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By Iain McLean


The Montréal Review, July 2011


 "Adam Smith, Radical and Egalitarian: An Interpretation for the 21st Century" by Iain McLean (Edinburgh University Press, 2004)


A few years ago, I published a book with this title (1), responding to a question posed by Gordon Brown. Brown, then the UK's finance minister and later Prime Minister, comes from the same small Scottish town as Adam Smith - Kirkcaldy in Fife, north of Edinburgh. At a public lecture in 2002, Brown asked why Smith's legacy was exclusively claimed by the free-market right. Did it not equally inspire the social-democratic left?

Absolutely it should. Or so I claim in my book. Adam Smith was one of the pre-eminent figures of the 18th -century Scottish Enlightenment, together with his close friend David Hume and the Ayrshire poet whom he sponsored, Robert Burns. He wrote not one but two big books. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), which Smith himself saw as his more important book, Smith asks, in effect, How to we recognise something as being a moral sentiment. In a nutshell, his answer is that we ask ourselves how an "impartial observer" would see it. That terrifying impartial observer constrains ourselves. As Smith put it, "If we saw ourselves in the light in which others see us, ... a reformation would generally be unavoidable. We could not otherwise endure the sight". In Burns' memorable paraphrase of this, in the last verse of his To a Louse: on seeing one on a lady's bonnet at church:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!

It wad frae mony a blunder free us,

An' foolish notion:

What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us,

And ev'n devotion!

Smith and Burns were equally scornful of the airs and graces, and fancy dress, affected by the rich and powerful. Adam Smith was not religious; but his ethical values were surely influenced by the contemporary, Calvinist, Church of Scotland. Calvinism rarely gets a good press, but it has a powerfully egalitarian side. Truth is equally open to any believer; there is no hierarchy, as in other churches, (such as the Church of England and the Roman Catholics) who have lay people at the bottom, local ministers above them, and bishops in turn above those.

What then of the "Adam Smith problem"? For over a century some people have argued that the Moral Sentiments is contradicted by the Wealth of Nations (1776): that whereas the former advocates morality, the latter advocates unrestrained selfishness. Like Gordon Brown (and most modern Smith scholars) I think that the so-called Adam Smith Problem is nonsensical. For a start, neither book directly advocates anything. They are cast as analytical, not normative. Admittedly, they both have normative underpinnings. But they are the same norms. In both books Smith appeals to the "invisible hand", which leads people whose sole intentions are selfish to do things which incidentally benefit others. For Smith, a reason for preferring a free-market economy is that it favors the underdogs:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends ( 2) in a conspiracy against the publick, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work; but many against combining to raise it

(both from Wealth of Nations Book I)

And, as to taxation:

The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state. (Wealth of Nations Book V).

As often happens with Adam Smith, his plain unassuming style may hide explosive content. You need to read that passage carefully to see that Smith is advocating proportionate, or indeed progressive, taxation. This is not a view usually associated with the libertarian right. Nor is his view that trade associations are conspiracies against the public. Adam Smith really was both a radical and an egalitarian.


1 Iain McLean, Adam Smith, radical and egalitarian. Edinburgh University Press/Palgrave USA 2006.

2 In modern English "but the conversation ends" would be expressed as "without the conversation ending"


Iain McLean is a Professor of Politics, Oxford University. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and a member of the editorial board of the Adam Smith Review.


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