Today’s cancel culture won’t let death set anyone free from condemnation. News from Scotland reports the Edinburgh City Council added Adam Smith’s gravesite to a database of sites linked to “slavery and colonialism.” The Telegraph relays the council took this drastic action after it “launched a review of sites which ‘perpetuated racism and oppression’ following last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, with the option of ‘removal or re-interpretation’ for problematic monuments.”
Sir Geoff Palmer, a professor emeritus at Heriot-Watt University, led the City Council’s “Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review Group” in conducting the review. In the study, the group deemed that Smith’s grave was linked to “historic racial injustice” because Smith once “argued that slavery was ubiquitous and inevitable but that it was not as profitable as a free laborer.” With this new designation, Smith’s grave and his statue on the Royal Mile may be “re-configured,” meaning the council may add a plaque to “educate” the public about Smith’s “oppressive” past.
The Review Group likely comprises good-intentioned citizens who simply want to correct historical wrongs. Their justification for accusing Smith of advocating for oppression and slavery, however, is a gross misunderstanding of Smith’s philosophy.
There is little doubt that during the 17th and 18th centuries, Scotland was actively involved in the slave trade between Britain, Africa, and the West Indies. Between the second half of the 18th century and into the early 19th century, however, Scotland led the rest of Europe in the abolition movement, thanks to the Scottish Enlightenment.
Great thinkers such as Smith and David Hume laid the intellectual foundation for Scotland’s abolition movement with their philosophies exalting liberty and economic theories championing the free market. Smith was both a great philosopher and economist — as such, his well-documented opposition to slavery was grounded both in moral and economic reasons.
In his book, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” Smith declared slavery immoral, criticizing city-states in ancient Greece for taking enemies they captured in wars only to further “reduce them into the vilest of all states, that of domestic slavery, and to sell them, man, woman, and child, like so many herds of cattle, to the highest bidder in the market.” By calling slavery “the vilest of all states,” Smith’s deep contempt for slavery is clear.
In criticizing European slave traders, Smith also didn’t mince words. He fully supported the contempt slaves held for their European masters in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” writing:
There is not a negro from the coast of Africa who does not, in this respect, possess a degree of magnanimity which the soul of his sordid master is too often scarce capable of conceiving. 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.
Smith also expressed sympathy for slaves, exclaiming, “what a miserable life the slaves must have led; their life and their property entirely at the mercy of another, and their liberty, if they could be said to have any, at his disposal also.”
In 1776, Smith published his best-known masterpiece, “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” (commonly known simply as “The Wealth of Nations”). Within its pages, Smith offered economic arguments in his opposition to slavery. Compared to a system where their self-interests incentivize people with “perfect liberty” to maximize their output and engage in voluntary exchange, Smith believed slavery was an economically inefficient and inferior system, and illustrated that point using the agricultural industry as an example:
Land occupied by such tenants is properly cultivated at the expense of the proprietor, as much as that occupied by slaves. There is, however, one very essential difference between them. Such tenants, being freemen, are capable of acquiring property, and having a certain proportion of the produce of the land, they have a plain interest that the whole produce should be as great as possible, in order that their own proportion may be so. A slave, on the contrary, who can acquire nothing but his maintenance, consults his own ease by making the land produce as little as possible over and above that maintenance.
Within his critique of the system of slavery, Smith did not omit scorn for slave owners, writing that their “avarice and injustice are always shortsighted, and they did not foresee how much this regulation must obstruct improvement, and thereby hurt in the long-run the real interest of the landlord.”
Such condemnations may not sound like much to the indignant left today, but viewed within the historical context, Smith was undeniably ahead of the curve. Two years after the publication of “The Wealth of Nations,” Scotland banned the owning of personal slaves in 1778. England officially ended the slave trade in 1807.
Thomas Clarkson, a prominent abolitionist in the United Kingdom who helped pass the law to end Britain’s slave trade, expressed his gratitude to Smith for laying the intellectual foundation for the abolition movement. Clarkson noted that in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” Smith “promoted the cause of the injured Africans and held them up in an honorable, and their tyrants in a degrading light.”
Even more poignant and affecting are the comments from leading American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who wrote of Smith:
The old doctrine that the slavery of the black, is essential to the freedom of the white race, can maintain itself only in the presence of slavery, where interest and prejudice are the controlling powers, but it stands condemned equally by reason and experience. The statesmanship of today condemns and repudiates it as a shallow pretext for oppression. It belongs with the commercial fallacies long ago exposed by Adam Smith.
If one has to pick at Smith’s faults, it would be that while he condemned the slave trade and slavery involving Africans most forcefully, he shied away from criticizing de facto slavery within his own nation, as many Scots were employed in brutal conditions.
According to Professor Jack Russell Weinstein at the University of North Dakota, a legal loophole in Scotland’s jurisdiction put coal miners and salt miners “into a state of permanent bondage, making it illegal to offer them new employment without a testimonial from their employer.” Thus miners couldn’t leave for better employment opportunities but were bound to their existing employers for lifelong servitude as long as their employer refused to offer required testimonials. Like many of his contemporaries, Smith avoided condemning such forced servitude.
Smith wasn’t a flawless man, but it is intellectually dishonest to associate Smith with slavery and oppression while ignoring his forceful writings on the subjects, just as it is remarkably problematic to include Smith’s gravesite in a database of sites linked to “slavery and colonialism.” Furthermore, in the final analysis, his philosophical and economic contributions to humanity far outweigh his shortcomings, with his advocacy for liberty and free markets responsibility for once-unthinkable prosperity and lifting millions out of poverty in the centuries to follow.
Facts and historical context don’t matter to today’s left, however. Taking down some statues, banning a few books and movies, and “reconfiguring” several gravesites of famous white men is just the beginning of today’s cancel culture. The sooner we recognize their end goal — canceling all things connected to Western Civilization — the sooner we can stop being shocked with each new cancelation, and the sooner we can start focusing on how to preserve and protect our greatest thinkers and their ideas.