Adam Smith’s Idea of the Invisible Hand

The Invisible Hand

Adam Smith’s notion of Divine Interventionism

Gwydion  Williams

The justification for New Right economics is the supposed ability of free markets to adjust themselves perfectly if only the state will leave them alone. Adam Smith’ s notion of an ‘invisible hand’ is commonly cited. We are told that the market will always find its own level. People who trade with each other will spontaneously organise themselves into some optimum set-up, if given the freedom to do so.

In the real world, markets don’t often find a sensible level. Wild fluctuations are a simple fact of life. Nor is it obvious why the level found by an uncontrolled market should be the same as the best level from a human point of view. People in a free market system will spontaneously organise themselves, just as the new Right say. But not necessarily in a way that will benefit other people, or even the traders themselves.

Graphite, diamond and buckminsterfullerene are three different forms of pure carbon, each arrived at by spontaneous self-organisation of carbon atoms. Graphite – flat sheets of atoms – is the simplest and the most common. Diamond, a complex regular lattice, requires very rare and special conditions, which is why they are precious stones. Buckminsterfullerene, atoms in a tiny molecular sphere resembling a football, seems not to occur naturally at all. At least not on Earth – it may exist naturally in interstellar space. Certainly, you do not find it naturally or make it easily, which was why this new form of carbon was only discovered a few years back. And of course the most commonly found form of carbon is soot, carbon atoms with no particular form or organisation. You are not likely to find diamonds up your chimney, nor even graphite. Only soot.

Water is something that definitely does have a spontaneous tendency to find its own level. To be precise, liquid water under the influence of gravity has a spontaneous tendency to flow downhill. Humans have been making use of water’s useful natural properties since the dawn of civilisation, and maybe even before that. But a lot of the skill involves precisely the limitation and regulation of water’s various spontaneous habits. Civilisation began with irrigation systems that found ways of controlling water on the flood-plains of great rivers. Later, much later, plumbers found ways of extending this control to drinking water and sewers, and these days also central heating. Even the most dedicated New Rightist does not like it when this system of regulation breaks down .and water resumes its normal and natural pattern of behaviour.

To drive a car, it is necessary to use an accelerator. But you can not drive a car simply by use of the accelerator. Fast acceleration is justified in some circumstances – occasionally it may even be the best way out of a dangerous situation. But apply fast acceleration as a solution in all circumstances, and you will very soon kill yourself. And while it is true that people sometimes cause accidents or delays by bad steering, to ‘solve’ this by removing the steering wheel would not be a good idea.

To continue the car analogy. A back-seat observer who had failed to grasp the basic principles of driving might note that at those times when the driver was doing very little – as on a motorway – the car was progressing very fast. Whereas in a town, the driver would be making small adjustments all the time, and yet the car would be going much more slowly. They might therefore conclude that the driver should do as little as possible – ideally nothing at all. They could produce excellent statistic to show a strong positive correlation between the driver doing very little and the car progressing very fast.

This sort of false logic is exactly what Adam Smith applied in his study of early capitalism. Capitalism of a sort had been going in Britain for several centuries, as had various early industries. The process began to really take off and expand in tile middle of the 18th century. 1760 is a commonly cited date. One could also make out a good argument for drawing the line slightly earlier, or perhaps slightly later. but 1760 is tile most reasonable choice. Certainly industrial capitalism was a large and growing force in 1776. when the Wealth of Nations was published. In 1776, the British economy was astonishingly prosperous, by 18th century standards. And this process had involved a mixture of private enterprise and state intervention, within a highly protectionist framework of external tariffs.

Adam Smith, of course, said that Britain had prospered despite protectionism, not because of it. But most subsequent cases of successful industrialisation have occurred behind high tariff walls. America was protectionist until its industries were strong enough to win tile battle of free trade. The EEC, with high trade barriers against non-EEC nations, grew strong while free-trade Britain declined and finally had to beg for admission on the EEC’s terms. And Japan remains highly protectionist, even though it is now beginning to loosen a little.

