A few months ago, I was asked to write an essay on Black History Month for The Liberty Fund. As an Adam Smith specialist, I wanted to discuss how I thought he should be part of the discussion. It was published, but in a obscure way that did not make it very easy to find. So, I am reprinting the essay here, now (with a few slight formatting edits). Just because it’s September, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep thinking about black history. As always, your comments are most welcome.
Adam Smith was not black; neither am I. A case can be made that as a philosopher who lived in the eighteenth-century “backwater” of Scotland, he would have experienced some marginalization, just as the rising tide of antisemitism is making my own life progressively harder (he once wrote, “the whole wise English nation…love to mortify a Scotchman.”). But to use these as excuses to slide us both into Black History Month would be disingenuous at best. One does not celebrate a culture by arguing from analogy.
As such, February is a time in which we ought to center black voices and scholars, calling attention to those who emphasize the histories and experiences that have gotten short shrift over and over again. Read them before you read Smith. Find their scholarly musings before you dive into mine.
Nevertheless, there is a case to be made that Smith is worth reading, even this time of year. His work may be the best example of Enlightenment abolitionism incorporated into a larger systematic philosophy. He offers more than just political or polemic arguments for black equality, and he follows the same methods for evaluating slavery as he does all other aspects of social and political life. Smith did not own slaves, as Thomas Jefferson did, and there is no record of him mistreating or even belittling people of color. Whatever he gets right or wrong, there is neither hypocrisy nor ill will.
More than most of his contemporaries, Smith succeeded in recognizing the equal agency of individuals in the African diaspora. He acknowledged their suffering, identified the perpetrators, and avoided the explicit racism of his friend and admirer David Hume. I wouldn’t go so far as to claim Smith was woke, but for an eighteenth-century scholar whose life took him to only three countries—England, Scotland, and France—he did pretty well. He was anti-slavery, anti-racist, and anti-colonialist. As Lynn Hunt records in Inventing Human Rights, Smith’s work was essential in developing modern notions of empathy that led directly to the French Declaration of Human Rights and the Citizen, adopted ten months before his death.
Three quotations illustrating Smith’s opinion of slavery and Africans are worth noting:
“What a miserable life the slaves must have led; their life and their property intirely at the mercy of another, and their liberty, if they could be said to have any, at his disposall also” (LJ(B) iii.94).
“It is evident that the state of slavery must be very unhappy to the slave himself. This I need hardly to prove” (LJ(b) iii.112).
“Fortune never exerted more cruelly her empire over mankind, than when she subjected those nations of heroes to the refuse of the jails of Europe, to wretches who possess the virtues neither of the countries which they come from, nor of those which they go to, and whose levity, brutality, and baseness, so justly expose them to the contempt of the vanquished” (TMS, V.2.9).
Taken collectively, these remarks contain most of the desired elements of even our contemporary discourse on race: They take the experience of slaves seriously, treating them as objective reporters of their own pain. They assume that Africans are full persons and entitled, by nature, to life, property, liberty, and happiness. They declare that pain experienced by the slave is self-evident, waving away any need to “prove” it to others. They condemn the slave-holders and their enablers, precluding the possibility that they could be considered virtuous, despite their oppression of others. They treat Africans as a conquered people, nations unto themselves (although “nations” here means something different than the modern nation-state). Finally, they imply the existence of structural as well as personal racism, recognizing that slavery is a systemic problem with historical roots, not just an anomaly.
Smith also put his money where his mouth was. He explored the causes of slavery, offered a comparative sociology of slave conditions in different cultures, explained its economic failures, and argued for its immorality. I have more detailed accounts of each of these (here and here), so I’ll offer just a brief overview of the latter two.
