‘I’m sometimes told that the Scots don’t like Thatcherism,’ Margaret Thatcher told the Scottish Conservative Conference in 1988. ‘Well, I find that hard to believe – because the Scots invented Thatcherism, long before I was thought of.’ The Scot she meant was Adam Smith, a figure popularly identified as the founder of economics, an apostle of capitalism and honoured prophet of the new right. It was exasperating for Thatcher, and a pleasing irony for her opponents, that the nation of Adam Smith should so decisively and repeatedly reject the lessons of Thatcherite economics. Yet at the root of her puzzlement, by a further irony, was her own misunderstanding of Smith. It was not simply that the electorate north of the border had betrayed its free-marketeering heritage, but that Thatcher’s hero was far from the proto-Thatcherite she and her advisers assumed him to be.
All great thinkers are misunderstood by posterity, at least in some measure. Ideas which remain relevant beyond the context in which they were framed inevitably undergo a process of distortion. Readers can’t help but lose sight of the particular circumstances which brought these ideas into being, and become insensitive to nuance, rhetorical strategies and carefully targeted responses to the (now unread) hinterland of debate which lies beyond the canonical works in question. Few thinkers, however, have experienced the curious posthumous fate of Smith, with his name taken in vain by a profession to which he never belonged and his legacy fought over by political creeds to which he did not subscribe, and could scarcely have imagined.
Undergraduates experience a jolt when they are told that Adam Smith was not an economist. Rather, as we know from his body of work and from the chance survival of lecture notes taken by his students, he was a moral philosopher and analyst of statecraft for whom The Wealth of Nations was only one – albeit crucial – component in a broader science of man. Economists have also been slow to absorb this message. Yet the growing literature on Smith’s ethics, politics and jurisprudence – notwithstanding its debt to professional economists such as Donald Winch – has emerged during a period when the history of economics has become at best semi-detached from economics as a discipline. Nevertheless, there remain some historically inclined economists with a keen nose for anachronism who question whether it is appropriate to associate Smith with laissez-faire or the Industrial Revolution or with capitalism itself. Did he know these terms or the phenomena to which they came to refer?
While Smith remains an icon for the right, the last decade has seen a number of attempts, by politicians as well as by scholars, to liberate him from the monopolistic embrace of conservatism and big business. Emma Rothschild’s subtle and erudite study of Smith and the wider contexts of late 18th-century political economy, Economic Sentiments (2001), showed that political economy emerged in the decades before the French Revolution as an anti-establishment ideology of liberation from the Ancien Régime. More particularly, she demonstrated that Smith’s very occasional use of the phrase ‘invisible hand’ – the now well-worn metaphor for the self-regulating capacity of the free market – was playful rather than integral to his message. The co-architect of New Labour, Gordon Brown, went a few steps further, attempting to rehabilitate Smith, not without some plausibility, as a proponent of ‘the helping hand’. In part this manoeuvre was prompted by local piety, for Brown was brought up and has his constituency in Smith’s home town of Kirkcaldy, but it was also a product of his distaste at the reductive reading of Smith by those on the right, and his need to find historical inspiration for a non-conservative, communitarian engagement with the inevitabilities of global capitalism. Smith was, for example, committed to public education as a remedy for the narrowing of horizons consequent on the division of labour, though it is a large step from this position to enlisting him as a champion of the welfare state, even when reorientated towards ensuring equality of opportunity rather than of outcomes. Nevertheless, even if Brown’s reading is exaggerated, it remains a much needed corrective to a right-wing hagiography which tends to iron out Smith’s anti-elitist wrinkles. ‘All for ourselves, and nothing for other people,’ he wrote in The Wealth of Nations, ‘seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.’ It takes an especially gifted casuist to convert such sentiments into Thatcherspeak, though it can be done.
A further incongruity comes into focus in Nicholas Phillipson’s splendid biography: that the 18th-century moral philosopher bore no resemblance in character or demeanour to those who most loudly promote his purported legacy. It’s hard to imagine today’s muscular big business conservatives finding much in common with the diffident and bookish academic, who was, in some ways, as unworldly as a maiden aunt. One obvious strategy for a biographer of Smith would be to explain how this intensely private and decidedly undynamic bachelor-scholar, who lived for much of his life with his mother, could exercise such a profound influence on succeeding generations – particularly on political leaders and captains of industry who probably would have despised the man himself. But Phillipson takes the story a stage further, showing the parts played by lethargy, disorganisation and poor decision-making in Smith’s inability to prepare for publication more than a portion of his science of man. Today’s misinterpretations derive in large part from his failings – or, indeed, from his reluctance to wear himself out physically and mentally for the sake of mere ambition.