Britain had the ultra-protectionist Navigation Acts in the period between 1651 and 1849 – precisely the period of its greatest success. And it had been fairly protectionist even before 1651. The period of relatively free trade after 1849 more or less matches the decline of Britain’s position as tile world’s richest and most industrialised nation. There were of course many factors. But it takes a great deal of jiggery-pokery to make it seem that free trade is always good for people, as Smith firmly believed it was. In so far as one can draw general rules, the very reverse is true.

Regulated trade was the policy advocated by Friedrich List, who wrote a few years after Smith. Smith had stated dogmatically that state regulation is always bad and that free trade is always good. List argued that an agricultural nation would never be able to create its own industries without protectionism. England in tile Middle Ages had been a relatively poor nation, a supplier of raw materials like wool to more prosperous and sophisticated regions like Germany and the Netherlands. English protectionism had allowed this position to be reversed. creating a situation in which British industry eventually became the best in the world, and had at least a short-term interest in trade permissiveness.

List advised the nations of Europe to follow the policy that was then being practised by the Americans – protect home industries, at least until they had overcome the advantage that Britain undoubtedly had in the early 19th century. And this was pretty much what happened – Germany and America protected the growth of their industries until they were able to match and indeed exceed tile best Britain could manage. If you want a ‘prophet of capitalism’, List was a much better prophet than Smith ever was.

In so far as there was a British ‘prophet of capitalism’, Petty in tile 17th century deserves the title. In his Essays of the Growth of London, he even foresaw the possibility of Britain becoming a largely industrial society. with farmers and agricultural workers reduced to a small minority. But there has been a natural reluctance to make him a hero of the New Right. For one thing. there is his role in helping with land confiscations in Ireland after the Cromwellian conquest The bald facts of the matter have resisted the best efforts of Petty’ s biographers to make it seem respectable. Particularly since Petty grew very rich in the process, having stayed safely on the sidelines during the Civil War itself.

Great thinkers are not necessarily admirable characters. Petty was definitely a worse human being than Smith. But his notions are far more in line with actual developments than Smith’s ever were. And he wrote much earlier, at a time when an industrial revolution was a fantastical notion deriving from Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis. In Smith’s day it was a living reality that any intelligent person could observe.

It is not just Petty’s character that has stopped him from being taken up by the New Right. He was no dogmatic believer in free trade, though he did see that trade liberalisation would be useful in some cases. He also said that measures of trade liberalisation should be introduced with proper care to the national interest – exactly what all governments have actually done. He foresaw that a new society might come into being that would be quite unlike anything that had gone before. He realised, long before anyone else, that you could have an industrial society after several thousand years in which agriculture had been dominant. But he has been relegated to the footnotes of history. We have an Adam Smith Institute but no Petty Association.

The Wealth of Nations shows no inkling at all that something quite new had begun within Adam Smith’s own lifetime. The nearest he comes is to note that the nations of Western Europe are catching up on China (I.xi.e.35), which he reckons to be “much richer than any part of Europe” (Lxi.n.l , Glasgow Edition of 1976). He also says

“the annual production of the land and labour of England, for example, is certainly much greater than it was, a little more than a century ago, at The restoration of Charles II… The annual produce of the land and labour of England again, was certainly much greater at the restoration, than we can suppose it to have been about a hundred years before, at the accession of Elizabeth.” (II.iii.33 – 34.)

And so back to the middle ages, the dark ages and Britain at the time of the Roman invasion, which he wrongly supposes to have been at the same level as the ‘savages’ of North America. Smith does correctly note a gradual improvement, century after century, at a time when most thinkers believed that humans had declined from some archaic golden age. But Smith does not deal with setbacks like the Saxon and Viking invasions, and also the decline in the 14th century. Nor does he show any inkling or the degree to which everything would change in the century after 1776.

