By Eamonn Butler, Director, Adam Smith Institute (26 July 2008)
HOWEVER many great inventors, scientists and philosophers that Scotland has given birth to, her most influential scion must be Adam Smith.
In an age when the leading intellectuals thought all wealth derived solely from agriculture, he showed the wealth-creating importance of industry. At a time when nations believed that economic survival depended on keeping out other people's goods, Smith showed the mutual benefits of free trade. While the powerful guarded their privileges and considered poverty the natural state of others, he showed how freedom and competition could benefit the lives of ordinary people.
Smith's great book of 1776, The Wealth of Nations, crystallised this message for the world. All the leading politicians of the period read it (imagine that today!) and most accepted its powerful argument. Some acted upon it – tearing down trade tariffs, state monopolies, price controls and punitive taxes – unleashing the great 19th-century era of free trade, enterprise, industry and prosperity.
He was not the first economist, but Smith was the father of the economics we know today. For example, he insisted that the wealth of a nation was not, as most people supposed, the amount of gold coin in its bank vaults. (On that measure, Britain today would rank among the world's poorest countries!) Rather, said Smith, the wealth of a nation was what its people produced. He had invented the idea, which economists still use to measure countries' prosperity, of GNP.
Interest in this leading figure of the Scottish Enlightenment has been reawakened recently. Gordon Brown, another son of Kirkcaldy, has helped, stimulating books on Adam Smith and putting him on the English £20 note. This spring, the Liberty Fund held a conference in Edinburgh on Smith's ideas, and another will be held in Glasgow next April. Last month, we unveiled Alexander Stoddart's imposing statue of Smith in Edinburgh's Royal Mile, where visitors queue to have their pictures taken at the great man's feet. Perhaps some – and half a million visitors pass this spot each year – will be moved to find out more about him, and his humane economic philosophy.
Following the huge success of the unveiling events, there are calls for an annual Smith celebration – let's call it an Adam Smith Festival. A good time might be near his birthday in mid-June. (His exact birthday is unknown, though his birth was registered on 5 June, 1723. But the calendar was changed in 1752 and a few more days were added, so mid-June is about right.)
A highly successful part of the unveiling celebrations that a festival certainly should replicate was the Adam Smith Debate in the Caves, under the arches of South Bridge, Edinburgh. It was led off by former Scottish secretary Michael Forsyth, proposing that "this house would prefer to be led by an invisible hand" – against the opposition of his old political adversary Brian Wilson. It was an example of what many of us thought no longer possible: a really good-natured debate on serious issues that was both enlightening and entertaining. That makes it worth repeating: you won't see the like in Holyrood, after all.
Another highlight of the unveiling programme was the opportunity to enjoy Adam Smith's favourite food – strawberries – in his old home, Panmure House. Its new owner, the Edinburgh Business School, Heriot-Watt University, seems keen to repeat this event, too.
We will certainly stage an international dinner near the statue; and perhaps a candle-light vigil around it. But other people will have their own ideas. After all, it would not do for an Adam Smith Festival to be too rigidly planned. How much more appropriate it would be if different people's initiatives came together – as if led, indeed, by an invisible hand.
Published in The Scotsman here.