Civilizing the Economy A New Economics of Provision

Adam Smith’s silence

Posted May 21, 2010 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, 4 Comments

Calling Adam Smith’s treatment of slavery in CTE his “silence” about slavery is really a polite way of exposing his cover-up of the role of slavery in the creation of the wealth that he enjoyed.  I admit that at various times Smith did say things about slavery in his book on the causes of wealth, The Wealth of Nations, but not when he was writing about the causes of wealth.

Some readers are irritated by this observation.  The irritation is not because they have different interpretations of the role of slavery in the tobacco trade.  Nor is it disagreement about the role of the tobacco trade in increasing Glasgow’s wealth.  (Glasgow was Smith’s residence when he was collecting material for The Wealth of Nations.) In fact, as far as I can tell, they did not know about these things

It seems like they stayed inside of Smith’s text instead of getting outside and looking at the economic world of Smith’s day.  This world was not the village of the butcher and baker, but the Atlantic trade that included Africa, the Americas, and Europe.  It was not the “invisible hand” of the market that controlled this economy, but the hand of the slave trader, the plantation owner, and the tobacco merchant.  As I argue in CTE, if we want to civilize the economy, we need to take a hard look at the legacy that Smith’s “silence” has given us.

4 Responses to “Adam Smith’s silence”

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Marvin T. Brown, Ph.D teaches business and organizational ethics at the University of San Francisco and Saybrook University in San Francisco.

This book is the culmination of 30 years of teaching and writing on business and society from a communicative perspective. Visit for more information.

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