A man or woman from 1576 or 1676 would have found Britain in 1776 a much richer, safer and more stable society than their own time, but still broadly familiar. Take someone from 1776 to 1876 and everything would have changed – they might be reluctant to accept that they were in the same country. Likewise for someone taken from 1876 to 1976. For that matter, the world in 1993 is something that no one at all would have anticipated in 1963. Even The television SF world of [the original series of]  Star Trek, the boldest and best forecast from that era, now looks quaint and out of date.

One crucial development of Adam Smith’s time was James Watt’s improvement of The steam engine. Watt was attached as a scientific instrument maker to the University of Glasgow, so for much of the time he was working right next door to Smith. who was a professor there. They even had a friend in common. Joseph Black, one of the two executors of Adam Smith’s will, a pioneering chemist and physicist, the leading authority in his day on the physics of heat. There was a fruitful interaction between Watt and Black. The crucial improvement of adding a separate condenser to the existing Newcomen Engine was entirely Watt’s own idea. But he certainly learned his habit of careful measurements from Black. And his first unsuccessful attempts at improving The steam engine were inspired by John Robison, a student of Joseph Black. Robison had a vision of ‘steam cars’ that was far ahead of anything that was possible at the time, and his specific ideas came to nothing. But he certainly gave Watt the notion that existing steam engines could be improved.

Anyway, Adam Smith overlooked all of this. His only reference to steam is to cite a supposed example of self-interest producing general benefit. He tells a story about a child worker who supposedly made a useful improvement to the Newcomen Engine (I.i.8.) Child labour was something that bothered him not at all. But the story in question is generally regarded as a very early bit of industrial mythology. Even the Glasgow Edition of Smith’s works says that it “seems untrue” (Ibid, I.i.8).

Smith was not actually much of a prophet. He overlooked a lot of things that were going on right under his nose. So there is little reason to accept his dogmatic belief that free trade is always benevolent and that the market always knows best. Nor does the failure of the USSR prove the dogma. To return to my analogy of car drivers, it is certainly true that bad driving will sometimes cause disaster, with the car perhaps ending up as a total write-off. This does not mean that the car would have managed better if The driver had taken his hands off the wheel and adopted an attitude of complete laisse faire.

It should also be noted that the USSR was a great economic success in the Stalin era, with total state planning and a deliberate isolation from the rest of the world. The spiral down began when Khrushchev decided to move to something much more like the Western European pattern of a Mixed Economy. Perhaps his policy would have been successful if it had been applied earlier and in a more thorough-going way. The person who definitely doomed the USSR was undoubtedly Leonid Brezhnev. If Czechoslovakia had not been crushed in 1968, Eastern Europe and Russia might have merged quite easily and smoothly with Western Europe. And if history had gone that way, it is doubtful if such a thing as Thatcherism would ever have developed.

In any case, Brezhnevism was a doomed system all along, despite the very considerable power that it possessed at one time. Khrushchev had destroyed the brutal certainties of the Stalin era, along with a great deal of genuine idealism that had made Leninism a power on The world stage. Carried through seriously, ‘de-Stalinisation’ might have regenerated the system. But Khrushchev himself turned against The logic of what he was doing by invading Hungary in 1956. Brezhnev compounded the error and doomed The system.

It is greatly to the disgrace of the Left throughout the world that almost all of them continued to fawn on Brezhnev for as long as he seemed to be leading a great power. It was a course of action that was at all times obviously immoral. It turned out to be highly unwise as well. This is hardly surprising – the rules of morality, in so far as they are not local and accidental, can only have been formulated to protect people from courses of action that seem attractive but lead to long-term disaster.

Because of the errors made by many on the left – particularly the opposition to moderate reform and workers control in the 1970s – we have now suffered a massive setback to socialism. We are now stuck with a government that will defend market dogma to the last drop of oilier people’s blood.