As Phillipson explains, Smith’s fastidiousness and lack of urgency have bequeathed problems to his biographers. He was ‘a notoriously bad correspondent’, who wrote very few letters by the standards of the day, for the most part only when business was pressing or ‘when he was goaded into it by his friends’. As a result, just 193 of his letters survive, and a further 129 written to him, most of the correspondence dating from the later part of his life, after the success of The Wealth of Nations. Furthermore, Smith did not relish the world gawking at posthumously published private letters. Indeed, he complained about plans to publish some of the correspondence of his late friend David Hume, because it would encourage hacks and hucksters to ‘set about rummaging the cabinets of all those who had ever received a scrap of paper from him. Many things would be published not fit to see the light to the great mortification of all those who wish well to his memory.’ Phillipson wonders whether Smith destroyed some of his correspondence. Certainly, he arranged for the destruction of his lecture notes, anxious in case half-formed thoughts found their way into print and sullied his message and reputation.
Smith was born and brought up in Kirkcaldy, a small burgh comprising a single long street (with a few vennels running off it), which gave it the nickname of ‘the Lang Toun’. His father, Adam Smith senior, the controller of customs at Kirkcaldy, died six months before the birth of his second son, Adam, in 1723. His first wife, Lilias, who bore them a son, Hugh, had died around 1716-18, and another marriage had followed in 1720 to Margaret Douglas, the daughter of a Fife laird. The widowed Margaret Smith never remarried, and she and her only son remained devoted to one another for the rest of her long life. The philosopher’s half-brother, Hugh, who lived in Kirkcaldy until his death around 1749-50, remains a mysterious presence in his life, and presumably a complicating factor in the intense mother-son ménage. It is noteworthy, perhaps, that while Hugh – like his half-brother, a sickly child – was sent away to board at a school in Perth, Adam went to the local burgh school in Kirkcaldy.
In 1737, at the age of 14 – not a precocious age for an undergraduate in 18th-century Scotland – Smith made his way to the University of Glasgow, where he spent three years. Here he relished the elegant geometrical proofs of the mathematician Robert Simson, which contributed in some measure to the love of system so evident in The Wealth of Nations, and was intrigued by the moral philosophy of the Ulsterman Francis Hutcheson, an engaging and enthusiastic teacher whose demotion of the role of reason in the moral life inspired Smith’s own psychological approach to ethics. Yet whereas Hutcheson associated human benevolence with a moral sense, analogous to our physical senses and our innate aesthetic sensibility, Smith would seek a more robust foundation for moral discrimination in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). Instead of hypothesising the existence of an additional sense, he would rely on thought experiments about an imagined impartial spectator of our actions. For all the implicit repudiation of a Hutchesonian solution in Smith’s ethics, the debt to his former teacher was obvious.
Nevertheless, as Phillipson makes clear, Smith was not simply a gifted product of effective teaching. After Glasgow there were also six crucial years of freedom as a Snell Exhibitioner at Oxford, when Smith was pretty much left to his own devices, and enjoyed the quiet, sedentary life of a bibliophile. He taught himself French, and was able to immerse himself as much in French literature and philosophy as in the politics and ideas of the ancients. If his acquisition of an encyclopedic knowledge of – largely – profane learning and polite letters was not quite in the spirit of the Snell bequest, he could have exploited the resources of the exhibition for far longer than he did. By John Snell’s bequest of 1677, 12 exhibitions were endowed for students from Scotland to study at Balliol for periods of private study lasting up to 11 years, with the requirement that exhibitions be given to Scots who would take holy orders in the Church of England or the Episcopal Church in Scotland. But this requirement was abolished in 1738, and Smith seems to have been free to disregard it. Certainly, his background and connections appear to have been Presbyterian. Moreover, it seems unlikely that he was a committed Christian of any kind, though in the 18th century an unostentatious lack of the peculiarly precise beliefs required for the ministry did not necessarily preclude a career in the church.
