Why Economists Tend to Revise the History of Adam Smith

John Mauldin |

“To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.”
– Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

One of the great pleasures of writing this letter is the fascinating correspondence and the relationships that develop along the way. The internet has allowed me to meet a wide range of people all over the world – something that never happened to me pre-1999. Not only do I get to meet a wide variety of people, I also come into contact with an even wider range of knowledge and ideas, much of which comes my way from readers who send me work they think I’ll have an interest in. I have a bountiful, never-ending source of thoughtful material, thanks to you.

This week’s letter emanates from a rather provocative email I received from David Brin. Science-fiction aficionados will immediately recognize him as the many-time winner of every major sci-fi writing award and an inductee into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Non-SF junkies might remember the movie The Postman (with Kevin Costner). Brin’s 2002 book Kiln People is one of my favorites, and I think it’s one of the more important books for trying to understand the impact of technology in our future. Will the science he describes be available? Probably not. But different technological variations on it will be, I think. And the book has a great plot. (David is also something of an expert on the role of and loss of privacy, which is a central theme of the book.)

David is something of a polymath. His degrees are in astrophysics and space science (Caltech and UCSD), but like many science fiction writers he is interested in almost everything. He frequently takes me to task, always constructively, sometimes publicly, about my writing. He is also a bit of an Adam Smith junkie.

I am going to use his latest complaint as a launching point for today’s letter. He was responding to last week’s Outside the Box, about the future of robotics and automation, which I introduced with a shot off the bow at the reigning Keynesian paradigm. He objects.

Today’s letter will be more philosophical in nature than most – we won’t be looking for technical signals; but it’s August – half the trading world is on vacation (except for the unsleeping computers run by high-frequency traders, which create the bulk of the volume these days), and so any technical signal we picked out this week would be suspect. Yes, August is a great time to think philosophical thoughts about the political economy. So, without further ado, let’s see what has my close friend Dr. Brin so upset.

Supply-Side (Voodoo) Economics?

John, excellent missive on automation.  I share your overall optimism.

Still... although Keynesianism deserves lots of criticism for the 30% of the time that it has proved wrong... and Hayek had a lot of good and important things to say... it remains disappointing that you do not use your influence to help hammer nails into the coffin of the Rentier Caste's catechism... Supply Side (Voodoo) Economics (SSVE), which is not just 30% wrong. It has proved to be almost 100% diametrically opposite to right, with every forecast that SSVE ever made having proved to be calamitously wrong.

Adam Smith might have had some problems with Keynes... and some with Hayek. But Smith warned us incessantly about the horrific economic effects of favoring monopolistic-collusive rent-seeking oligarchs, who destroyed freedom and markets in 99% of human cultures. When the Olde Enemie – who wrecked freedom and markets across 6000 years... the enemy Smith warned against and the US Founders rebelled against... comes roaring back... aren't you behooved to help raise the hue and cry?

Some Thoughts on Adam Smith


You will perhaps forgive me if I use you as a straw man to draw out a few principles for my readers. And I’m sure you’ll have an eloquent answer posted within a few hours. (Interested readers will be able to find that at http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/ along with fascinating commentary on all matters technological and philosophical. David relishes his role as self-appointed uber-contrarian.)

Your comments on Keynesianism and supply-side economics are so wrong that I think I will hold my tongue and save my criticisms of them for next week. You are expressing a common meme that totally buys into the reigning economic nonsense that passes for thinking about economic theory – a sin you’re usually not guilty of. But I’m not about to respond to you (not anymore!) with an off-the-top-of-my-head analysis, so I will spend the bulk of my week thinking about secular stagnation and the causes of growth, and then respond.

Neither is what follows totally off the top of my head; there was some work involved. What I would like to take up is Adam Smith views on the rentier class, which, for me at least, is a far more intellectually interesting topic than Keynesianism versus… SSVE. You keep quoting Adam Smith at me as if somehow Adam Smith’s is a gospel that must be adhered to. And I admit to being a serious Adam Smith enthusiast. Smith demonstrates an amazing amount of intellectual prowess. I stand in awe. His insight seems even more profound when you put the man in the context of his times.

And Smith was totally a man of his times. He was making observations about the changing nature of the economy and wealth in mid-18th-century Scotland and England, and his thoughts were disturbing to many of his associates at the top – the 1%, in modern parlance. He described a political economy in such stunning detail that it has influenced minds for almost 250 years. Yet, he was an early explorer in a land (that of the political economic landscape) that was not yet much trodden. He did however come along at a time when people were trying hard to understand the changes erupting around them. England especially and Scotland to some extent were transforming from a feudal agrarian society (which Smith clearly did not like) to one that was more commercial, as the Industrial Revolution took root and began to send forth green shoots.

Smith welcomed change, but with some reservations that are not often talked about. We’ll look at some of them today. As we will see, Smith was a complicated person. But he is best understood if we put him back into his times and recognize that he is not penning his observations on the “wealth of nations” to deal with our situation today, though many of his insights are timeless.

Over the last 200 years, the ways scholars have looked at Adam Smith have changed. There have been Adam Smith fads. While the fact is not much discussed in modern-day polite society, Smith was a clear influence on Hegel, who of course informed Marx. As hard as it is to understand today, there were those along the way who thought Smith was foundational to Marxism. In the 19th century, socialists and neoliberals of all stripes approvingly cited Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

Smith was not held in much favor by classical economists, though that has changed. Who can forget Margaret Thatcher moaning that she could not win the hearts and minds of Scotland, “‘home of the very same Scottish Enlightenment which produced Adam Smith, the greatest exponent of free enterprise economics till Hayek and Friedman.” Yet only a few years later Gordon Brown (a Scot and English Prime Minister) offered up a speech in which he claimed that Adam Smith (who lived in the region Brown represented in Parliament) would in fact be center-left, were he on the scene today.

You, David, are seemingly part of a coterie described by Neil Davidson in “The Battle for Adam Smith” in the Scottish Review of Books. (Note: Davidson makes some points I categorically disagree with, but I think he has an excellent handle on the history.)

Finally, there have been attempts, perhaps surprisingly from the radical left, to discern in Smith’s work a model of a ‘real free market’ which has been violated by ‘the global corporate system’. As John McMurty writes, ‘every one of Smith’s classical principles of the free market has been turned into its effective opposite’. This is an attractively counter-intuitive idea, which challenges the neoliberals on their own terms. Other writers, like the late Giovanni Arrighi have gone further and argued, not only that the market system envisaged by Smith can be distinguished from capitalism, but that ‘market-based growth’ distinct from ‘capitalist growth’ is now embedded in Chinese or perhaps East Asian development more generally.

[Sidebar: American readers may be puzzled to learn that neoliberalism is a label for “economic liberalism which advocates under classical economic theory support for economic liberalization, privatization, free-trade trauma, open markets, deregulation, and reductions in government spending in order to enhance the role of the private sector of the economy.” Who knew that the large fraction of my readers who consider themselves conservative thinkers are actually neoliberals? Sadly, the word is now generally used pejoratively by the left. Personally, I think it is more fun to think of oneself as a neoliberal than as an Austrian.]

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