On the positive side, the New Right are a bunch of arrogant fools who apply some half dozen crude dogmas to the whole complexity of social and economic life. Had they had the good sense to drop Thatcherism when the lady herself was thrown out, they would be something much more formidable. As things- are, they have blundered their way into a recession and annoyed many of the middle-income groups who have been essential to their electoral success.

All real-life markets have a vast collection of rules and regulations, just in order to keep them functional. In the real world, the self-interest of borrowers would very often lead them to simply ignore their debts, if they could get away with it. And the self-interest of employers would lead them to set wages only just above starvation level – which was what actually happened until trade unions became strong. In the USA, where labour laws are weak and trade unions small and corrupt, there has been an actual fall in real wages over the 1980s. Absolutely none of the benefits of the USA’s impressive growth went to ordinary Americans. All of it, and more besides, was ‘sucked up’ by The really rich, The top one or two percent who get most of their income from ownership.

The US pattern has been quite different from Britain. In Britain the top 10% did very well and The average wage-earner did OK, with only The poor losing ground. In the USA, the Reagan and Bush years have seen a net reduction in the rewards for hard work . Even The Economist, bold defender of the rich and powerful, cannot deny the bald facts. (See July 24th 1993, p 73, for instance.) By voting for tax cuts, ordinary American have ended up giving themselves savage wage cuts. That’s the price of greed.

Adam Smith and his handy invisible friends

What did Smith actually mean when he talked about the ‘invisible hand’? He first used the phrase in a very early work, his History or Astronomy. Discussing primitive beliefs, he says

“in all Polytheistic religions, among savages, as well as in the early ages of Heathen antiquity, it is the irregular events of nature only that are ascribed to the agency and power of their gods. Fire burns, and water refreshes, and lighter substances fly upwards, by the necessity of their own nature; nor was the invisible hand of Jupiter ever apprehended to be employed in those matters. But thunder and lightning, storms and sunshine, those more irregular events were ascribed to his favour, or his anger.” (Page 49-50, Essays on Philosophical Subjects, Glasgow Edition 1980. Emphasis added.)

Here the ‘invisible hand’ is explicitly seen as divine intervention.

Smith used the phrase again in his first major work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He uses it in connection with a rather odd notion about the distribution of wealth. He seems to be arguing that the rich arc not actually any better off than anyone else, a notion that his admirers prefer to take no notice of. Anyway, what he says is

“The produce of the soil maintains at all times nearly that number of inhabitants which it is capable of maintaining. The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume Lillie more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own convenience … 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 this without intending it, without knowing it. advance the interests of the society. and afford means for the multiplication of the species. When Providence divided the earth al/long a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left 0111 in the partition.” (Glasgow Edition, pages 185 – 186. IV.I.IQ. Emphasis added.)

Does Smith really mean that a society with unequal wealth works in exactly the same way as one in which property has been equally shared out? It seems a crazy idea, but it is what the man says. In any case, once again some form of divine intervention is supposed. In this case it appears to be regulating humanity regardless of selfish individual desires.

The final case comes from The Wealth of Nations itself. Discussing how an investor may choose to invest his capital, Smith says :-

“But the annual revenue of every society is always precisely equal to the exchangeable value of the whole annual produce of its industry… every Individual necessarily labours lo render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generality, indeed. neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting ii. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value. he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of his intention …

“It is the maxim of even· prudent master of a family, never 10 attempt to make at home what it will cost him more to make that to buy. The tailor does not attempt to make his own shoes, but buys them of the shoemaker.

“What is prudent in the conduct of every private family, can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom. If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we. ourselves can make it, better buy it off them with some part of the produce of our own industry, employed in a way in which we have some advantage.” (Glasgow Edition, page 456 – 457, IV.ii.9 – 12. Emphasis added.)

In this case, there is no very explicit reference to Divine Providence. But how else should one interpret the passage?

