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