Adam Smith as Patron Saint of Supply-Side Liberalism?

I am thinking about adopting Adam Smith as patron saint of Supply-Side Liberalism. As a Unitarian-Universalist and teleotheist (see my post “Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life”), for me “saint” means much the same thing as “hero”: someone who makes the world a better place in a notable way. However, it would do violence to the English language not to recognize the other part of the meaning of “saint”–which “hero” does not share: lack of serious skeletons in the closet.  So this is a crowd-sourcing post. Do you know of any skeletons in Adam Smith’s closet? How bad are the worst things he ever did?

To make the distinction between hero and saint clear, let me say that Andrei Shleifer is absolutely a hero of economics in my book, having done wonderful things for economics–and given the influence of economics, for the world. I find Andrei Shleifer one of the most impressive economists in the world in person as well as in print. But the lawsuit against him put him under enough of a cloud that it doesn’t seem quite appropriate to call him a saint without more information than I have. The influence of this lawsuit on his reputation and his public role has left many non-economists unaware of just how important Andrei Shleifer is for economics. (Note: in my post “Future Heroes of Humanity and Heroes of Japan” I have also promised the status of “hero”–and would be fully willing to consider sainthood in my book–on certain conditions to those in the Monetary Policy Board of the Bank of Japan :)

Since the history of economic thought has not been a focus of mine, my knowledge of Smith’s life was very limited, so I took time this morning to read the wikipedia article on Adam Smith. I didn’t see anything there that I consider a skeleton, but my efforts were well-rewarded with insights into Adam Smith’s life. For example, I learned about the teacher behind Adam Smith’s basic take on things–Francis Hutcheson, “preacher of philosophy”:

Smith’s discontent at Oxford might be in part due to the absence of his beloved teacher in Glasgow, Francis Hutcheson. Hutcheson was well regarded as one of the most prominent lecturers at the University of Glasgow in his day and earned the approbation of students, colleagues, and even ordinary residents with the fervor and earnestness of his orations (which he sometimes opened to the public). His lectures endeavored not merely to teach philosophy but to make his students embody that philosophy in their lives, appropriately acquiring the epithet, the preacher of philosophy. Unlike Smith, Hutcheson was not a system builder; rather it was his magnetic personality and method of lecturing that so influenced his students and caused the greatest of those to reverentially refer to him as “the never to be forgotten Hutcheson"––a title that Smith in all his correspondence used to describe only two people, his good friend David Hume and influential mentor Francis Hutcheson.[17]

I learned that Adam Smith spent time with Hume, as well as Benjamin Franklin and many other important historical figures (two separate passages):

In 1750, he met the philosopher David Hume, who was his senior by more than a decade. In their writings covering history, politics, philosophy, economics, and religion, Smith and Hume shared closer intellectual and personal bonds than with other important figures of the Scottish Enlightenment.[21]

From Geneva, the party moved to Paris. Here Smith came to know several great intellectual leaders of the time; invariably having an effect on his future works. This list included: Benjamin Franklin,[27]TurgotJean D'AlembertAndré MorelletHelvétius and, notably, François Quesnay; head of the Physiocratic school.[28] So impressed with his ideas[29] Smith considered dedicating The Wealth of Nations to him – had Quesnay not died beforehand.[30]

I learned that Adam Smith was a "prototypical absent-minded professor” who lived with his mother:

Not much is known about Smith’s personal views beyond what can be deduced from his published articles. His personal papers were destroyed after his death at his request.[45] He never married,[47] and seems to have maintained a close relationship with his mother, with whom he lived after his return from France and who died six years before his own death.[48]

Smith, who is often described as a prototypical absent-minded professor,[49] is considered by historians to have been an eccentric but benevolent intellectual, comically absent-minded, with peculiar habits of speech and gait, and a smile of “inexpressible benignity”.[50] He was known to talk to himself,[43] a habit that began during his childhood when he would speak to himself and smile in rapt conversation with invisible companions.[49] He also had occasional spells of imaginary illness,[43] and he is reported to have had books and papers placed in tall stacks in his study.[49]

Various anecdotes have discussed his absent-minded nature. In one story, Smith took Charles Townshend on a tour of a tanning factory, and while discussing free trade, Smith walked into a huge tanning pit from which he needed help to escape.[51] Another episode records that he put bread and butter into a teapot, drank the concoction, and declared it to be the worst cup of tea he ever had. In another example, Smith went out walking and daydreaming in his nightgown and ended up 15 miles (24 km) outside town before nearby church bells brought him back to reality.[49][51]

Adam Smith seems to have been honest. For example, he tried to refund his students’ fees when he had to leave in the middle of a semester:

At the end of 1763, he obtained an offer from Charles Townshend—who had been introduced to Smith by David Hume—to tutor his stepson, Henry Scott, the young Duke of Buccleuch. Smith then resigned from his professorship to take the tutoring position, and he subsequently attempted to return the fees he had collected from his students because he resigned in the middle of the term, but his students refused.[25]

The worst behavior I could find in the wikipedia article was an excessive concern with selling books, according to James Boswell (who is famous for his accounts of Samuel Johnson):

James Boswell who was a student of Smith’s at Glasgow University, and later knew him at the Literary Club, says that Smith thought that speaking about his ideas in conversation might reduce the sale of his books, and so his conversation was unimpressive. According to Boswell, he once told Sir Joshua Reynolds that ‘he made it a rule when in company never to talk of what he understood’.[52]

In terms of Smith’s suitability as a secular saint, the debate recounted in wikipedia is about whether he was a deist or an atheist. But in Adam Smith’s day–before Charles Darwin made it possible to understand the diversity and ingenious adaptedness of life without needing God to make sense of things–being a deist who believed that God started the universe off and let it run like clockwork was the equivalent then of being an atheist today. (Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species came out in 1859–83 years after Adam Smith’s 1776 Wealth of Nations.)

I won’t try to summarize the discussion of Adam Smith’s views, but I definitely see in Adam Smith both (anachronistically speaking) supply-side views and liberal views, in all senses of the word liberal. Compare what wikipedia says about different takes on Adam Smith’s views to my definition of a supply-side liberal in my first post “What is a Supply-Side Liberal.”

Let me address one last point. Some may object to claiming Adam Smith as patron saint of Supply-Side Liberalism on the basis that he is already taken as patron saint (as well as father) of modern economics. But I don’t see this as much of an objection. Catholic saints are often claimed as patron saints of many different domains. And it can be argued that  supply-side liberalism in the very broadest sense of

  1. trying to raise social welfare conceived in a way that counts a dollar to the poor as worth more than a dollar to the rich, while
  2. worrying a great deal about distortions,

is the drift of much of mainstream economics when it turns to making normative prescriptions. And Adam Smith was clearly willing to make normative prescriptions for making the world a better place. I am deeply grateful that, to an important though imperfect extent, Adam Smith succeeded in persuading the world to follow his advice.