From a common-sense point of view, there is no justification for Smith’s belief. It is hardly to be doubted that if you destroy a domestic industry in order to get a cheaper foreign product, you will indeed get a cheaper foreign product. But whether your own society will be richer or poorer as a result is much less clear. Smith and his successors blandly assume that new jobs will be created automatically to replace those that are destroyed by foreign competition. This assumption may or may not be correct. It might be entirely true for a prosperous thriving economy with a labour shortage, and utterly false for a contracting or stagnant economy with high unemployment. Smith’s dogmatic assertion that it would always be useful rests on no facts at all.

One suspects that Adam Smith’s faith in free trade and free markets is based on a simple assumption that this was the Will of God, which Adam Smith had been clever enough to recognise. He was raised as a Presbyterian, and a lot of his economic doctrine sounds like a simple application of the Presbyterian idea of predestination to economic theory. Smith was providing an economic theology to justify what was already being done in the economy – much of it by Presbyterians, Quakers and members of other small Protestant Churches.

Of course Smith had privately abandoned most aspects of Presbyterianism, and indeed Christianity in general, long before he wrote The Wealth of Nations. Most of his biographers carefully avoid the subject, but the evidence is solid enough. He was undoubtedly a Deist, a believer in God but not in Jesus or Christianity. Given the times he lived in, he could hardly be expected to openly repudiate the authority of the Gospels. But it is noticeable that he wrote an entire book about moral sentiments without saying a word about Jesus or the Bible, or anything indeed from the whole Judeo-Christian tradition. Merely a few critical remarks about Catholic practice and ·• the futile mortifications of a monastery” (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 111.2.35). Sniping at Catholicism was safe enough, in the strongly Protestant Britain of his day.

Despite his rejection of Christianity, Smith blandly assumed that God was taking care of everything, Thus later on in The Theory of Moral Sentiments he says :-

“The wise and virtuous man is at all times willing that his own private interest should be sacrificed to the public interest of his own particular order or society. He is at all times willing, too, that the interests of this order or society should be sacrificed to the greater interests of the state or sovereignty, of which it is only a subordinate part. He should, therefore, be equally willing that all those inferior parts should be sacrificed to the greater interest of the universe, to the interest of that great society of all sensible and intelligent beings, of which God himself is the immediate administrator and director. If he is deeply impressed with the habitual and thorough conviction that this benevolent and all-wise Being can admit into the system of his government. no partial evil which is not necessary for the universal good, he must consider all the misfortunes which m ay befall that all the misfortunes which may befall himself, his friends, his society, or his country, as necessary for the prosperity of the universe … ” (Ibid, p 235 – 236, VI.ii.3.3. Emphasis added.)

Quite why Smith thought that this world-view was compatible with free-market capitalism is a puzzle. He produced a revised edition of Moral Sentiments after the publication of The Wealth of Nations, without resolving the matter. Anyway, it is his free-market faith that has been socially significant. And it seems to be no more than a carry-over of Presbyterian thinking from a man who had rejected the Gospels.

Smith asserts that foolish men pursuing selfish interests would produce exactly the same result as wise men acting benevolently. He thinks that God will somehow take care of the matter. The simple operation of a free market will develop the world in accordance with the wishes of Divine Providence. God is Mammon, and love of money is the root of all virtue. That was how Adam Smith saw things.

Now if one could indeed trust a benevolent God to take care of such matters, life would be a very different matter. If lightning from the sky were to fall inevitably on any wrongdoer or disturber of the peace, we could do without the police, army, navy etc. But real life is not like that. Christians suppose that life might have been like that before the Fall of Man, but certainly not nowadays, which is pretty much what Smith is arguing. The various religions of the world are unanimous in saying that people have an obligation to help each other and try to be kind to each other. They may differ on many points of theology. They may teach very different rules about sex, diet, prayer etc. But the obligation to try to do good is a common theme of all of the different faiths. And one may suppose that they have this common factor for some very good reasons – if not God, then surely the need for kindness and cooperation just in order to keep society alive.