In 1746 Smith left Oxford; the reasons for his departure are unclear, though it was possibly out of ‘disgust’ at the disloyalty of Oxford’s high Tories during the Jacobite rebellion. He made his way to Edinburgh, where, surprisingly for such a bookish young man, he made his name outside the institutional structures of the university by giving a successful series of private lectures on rhetoric, and then on jurisprudence, between 1748 and 1751. The prime mover behind the lectures was the advocate Henry Home (soon to be elevated to the judicial bench as Lord Kames), a sharp reminder, not least to Smith’s modern-day devotees, of the significant role played by patronage in the Scottish Enlightenment. Indeed, nepotism thrived in the academic dynasties of Scotland’s university towns. Not that merit was despised, far from it; rather, patronage helped to accelerate the careers of talented young men, who – with the spectacular exception of the notorious infidel Hume – rose to the top more quickly than they might have in a rigidly bureaucratic system.
Smith seems to have owed the chair of logic and metaphysics which he obtained at Glasgow in 1751 to the lobbying of James Oswald MP, the son of his legal guardian during his childhood, the continuing support of Henry Home and, possibly, the backing of the Duke of Argyll. And, as Phillipson stresses, we should not discount the importance of his lecturing successes in Edinburgh. Yet, while patronage often provided a coach and horses for the advancement of genuine merit, it appears that there was a row about the part played by deference to the supposed wishes of Argyll in Smith’s election. As Phillipson notes, such ‘professorial backbiting’ was ‘all too characteristic’ of Glasgow University.
A year later, in 1752, Smith moved within the university to the chair of moral philosophy, and it was when in this post that he published The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Here, he furnished an ethic appropriate to a modern, commercial society of individuals, namely a form of communal cohesion based not on an established religious truth or feudal hierarchy, but rather on what Fonna Forman-Barzilai describes as a ‘self-regulating method of social co-ordination’. Nevertheless, as she reminds us, notwithstanding the success of his book, Smith was far from confident that he had securely described a mechanism for independent moral judgment which transcended mere conventionality and the internalising of social norms. As a result, in Smith’s lifetime The Theory of Moral Sentiments went through five amended editions, twice with substantial revisions, as he quested after his particular holy grail: a sociological theory of moral judgment which did not simply reflect the prejudices of the surrounding society.
It was hoped that Smith’s fame would give Glasgow a chance of rivalling Edinburgh as a magnet for foreign visitors and gentleman students. Yet Glasgow could never be Edinburgh, the university being ‘too isolated from the polite, gentlemanly professional world of Edinburgh to compete effectively for a prestigious clientele’. Smith turned out to be a reasonably competent administrator, serving variously as quaestor, dean of faculty and vice-rector at Glasgow during his 13 years there. Unfortunately, active administration drew him ever deeper into the university’s ‘complicated and often acrimonious political life’, which took a toll on his health. As early as 1753 Hume had warned him that ‘the fatigues of your class have exhausted you too much, and … you require more leisure and rest than you allow yourself.’ By the early 1760s, Smith was ‘run down through overwork’, and in 1764 he decided to leave the university.
Smith resigned his chair at Glasgow for a much more lucrative position, becoming tutor to the young Duke of Buccleuch. The moving force behind this arrangement was the English politician Charles Townshend, Buccleuch’s stepfather and guardian, who, after his marriage in 1755 to the Countess of Dalkeith, became an enthusiastic camp-follower of Scotland’s enlightened literati. Townshend offered Smith a stipend of £500, and thereafter an annual pension of £300 for the rest of his life. Smith’s professorial income had been between £150 and £300. If the arrangement was sweet for him, it threw into relief his decidedly unworldly manners and deportment. Even clergymen and antiquaries despaired of his suitability as a mentor for a young aristocrat. The Rev. Alexander Carlyle believed Smith ‘very unfit for the intercourse of the world as a travelling tutor’, while Sir David Dalrymple predicted that ‘Mr Charles Townshend will make a very indifferent compagnon de voyage out of a very able professor of ethics.’ In particular, Smith, who was to take his young charge first of all to Paris, to smooth his manners, had ‘so bad an ear’, according to Dalrymple, that ‘he will never learn to express himself intelligibly in French.’ Townshend, to his credit, was more concerned with Buccleuch’s character and learning than with his manners and appearance. Smith’s job – with his becoming modesty and his vast knowledge of government and laws – was to prepare Buccleuch for a worthwhile life as a serious politician.
