What did the “father of modern economics,” Adam Smith, actually think about slavery?
How Adam Smith Became a (Surprising) Hero to Conservative Economists
People like to fight over Adam Smith. To some, the Scottish philosopher is the patron saint of capitalism who wrote that great bible of economics, The Wealth of Nations(1776). Its doctrine, his followers claim, is that unfettered markets lead to economic growth, making everyone better off. In Smith’s now-iconic phrase, it’s the ‘invisible hand’ of the market, not the heavy hand of government, that provides us with freedom, security and prosperity.
To others, such as the Nobel prizewinning economist Joseph Stiglitz, Smith is the embodiment of a ‘neoliberal fantasy’ that needs to be put to rest, or at least revised. They question whether economic growth should be the most important goal, point to the problems of inequality, and argue that Smith’s system would not have enabled massive accumulations of wealth in the first place. Whatever your political leanings, one thing is clear: Smith speaks on both sides of a longstanding debate about the fundamental values of modern market-oriented society.
But these arguments over Smith’s ideas and identity are not new. His complicated reputation today is the consequence of a long history of fighting to claim his intellectual authority.