Smith is not merely a believer in Divine Intervention, but someone who flatly contradicts most of what is believed by other devoutly religious people. Even if you see various misfortunes as in some way contributing towards a greater good, this does not relieve you of the obligation to try to do something about it. In the abstract, Smith’s doctrine may seem logical. But what would we say about someone who casually watched a neighbour’s house bum down with the whole family inside it, and never bothered to raise the alarm? Would it be acceptable for the negligent neighbour to say that it was really up to God to decide if those people lived or died?

There may be situations in which it is wisest to do nothing. If you see someone who has just been run over, and you know nothing about first aid, you would be well advised not to touch them. Well-intentioned attempts at healing by an untrained person are more likely to kill that to cure. But you would have a general obligation to do the best you could – such as summoning someone who did know what they were doing.

Smith’s theory of Divine Interventionism is cited by selfish people as an excuse for not doing the things that they would rather not be bothered with. You don’t find people applying it to things that they want to do. Mrs Thatcher applied the doctrine of the Invisible Hand to unemployment, but not to the occupation of the Falkland Islands.

Adam Smith and Christianity.

Formally speaking, Smith was a member of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Privately he was an 18th century Deist, a Civilised Pagan who looked back to pre-Christian Greece and Rome as a source of enlightenment. This was common enough among the rich and the well-educated in Western Europe in the 18th century. Thus when Coleridge visited Germany in the late 1790s, the advanced thinkers he met were very surprised to learn that he was a serious believer in Christianity.

Most of those involved in the Enlightenment and the early Romantic Movement were lapsed Christians who had small regard for the religion of their fathers. Indeed, what sense does the term ‘Enlightenment’ make, unless the well-established Christianity of earlier centuries is seen as part of the darkness? How can you speak of an Age of Reason, unless you privately feel that your predecessors were hardly reasonable at all?

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith refers repeatedly to God. He makes it clear that the idea of God was very important to him. He had a very definite notion of what God was doing in the world. But Smith’s opinions about God are not linked to anything at all in the whole of the Judeo-Christian tradition. There is only a slighting reference to the futility of the monastic way of life – a totally safe sentiment in an epoch when hatred of Roman Catholicism and all its works was very much the norm among Britons.

The actual development of Smith’s thought is uncertain. He could not have openly repudiated Christianity without making himself an outlaw. But it is known that he got into trouble for reading the works of David Hume while he was a student at Oxford. Hume was later to become one of his closest friends. And Hume was widely and correctly seen as someone who wanted to undermine Christian belief. Some regarded him as an atheist, which was probably wrong. He was most likely a Deist, someone who believed in God but not the Judeo-Christian heritage.

But at times he sounds totally skeptical – even the rationalised God of Deism strained his belief. His Dialogue on Natural Religion examines all existing arguments for God and finds that none of them are unanswerable.

Smith, by contrast, was a devout and confident Deist. That he was only nominally Christian is not to be seriously doubted. The topic is simply avoided by most commentators. One book that does say something Adam Smith in his time and ours: designing the decent society, by Jerry Z. Muller, associate professor of history at the Catholic University of America. Though keen to see Smith in as favourable a light as possible, Muller cannot deny Smith’s “deistic distaste”, not just for Catholicism but for Christianity in general.

In a letter to his good friend Alexander Wedderburn, Smith said

“Poor David Hume is dying very fast, but with great cheerfulness and good humour and with more real resignation to the necessary course of things, than any Whining Christian ever died with pretended resignation to the will of God”. (Correspondence of Adam Smith, Letter 163, Glasgow Edition.)

Wedderburn, a fellow Scotsman who was then Solicitor-General in the government of Lord North, is an . interesting character in his own right. The radical pamphleteer Junius said of him “As for Mr Wedderburn, there is something about him, which even. treachery cannot trust.” From the other side of the politics of the day, George III said upon hearing of Wedderburn’ s death “then he has not left a greater knave behind him in my dominions“. Wedderburn’s earlier role in the examination of Benjamin Franklin by the Privy Council was described by Hume as “most cruel, without being in the least blameable” (Letter 140). Others have felt that his behaviour on this occasion made war with the American colonies inevitable.

