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Social justice
10 July 2012

Adam Smith: One nation conservative

Benjamin Disraeli is the great hero of ‘one nation’ conservatism; Adam Smith, however, tends be associated with other schools of thought – the libertarianism of the Adam Smith Institute being an obvious example.

Yet, Smith, though rightly seen as a key figure in the development of free market economics, also offered a compelling vision of what is now called social justice. That much is made clear in Gertrude Himmelfarb’s brilliant essay for Standpoint.

Himmelfarb (herself a conservative intellectual of note), reminds us that the historical context for Smith’s work was his opposition to mercantilism – the ruthless exploitation of trade as an instrument of centralised political power: 

  • "His opposition… is generally read as a criticism of government regulation and a defence of laissez faire. It is that, and much more, for his objection to mercantilism is not only that it inhibits a progressive economy by interfering with the natural processes of the market; it is also unjustly biased against workers. ‘Our merchants and manufacturers complain much of the bad effects of high wages . . . They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits . . . They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains.’" 

The conventional wisdom of the time – espoused even by enlightenment thinkers such as David Hume – was that low wages encouraged the poor to work harder. Adam Smith however would have none of it: 

  • "Servants, labourers and workmen of different kinds make up the far greater part of every great political society. But what improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconvenience to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, clothe and lodge the whole body of the people should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed and lodged." 

Mercantilism, like many forms of socialism, takes a fractured view of humanity, categorising people into fundamentally different types determined by birth:

Adam Smith took the opposite view: 

  • "The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education…" 

Thus decades before Disraeli, Smith articulated the idea that we are, indeed, one nation – and, for that matter, one human race.


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