Adam Smith, the seventeenth century Scottish philosopher and author of the seminal work on political economy, On the Wealth of Nations (1776), is widely renowned as the father of economic theory and considered the patron saint of conservatives for his description of the “invisible hand” which, in their understanding of his works, guides markets to their most efficient end and abhors any government intervention that interferes with the ability of the market to self-regulate. In fact, it will become apparent that Smith’s use of ‘the invisible hand” was intended to have the exact opposite consequence. Smith’s name has become synonymous with the term “laissez faire” although nowhere in any of his works or lectures is there any record of his using the term. Ironically, he uses the former term only once in the more than 900 pages of The Wealth of Nations and even then not in respect to free market capitalism and not once the latter.1
For one with only a cursory familiarity with the works of Smith and an understanding of economics as the “dismal science”, it may be reasonable to assume that Smith would personify the unfeeling businessman with an “ends justify the means” perspective. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Smith was first and foremost a philosopher and, according to one author, “devoted most of his career to a single philosophical project, the betterment of life.”2 In the following selection from the Theory of Moral Sentiments in which the idea of the ‘Invisible Hand” is first espoused, Smith’s compassion for the working classes is apparent. This is in stark contrast with his near contempt in which he holds the rich:
The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition. These last too enjoy their share of all that it produces. In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, they are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them3
This seeming disconnect is no more apparent than in the review of Smith’s view on slavery. Although Smith is quite resolute in his support of the abolition of slavery, various authors have taken Smith’s arguments and used them to support their own cases advocating the institution of slavery. The fact that a text, particularly one that argues so clear against slavery is used to support both sides of the debate bolsters the case that literature, like history, is subject to the perspective of the author and reader.
Although Smith is best known for On the Wealth of Nations, and many points therein are germane to this discussion, his earlier work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), is, on the whole, more appropriate here. In Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith sets forth from the very opening lines the proposition that man is inherently good and seeks to sympathize with the plight of his fellow man,
How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from…