Incidentally, Smith’s strong support for the government of George III against the American Revolutionaries is another of the little details that his boosters say nothing about.

From what Smith says to him, it is obvious that Wedderburn was as much a lapsed Christian as Hume and Smith, though the public would not have known this. And Smith took a cautious attitude towards Hume’s public expression of his views. Hume had written works that implicitly set out a non-Christian philosophy of life. He wanted Smith to organise the publication of his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion as soon as Hume himself was dead (and thus immune to prosecution). Hume assured Smith that “I find that nothing can he more cautiously and more artfully written“. But no amount of artfulness could produce works that would be understood by possible converts, but not by existing opponents. Smith, ever cautious for his reputation, was unwilling to run such a risk. It was left to others to publish Hume’s Dialogue, along with some unpublished essays. (These posthumous works included On Suicide, which Hume regarded as justifiable, though he himself died of natural causes.)

Though he declined to risk issuing Hume’s heretical works, Smith did publish a letter that was actually to cause more trouble than the works he had refused to touch. Smith was often lacking in judgment, as well as being inclined to absent-mindedness. He once walked into a tanning pit while showing some visitors the rising industry of Scotland. And on another occasion a lady observed him trying to make tea using bread and butter, and then remarking on how bad it tasted. Anyway, he was genuinely surprised by the fuss that resulted from his judgment of Hume. He had merely said that he considered Britain’s best-known skeptic “both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit“. And earlier Smith had quoted Hume as follows:-

“‘I could not well imagine’ said he [Hume}, “what excuse I could make to Charon [the Greek god who was ferryman of the dead] in order to obtain a little delay … I might still urge ‘Have a little patience, good Charon. I have been endeavouring to open the eyes of the Public. If/ live a few years longer. I may have the satisfaction of seeing the downfall of some of the prevailing systems of superstitions. But Charon would then lose all temper and decency. ‘You loitering rogue, that will not happen these many hundred years. Do you fancy I will grant you a lease for so long a term? Get into the boat this instant, you lazy loitering rogue’.”

“But, though Mr Hume always talked of his approaching dissolution with great cheerfulness, lie never affected to make any parade of magnanimity. He never mentioned the subject but when the conversation naturally led to it … “. (Ibid, letter 178.)

Coleridge must have had this passage in mind when he spoke of the “Scotch philosopher who devoted his life to the undermining of the Christian religion; and expended his last breath in a blasphemous regret that he had not survived it.”[A]

Note that in his own time, Coleridge was chiefly famous as a thinker and public lecturer. His poetry was too odd and disconnected to be particularly popular. and Coleridge himself lost faith in his poetic talents. Even when his poems became famous, his philosophical works were also seen as very important. It was only towards the end of the 19th century that people lost interest in Coleridge’s non-literary productions.

Coleridge was easily able to see the anti-Christian side of Hume – he had after all spent many years in the British radical movement. Radicalism was evenly divided between those like Coleridge who took Christianity very seriously, and those like Shelley for whom the Biblical tradition was essentially false. But it seems never to have occurred lo Coleridge to make any link between Hume’ s attempts to undermine Christianity and the economic doctrine that Adam Smith put forward. The actual development of society under capitalist influence has certainly fulfilled Hume’s wish to see the “downfall of some of the prevailing systems of superstition” in a mere two centuries. It has also produced a society in which Coleridge’s philosophical views sound hopelessly old and out of touch. While his poems no longer seem at all strange. but rather routine and conventional.

Adam Smith reconciled Pagans and Puritans in an admiration for capitalism. Not only was his work a piece of Economic Theology, it was theology that managed to reconcile itself to two essentially hostile creeds. A reconciliation that was to continue with the reborn Tory party that fought and won the Napoleonic Wars and oversaw the critical early stages of the Age of Steam. Smith was a Whig, but of the sort who later followed Pitt and Burke into a permanent coalition with Toryism. Pitt’s Whig-Tory coalition put into practice many of Smith’s ideas, just as Lord North had done in an earlier era. And Hume, of course, was a Tory all along.

