The kidnapping of Adam Smith

Adam Smith was kidnapped by gypsies at the age of 4, and was rescued by his uncle, who, according to some accounts, led a horseback posse into the woods to achieve this. It might have been the most exciting thing that happened to Smith in his lifetime. He lived most of his life with his mother, never married, and led the life of a scholar in research and writing.

He has, however, been kidnapped many times since his death as assorted scholars and others have sought to explain that he didn’t mean what he wrote, and was really on their side. Every few years some new study comes out to reinterpret Smith’s work, and after the initial reaction, quietly disappears. Even Gordon Brown had a go. Smith has been claimed as a kind of proto-socialist, and even as a precursor of Karl Marx. To be fair, Marx did indeed adopt one of the very few things Smith was wrong about, namely the labour theory of value.

The Adam Smith Institute is usually derided in such reinterpretations for abusing the great man’s name and propagating a cardboard cut-out simplification of his ideas. The straw man is a simplistic, capitalist, laissez-faire apologist for the abuses of big business. This is not what the ASI does. Our emphasis starts with Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments,” the book that first established his reputation. The human “sympathy” (which we would call “empathy”) that we all share leads us to identify with our fellow men and women, and is the source of our morality.

Far from assuming that some “invisible hand” will direct selfishness to achieve social goals, we note that Smith only used the phrase twice, in discussion of income distribution and production. We do, however, highlight his reference to “the uniform, constant, and uninterrupted effort of every man to better his condition,” to point to the importance of incentives. And we also quote his observation that. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest,” to show that a legitimate self-interest can provide goods and services that benefit others.

We share Smith’s skepticism of government, and his observations about the way in which markets generally allocate resources. And we heartily endorse his rejection of mercantilism and protectionism. These would be difficult to explain away, but that doesn’t stop people trying.

The problem is that “Adam Smith” has become like “Freedom,” with such favourable connotations that everyone wants to be on the same side. For some this can only be achieved by redefining the original. Thus we hear of “Real freedom” and “What Adam Smith actually meant.”

At the ASI we tend to take the unremarkable view that he probably meant what
he actually said.