by the ugliness of what goes on inside it.

  • Paul Marks

    Yes “Deep Lurker”.

    I remember reading about Democrat George Fitzhugh, great Confederate apologist – a man ahead of his time. Arthur of such works as “Cannibals All”.

    Evil capitalists must be destroyed so that the noble institution of slavery be spread – and not, in the end, slavery to individual masters.

    No the slavery was to be to the collective.

    Mr Ed – George Fitzhugh was Karl Marx (Labour Theory of Value and all), but an HONEST version.

    No nonsense about how Collectivism would lead to freedom – slavery was to lead slavery.

    In their dark spirits the people who control Puppet Biden agree with George Fitzhugh.

  • DP

    Dear Mr Ed March 10, 2021 at 7:07 am

    Has anyone linked any statutes of Karl Marx to slavery yet?

    Socialism is slavery.

    Job done.