Economics: Smith argues that slavery is always more expensive than free labor, despite what slaveholders might think. This is because the costs that would usually be borne by the worker are passed on to the slave holder, and because slaves have no motivation to do a good and efficient job. For Smith, all people are inspired by “the uniform, constant, and uninterrupted” motivation to better their own conditions, “a desire which, though generally calm and dispassionate, comes with us from the womb, and never leaves us till we go into the grave” (WN II.iii.31, 28). In arguing against slavery, Smith is asserting that slaves have this too, underscoring the humanity and personhood of the enslaved. Since this natural, human, and innate goal can never be fulfilled—since slaves’ lots in life can never be improved—they have no incentive to be good workers. Slavery will never be efficient or profitable enough to be preferable.
Morality: Smith’s moral argument against slavery involves entering into the perspective of the slave. Anyone who does so with any precision will imagine the slaves’ pain and necessarily condemn slavery. This includes the slaveholder who, when experiencing their victims’ pain, will condemn themselves, motivating moral change. For Smith, the experience of the slave is enough, all on its own, to reveal slavery’s improper nature.
I will return to Smith’s economic argument momentarily, but for now, Smith’s moral argument foreshadows three notions that have had long-standing impact on black history and world culture:
(1) It explains the centrality of racist arts and literature in slave-holding cultures: since slaveholders want to be shielded from this pain, they and their communities develop norms, habits, and texts designed to impair empathy rather than cultivate it.
(2) It excludes the most absurd argument for slavery, providing an implicit condemnation of modern voices that indefensibly claim African-American were “better off” as slaves because they were treated well by plantation owners.
(3) It argues against segregation. Since it presumes that all people share a commonality that can be bridged by the human imagination, there can be no essential impairment to cross-experiential understanding that would impair the mission of multiculturalism. In fact, elsewhere, Smith argues that there is no “original difference” between individuals (LJ(A) vi.47–48). Children are “very much alike, and neither their parents nor play-fellows could perceive any remarkable difference” (WN I.ii.4). Significant change only comes about when children are employed in different occupations, the effect of the division of labor (WN I.ii.4). In other words, segregation creates difference; it’s not a response to it.
Up to this point, I have argued that Smith offers an unimpeachable Enlightenment attempt at recognizing the equality, agency, and common humanity of all people, with particular acknowledgment of the African diaspora. However, I have not offered any suggestion as to why someone might want to read his work in February, specifically, as opposed to putting Smith aside for another time.
Again, I want to insist that for anyone who is willing, this is exactly what you should do. Leave Smith on the shelf; his work isn’t going anywhere. However, whether one approves of it or not, there are plenty of people who are not willing to center black voices. Whether out of ignorance, personal interest, an ideological opposition to diversity-based learning, or racism, there are still too many readers who will resist picking up a book by a black author during Black History Month. There are people who argue, for example, that ideas are distinct from their purveyors and that choosing authors because of their skin color promotes racism instead of diminishing it. I personally disagree with this position; I believe it misunderstands what racism is and how it is to be overcome. Nevertheless, my conviction doesn’t change the fact that such opinions are widely held.
I would suggest that the unwillingness to understand the true nature of racism is a failure of American conservatism, but it reveals an analogous failure of American progressivism. All too often, people on the left condemn their opponents as insidious or irredeemable. Events like Black History Month which should be opportunities for joint exploration and discussion, devolve into virtue-signaling competitions for the moral high-ground. The pervasive intolerance found in all points of the American political spectrum has stymied the collective community of inquiry that a liberal democracy is supposed to cultivate.
This, I would argue, is where Smith can excel. His work can serve as the next step for those who, for whatever reason, are not ready or willing to consider the revisionist texts that present counter-narratives to Eurocentric histories, American exceptionalism, and communal self-descriptions that systematically exclude native-born Africans and Afro-Caribbeans, and African-Americans, the three demographics we now refer to collectively as black.
Why? First, Smith’s defense of commercial society allows for a thoughtful discussion of the ways in which the free market both helps and hinders progress towards true equality. Since he argues that slavery does not make economic sense, readers can explore the idea that freeing slaves was a win-win scenario in everyone’s self-interest, and the reasons why so many were unable to see so.
