Civilizing the Economy A New Economics of Provision

Response to Adam Gopnik’s essay “What Adam Smith really believed” in the Oct 18th New Yorker magazine

Posted Oct 23, 2010 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, 34 Comments

In his article on Adam Smith, Adam Gopnik leaves out a couple of important facts about the life of Adam Smith that provide clues to a very different story than the one Gopnik tells.   First of all, there is Adam Smith’s request that all his papers be burned after his death.  Everything.  And this was done.  Why such a request?   Was Smith hiding something?  It turns out he was:  something that has remained hidden from many admirers of Smith, including Gopnik.

I discovered what Smith was hiding by asking a simple question:  “How did Scotland get wealthy when Smith was writing The Wealth of Nations?” It wasn’t by manufacturing and selling pins.  No, Scotland, and especially Glasgow, became wealthy by importing tobacco and sugar from the colonies and selling it on the European continent.  In fact, Glasgow was the center of the tobacco trade when Smith was lecturing there at the University.  Furthermore, Smith met with the tobacco merchants for years.  They were some of the richest men in Europe.  One of them, Andrew Cochrane, was the Provost of the University.  Smith told Thomas Carlyle that he learned much of what he knew about large-scale commerce from these men.

Smith, in other words, knew that the wealth he enjoyed in Glasgow was the result of the slave-based tobacco trade, not the result of the butcher, the baker, and the brewer acting in their self-interest.  He lived in a city that was at the center of the famous Atlantic trade between Africa, and Americas, and Europe.  This was the world in which he lived; not a world one finds in The Wealth of Nations.  The idea of the “invisible hand” actually made invisible what Smith knew as a major source of wealth—slave labor.  True, Smith was against slavery when he was writing as a moral philosopher, but as an economist, he thinks of slaves as property.  Here is how he compares the French and British management of their slaves in the colonies:

In all European colonies the culture of the sugarcane is carried on by negro slaves . . . . But the success of the cultivation which is carried on by means of cattle, depend very much upon the good management of those cattle; so the profit and success of that which is carried on by slaves, must depend equally upon the good management of those slaves, and in the good management of their slaves the French planters, I think it is generally allowed, are superior to the English (The Wealth of Nations).

Comparing the management of cattle and of African slaves, of course, expresses the full meaning of “chattel slavery,” since chattel has the same root as cattle.  Furthermore, just as cattle were treated as property, so were slaves.  Because they were property, you could buy and sell them.  You could ignore their misery.  You could write about them as you would write about managing cattle.

So why make up stories about pin factories and butchers and brewers?  We don’t know.  We do know that so far these stories have worked to hide the role of slavery in the creation of wealth.  When Gopnik ends his essay on Smith with the words, “He [Smith] believed not that markets make men free but that free men move toward markets” we see how successful Smith has been in hiding what he learned from the tobacco lords in Glasgow.

That’s not the whole story, but it will be difficult to tell the whole story and its consequences, until we at least tell the truth about early capitalism.  In Civilizing the Economy: A New Economics of Provision (Cambridge University Press, 2010) I tell this story, and offer another story; a story that will enable us to break out of this Smithian legacy of silence and fantasy.

34 Responses to “Response to Adam Gopnik’s essay “What Adam Smith really believed” in the Oct 18th New Yorker magazine”

  1. Jackie Evancho says:

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    October 24, 2010 at 4:30 pm

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  4. Marvin Brown says:

    October 24, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    Check out Civilizing the Economy
  5. Anon says:

    November 1, 2010 at 6:21 am

    Sir, Your approach to history is very similar to Glenn Beck's. 1) You are both resolutely ideological - so confident in the truth of your perspective that you ignore or sneer at the work of professional historians. They are merely ideological. 2) You also share Glenn's conspiratorial attitude - you look at the gaps - the silences, if you will - and make up fanciful stories to fill them. Smith had his papers burned because he was afraid of us discovering pro-slavery views. Utter fantasy! Who needs facts when you have your gut to guide you!
  6. Marvin Brown says:

    November 1, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    Scholars I have spoken with did not know about Smith's knowledge of the slave-based tobacco trade, which I have documented in my book Civilizing the Economy. I think that slavery and the treatment of people and property are much closer to facts than you might think. I can only guess why Smith burned his papers. I role of slavery in early capitalism, especially in the city of Glasgow, can be found in historical documents. Just because a piece has a combination of strong observations and speculation does not mean one needs to throw out the facts.
  7. Brian F says:

    November 4, 2010 at 7:42 am

    OK, maybe it's a stretch to say that Adam Smith had his papers burned to cover up the positive impact on Scotland of slave-based trade. But far from ideological, your main point is certainly inescapable. Even as a casual reader of history, I’ve often run into the fact that there were Scots who bemoaned the lack of freedom at home but had no qualms about the slavery of another race. Freedom, like much else, is a right only in the first person, rarely in the third. Plus ça change.
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  24. Kevin says:

    May 8, 2016 at 10:02 pm

    Excellent! Have you been interviewed on any alternative media for this, yet? Seems like Bill Moyers or Democracy Now! would be real interested in your story. Or the Real News Network?
  25. Marvin Brown says:

    May 9, 2016 at 6:49 am

    There has not been a lot of interest in Adam Smith's relationship with the tobacco lords and his knowledge of the role of slavery in capitalism, although the interest in the legacy of slavery has grown in the past few years.
  26. John Reed Schrichte says:

    May 9, 2016 at 11:23 am

    My good man, the pins went on the ship heading back to the Americas. What do you think the Europeans used to trade for Tobacco and Sugar? Would such a trade had even existed if the Europeans had nothing to trade with? That part of Europe's manufacturing output was converted into a necessity (sugar) and a completely superfluous as well as noxious product (tobacco) using noxious means methinks is is putting the cart much too far behind the horse.
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  28. arthur says:

    August 25, 2016 at 8:13 am

    So your theory is that Smith wrote an expose of the slave trade for his private pleasure and ordered it to be burned when he was on his deathbed in case it became public?
  29. Marvin Brown says:

    August 28, 2016 at 7:55 am

    My argument is that Smith knew that slavery was an integral part of economics, and he hid from us that truth.
  30. John Reed Schrichte says:

    August 28, 2016 at 4:43 pm

    The reason Geo. Washington ordered his slaves released upon Martha's death was that the economics didn't work, for reasons he articulated quite clearly. No labor is free, even slave labor, and the costs of slave labor, fully accounted for, exceeded that of freemen. The continuance of slavery long after it was economically viable, if it really ever was, was more a factor of culture and faulty accounting than of economic theory per se.
  31. Marvin Brown says:

    September 13, 2017 at 7:38 am

    This is an old argument that has been refuted for some time now by such writers as Johnson on the Empire of Cotton.
  32. John Red Schrichte says:

    September 13, 2017 at 5:23 pm

    That happened after Washington's time, and in a different region of the South. Cotton processing was made economical by the Eli Whitney's machine to separate the seeds from cotton fibers, in contrast to production and harvesting which as you point out was still done by African slave hands. So I acknowledge your assertion that slavery was an integral part of economics, but it became a superfluous part of economics for technological and socio/economic reasons. I'm not justifying anything, just observing and reporting.
  33. Marvin Brown says:

    September 14, 2017 at 7:03 am

    I agree, this is a factual question. Walter Johnson's book, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, is one source I am using. What are your sources?
  34. John Red Schrichte says:

    September 14, 2017 at 9:15 am

    "Washington: a Life" by Ron Chernow. Your move.

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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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