The death of Buccleuch’s brother in Paris in autumn 1766 brought the European tour to a close, and Smith back to Britain, where Townshend had become chancellor of the exchequer, with the mammoth task of sorting out the public finances in the wake of the Seven Years’ War. Smith, who preferred the company of his mother and a life of contemplation, seems not to have relished the entrée to the inner circles of politics or the challenge of solving the fiscal crisis that confronted his patron. The solitary scholar – ‘preceded by four large cases of heavily insured books’ – returned to Kirkcaldy in May 1767, where he would remain until 1773. Here, living quietly with his mother, and with his chief amusement ‘long, solitary walks’ by the sea, Smith drafted The Wealth of Nations. It might seem confining, if not smothering, for a middle-aged man of abilities, but for the founder of modern political economy, it was, apparently, more than enough. Describing to his friend Hume a life of study and leisure circumscribed by the parish pump, he confessed that he was ‘extremely happy, comfortable and contented. I never was, perhaps, more so in all my life.’
Eventually deciding that he needed the stimulation of the wider world to bring The Wealth of Nations to conclusion, Smith moved back to London in 1773. It was here, according to Phillipson, that he made the biggest mistake of his philosophical career. He was offered another tutorship, this time to the young Duke of Hamilton. If he had taken the post, there was the prospect of a further substantial pension to supplement that from his tutorship of Buccleuch. This would have enabled him to retire once more to a life of active scholarship. Instead, Buccleuch promised to find Smith a lucrative public appointment once the inevitable acclaim for The Wealth of Nations had established his reputation as an authority in public administration.
The warm reception of The Wealth ofNations in 1776 was counterbalanced by Tory hostility towards Smith’s beliefs – though not, as it happens, those in the field of economics. The other big event of 1776 in his life was the death of Hume. Smith’s publication of a very short piece recounting his friend’s cheerfully pagan resignation in the face of death provoked High Church outrage, most notably a pamphlet by George Horne, the president of Magdalen College, Oxford, and the future bishop of Norwich, which went through several editions. Was Smith using Hume’s complacent indifference to death as a means of advancing the cause of atheism? Smith – who had experienced High Church Toryism at close quarters during his Oxford years – feigned perplexity: ‘A single, and as I thought a very harmless sheet of paper, which I happened to write concerning the death of our late friend Mr Hume, brought upon me ten times more abuse than the very violent attack I had made upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain.’ Yet Smith had also been unwilling to see Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion through the press, and this reticence about his own religious opinions provides one of the major obstacles to an authoritative account of his life and philosophy. Whereas Phillipson believes that he became ‘a perfect Humean’ during the 1740s and remained so throughout his life, Forman-Barzilai argues that his obsessive revising of The Theory of Moral Sentiments drew him away from ‘Humean sociology’ in the direction of ‘a Protestant theory of conscience’, though his invocations of God never amounted to more than ‘a deistic afterthought’.
Buccleuch kept his word to his former tutor and in 1778, Smith became a commissioner of customs in Scotland, a post worth £600 per annum, but no sinecure. The last 12 years of his life back in Edinburgh saw his energies dissipating and his creativity petering out. He expressed some regret about the ‘interruptions to my literary pursuits, which the duties of my office necessarily occasion. Several works which I had projected are likely to go on much more slowly than they otherwise would have done.’ By 1785, moreover, he felt ‘the indolence of old age … coming fast upon me’, and wondered whether he would ever manage to finish the works he wanted to write on the two other major components of his science of man, rhetoric and jurisprudence: the subjects of those private Edinburgh lectures which had made his name. Fated to be known to posterity largely as a one-book man in a single discipline, Smith died a two-book man, though, as we know from extant essays and his pupils’ lecture notes, his range was vast. If he had completed his multi-disciplinary science of man, his system might have been less vulnerable to the misinterpretations of his modern-day disciples.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.