This is not a moral argument against slavery, and it is likely to be unsatisfying for someone who wants to underscore that slavery would be impermissible even if it were profitable. It is still an important strategic argument worth celebrating. The oft-celebrated Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott of 1955 only made sense on the supposition that every passenger’s dollar was of equal value; the black riders knew that economics was on their side. Smith argues that the progress of free markets is the progress of political liberty. Is this true? It is a question worth discussing on his terms, separate from the current debate about the viability of “capitalism.”
A second reason to read Smith in February is his complex treatment of identity. Classical liberals tend to treat individuals as purely free agents, reducing culture, social pressures, and even personal prejudices to considerations that are secondary to people’s preferences—forces acting on one’s identity rather than elements of it. This approach runs counter to contemporary research on identity formation and misrepresents how difficult it actually is to transgress social norms. It also makes invisible the ways in which societies promote self-hatred among the marginalized, categorizing cultural stereotyping as mere obstructions to be overcome through sheer will. This often (but not always) leads to a victim-blaming mentality that puts the responsibility for inequality on the least-well off, rather than the forces that rig the system in advance. Smith does not do this.
His Theory of Moral Sentiments, in particular, is an attempt to systematize the many forces that construct one’s identity. He is clear that one’s individuality is ultimately defined by physical separateness, but recognizes that this material reality is subordinate to the ways in which people are taught to see themselves, how they communicate with others, and what they aspire to. As a simple but relevant example, Smith argues that necessities are not just limited to the basic needs of food, shelter, and safety, as is often presumed. Instead, “necessaries” include the style of clothes that are prerequisites to employment and social recognition. He uses leather shoes and linen shirts as examples (WN V.ii.k.3).
This reconsideration of social norms opens the door to discussion about the ways in which white employers judge black applicants on how they dress and speak, and what standards one should use to evaluate competence and potential. It can also lead to discussions about whether or not schools ought to teach “code-switching”—the ability to speak, act, and dress differently, depending on the makeup of the group the marginalized find themselves in.
A third reason to read Smith in February is that he puts on the table the idea of progress itself. His famous stage theory argues that the structure of government changes as the means of subsistence and production do, and that societies become more advanced as they move towards commercialism.
Here again, Smith’s argument is purely economic. He doesn’t suggest that earlier stages are morally inferior, nor does he claim that people in those stages are less worthy of political liberties. Nevertheless, progressive history has often been interpreted this way, in part because Smith utilizes problematic eighteenth-century terms like “savages” that now have racist connotations they did not have originally.
This is a conversation we must cultivate, especially since language has become so central to issues of recognition. It is this progressivist view of history that is most often associated with Eurocentric racism. Figuring out if the Enlightenment notion of progress is inherently racist is, it seems to me, an excellent topic to lead people from Smith to the counternarratives I mentioned above.
To conclude: everything I wrote in this essay is controversial. There are those who will take issue with my interpretation of Smith, as well as those who will challenge my depictions of the political left and right. Some readers might object to the “paternalism” of using Smith to teach people to think differently, just as others will object to me engaging with those who “should know better” than to dismiss black voices. Such is the culture of conflict we live in.
My ultimate point is that all of these objections can come out of a discussion of Adam Smith, making him an excellent source to explore the themes, goals, and narratives that Black History Month aims to emphasize. For a third time, I will affirm that in my mind, Smith should be a second choice. February is the time to prioritize black voices, albeit not the only time. Nevertheless, I would also suggest that Smith be part of the discussion for the other eleven months as well. Those who falsely dismiss him as a racist capitalist providing the imperialist foundation of the untenable racism that we all face today misrepresent him and reject a powerful ally. Adam Smith has a lot to teach all of us about what it means to live in a diverse and empathetic world.
Originally published, February 2021, on Liberty Matters, a blog hosted by The Liberty Fund.