Neither Hume nor Smith belong to the tradition of those Whigs who followed Fox and gave rise to 19th century Liberalism. It was only in the early 19th century that Liberalism became the name for a political creed, a fusion of moderate radicals and those Whigs who declined to follow Pitt and Burke. The term ‘liberal’ has been applied it retrospectively to Adam Smith’s beliefs and to his economics. But this may well be an historic error. Thatcher’s dogmatic application of free market ideas is less of an aberration that some traditional Tories have supposed. And in seeing these ideas as compatible with Christianity. she is merely repeating a very old folly.

Though Hume failed to do very much damage to Christianity, it has suffered an unprecedented collapse during the very period of the rise of industrial capitalism. The death of ‘contemporary superstition’ took far less time than the centuries Hume bad been expecting. But then, the whole growth of industry was also much quicker than Smith had been expecting.

With all of the suspicion and paranoia, why have the right-wing not noticed such obvious links? Because it does not suit them to do so, one suspects. The collapse of Christian values in the society is a perfectly reasonable and expected result of placing highly un-Christian values at the heart of social and economic life. But it’s much easier and safer to try to shift the blame elsewhere.

Speaking personally, I do not think that there was ever as any formal conspiracy or plot involved. It could be that Hume primed Smith to write a work justifying the newly emerging forces of industrial capitalism. Hume himself had written some interesting things about political economy, and it is unlikely that the two of them never discussed the matter. And whereas Hume was viewed with suspicion by a large section of the reading public, Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments bad been widely admired. He was exactly the right person to spread reassurance and to tell those involved in the new economics that they were not undermining existing society, as many feared that they were. (E.g. Goldsmith’ s famous lines, ‘Ill fares the land, to lingering ills a prey / When wealth accumulates, and men decay”)

In any case, the whole matter soon got beyond anyone’s control. Though Smith and Hume were supporters of the l8th century ruling class, Smith’s ideas as set out in The Wealth of Nations could be quite easily applied elsewhere. And there were many struggles – most notably the American War of Independence – which cut across the covert struggle between Puritans and Deists. Both sorts were found on both sides of that particular struggle. The United States did in fact become the first European nation in centuries not to make some form of Christianity its official creed. It was also the first state in history, as far as I know, to have no official religion or state cult at all. The Declaration of Independence speaks of ‘nature and nature’s God’, a concept that can mean anything or nothing. The Constitution itself says nothing about God (and also nothing about family values). There is just the 2nd amendment, which forbids the establishment of any religion.

It was in the United States of America that the most destructive aspects of capitalism have been developed, along with a loud and hypocritical adherence to the externals of Christianity.

Smith spoke of “that great society of all sensible and intelligent beings, of which God himself is the immediate administrator and director.” Most people ill Britain today have some sort of notion of some higher supernatural, religious or spiritual power. But very few of them would be happy with the notion that everyone can do as they please, relying on God to stop it all from falling into chaos. Yet this does seem to have been Smith’s actual belief. God is Mammon, and love of money is the root of all virtue. Not state interventionism but divine interventionism, which would obviously be better if you really believe in a God who would behave like that.

This same idea lies at the heart of New Right thinking. Quite possibly the New Rightists themselves do not quite realise it. You get a vague reference to Adam Smith and the ‘invisible hand’ – generally assumed to be some sort of property of a Free Market. The dogmatic and theological nature of this belief is overlooked. And they are always very very surprised when actual history fails to end. When the very forces that they have promoted destroy all that they· value, they can manage nothing better than a winge. As T. S. Elliot put it, not with a bang but a whimper.


This article appeared in November 1993, in Issue 38 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at and

[A] The Statesman’s Manual , 1816, p 20 in Political Tracts of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley, Cambridge University Press 1953.)