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Adam Smith: how did he really see the world outside his window?

Emma Rothschild, director of the Center for History and Economics at Harvard University, talks to Craig Smith, senior lecturer in the Scottish Enlightenment at the University of Glasgow.

CS: You have been studying Adam Smith for some time. How did you first come across him?


He wasn't on the syllabus when I studied economics at Oxford, but I read him when I was an undergraduate and I was fascinated by The Wealth of Nations from then on. I became more and more intrigued by what seemed to me to be a disconnect between the Smith I was reading – and eventually studying as a historian – and the Smith who was a public figure in a very different time, place and world economy.

This disconnect between Smith scholarship and the public discourse about him has been much more enduring than I thought it would be at the time of the bicentenary of his death. Between the bicentenaries of the publication of The Wealth of Nations and of his death (1976 and 1990), there was an explosion of political uses of Smith. I thought this was just a product of circumstances in the UK and the United States, but it’s become a worldwide invention and reinvention of Smith.

CS: How does Smith fit into your own research?


My book Economic Sentiments is essentially about Smith, more or less in an intellectual history vein, although I was trying to put him together with his interlocutors from the French Enlightenment. While writing that book, I became fascinated by what he saw outside his window and the circumstances of both what now would be called the economy and people's lives that he was describing. From then on, I've been trying to think about Smith's world.

As you know, The Wealth of Nations is an extremely empirical book. It veers from theory to observation to what modern readers might think are extremely tedious details of duties, bounties and so on.

My book called The Inner Lives of Empires looked at a family who were neighbours and academic acquaintances of Smith's, but who – unlike him – left a lot of documentary evidence. I was trying to explore the circumstances of global lives based in Scotland in Smith's time, and think about his relationship to what obviously was a very important factor in his life from the 1760s onwards – namely, the dramatic engagement of his old and new friends in the political economy of empire, slavery and the East India Company.

One thing that's intriguing to me about the latest wave of reinvention and reinterpretation is not so much the Adam Smith Institute, Reaganomics-type cult of Smith, but also the extent to which he has come to be seen as the epitome of all the ills of modernity and the Enlightenment. For example, there are recent works misinterpreting what he wrote about slavery in a fundamental way.

I have also been working on the economic history of the environment, and I did a basic search for the terms Adam Smith and Anthropocene. You would be astounded by the extent of the quasi-popular literature, essentially blaming him for climate change. I think he is a fascinating figure in relation to how we got to the contemporary dilemmas of economic growth and the environment. But potentially in a rather positive way since he was writing at a time, and about an economy, in which there was not large-scale use of fossil fuels. It was also an economy that was flourishing in many ways.

CS: I'm struck by what you said about him being empirical. I think that's something my students are surprised by: how much data and how many everyday examples are in the work. I wonder what you make of Smith as an economic historian when he goes into that level of detail?


It's an open question to consider what it was about the mid-18th century British and French economies that Smith found so promising. It wasn't the factory system or the Industrial Revolution or large-scale coal mining, as these came much later. He clearly saw dynamism in that mid-18th century world, and I think his intuition that something very important was happening, before some obvious manifestations of the Industrial Revolution, has been validated by recent quantitative economic history. This work shows that there was very rapid growth in France, for example, all with relatively old-fashioned technologies and energy-saving technologies.

The other thing that I've been thinking about is the extent to which all those empirical passages in Smith are not really about what economists now would think of as the economy. They're not about markets, or even particularly about prices, supply and demand, or technology. They’re actually about government and policies. There are these long lists of commodities that have bounties on them or prohibitions associated with them.

These have made me think about the extent to which Smith's great subject wasn't really the autonomous sphere of the market. It's striking how little he says about how markets work. What he's really interested in is what governments are doing, why they're doing it, and why merchants and manufacturers want government prohibitions, restrictions and boundaries.

I'm not against drawing on Smith to try and understand the present – everybody else is doing it, so why shouldn't people who have read Smith? It’s fascinating to follow what companies are doing right now in relation to, for example, electric vehicles and preferences, quotas and inducements for green infrastructure, and ask the Smithian question: why do they want these government interventions?

CS: For the 300th anniversary, we’ve run an online reading group where we’ve worked our way through The Wealth of Nations. I’ve also been asking people for their favourite passages of Smith – what are yours?

ER: I read the passages about the East India Company quite often. An economic history journal asked that question for a symposium and I found something about ‘useless companies’ – trying to get at his critique of economic actors, not because he was against free enterprise, but because he saw that what companies wanted was to have regulations that helped them. In terms of the larger issues you’ve raised, this poses a lot of problems because it shows that individuals and companies are playing economic games but are seeking to advance by using political methods. I think that's a very central idea for Smith.

CS: What do you hope will come out of the renewed attention because of the tercentenary in terms of public perceptions of Smith?

ER: I hope he's going to be a subject of controversy and serious reading for another 300 years. I don’t know whether he would have hated all the attention… probably! There's an expression that historians use, which is ‘thinking with history’ – and for me, ‘thinking with Adam Smith’ is a very good way to examine his times and our times. If the outcome of the 300th anniversary is that there are more reading groups like the one you've just completed, where people actually read what Smith wrote and think about it, that would be a very good outcome.

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