Title: 'The Place of Glasgow in The Wealth of Nations: Caught between Biography and Text, Philosophical and Commercial History', History of Political Economy, 54 (5), 2022, 975-990. DOI: 10.1215/00182702-10005816.
This article will appear in a symposium of the leading journal in its field, History of Political Economy, at some stage in 2022. The symposium is called, 'Reading Practices in Political Economy: The Case of Adam Smith'. My contribution relates to what is permissible when confronted with an absence in a text, and the particular absence through which I illustrate my argument is that of the place that Smith knew best when formulating his economic theory, Glasgow. We know from biographical studies of his life that Smith shared deep connections with the Glasgow merchants of his day: socialising with them, forming lasting friendships, and using them as key interlocutors when trying to specify the general principles on which economic progress was founded. Yet we also know from the text of The Wealth of Nations that Smith made no mention of these connections and hid the merchants he knew so well within generic character types. Why might this have been so? The methodological argument against seeking to 'correct' such absences nevertheless permits clues to be identified in the text which might reveal why noticeable absences are there. I focus on the tension between two genres of history visible within the text. Smith placed great emphasis on writing history in a philosophical register as a means of bringing abstract principles of economic development to light, but the commercial history of Glasgow entailed an unnatural progression to a global entrepôt from the perspective of his commercial history.
Paper delivered to the Glasgow Competition Talks Seminar Series, School of Law, University of Glasgow
On October 14th 2021 I delivered a paper to the Glasgow Competition Talks Seminar Series at the University of Glasgow, for those with a research specialism in competition law. The paper was entitled ''The Market: The Economics and Politics of a Key Domain of Legal Thinking'.
Abstract: Competition law requires an engagement with lots of other disciplines, perhaps most notably with economics. Non-economists already talk about the economy all of the time, but the very familiarity of core economic ideas as they have taken hold in everyday life might be more of a hindrance than a help in understanding how competition law and economics interact. The obviously economic concept of ‘the market’ is, interestingly, one that is left largely implicit and undefined in modern economic theory. In many ways competition law acts to protect the integrity of the market, and it is a short step from that premise to making the directly political statement that it exists to allow the market to do what the market does best. In most models used by economists, this will mean ensuring that there are no distortions in the allocation of available economic resources, so that the economy in that purely hypothetical model world can work as efficiently as possible. This can very easily be translated into the political assumption that in the real world too markets should be left to their own devices to decide for us how the economy should be organised. However frequently we hear such claims, though, we should be sceptical of them, for they suggest that ‘the market’ is capable of identifying its interest in allocative efficiency and of having the will to enforce that interest. Yet ‘the market’ is clearly not a sentient being able to act in the same manner as a conscious human agent. How might we therefore make sense of the translation from economics to politics of the concept of allocative efficiency in a purely hypothetical model world to the assertion that ‘the market’ always knows best in the real world? My book, The Market, tackles this question by showing the very different ways in which the concept of ‘the market’ has entered economic theory, emphasising how recently it has been that the allocative efficiency definition of market dynamics has risen to prominence. Different economic definitions of ‘the market’ have different implications for competition law, and I demonstrate the varied ways in which that relationship might impact upon the thinking of competition lawyers.
On May 21st 2020 I delivered a paper called ‘Adam Smith and the Glasgow Tobacco Merchants’ to a specialist Smith studies workshop. It was due to be held in Newcastle, but had to be reconvened online due to the current lockdown conditions.
Abstract: The conceptual distinction between Britain and Greater Britain can be used as a starting point to help shed light on some of the difficulties Adam Smith encountered when scaling up his principles of economic development from the national context to make them suitable for the world of empire. This was certainly the world that dominated the activities of the Glasgow tobacco traders from whom Smith seems to have derived most of his insights into the economic approach of the merchant classes of his day. However, they do not get any explicit mention at all in The Wealth of Nations. They entirely fall through the cracks of two important tensions which its text reveals. The first is between, on the one hand, the overwhelmingly positive interpretation that is placed on the story of Britain’s economic development from feudalism to the mid eighteenth century and, on the other hand, the obvious ambivalence with which he treated the more recent dalliance with the colonial trade. The second is between the generally frenetic denunciation of British colonial adventures in India and the comparative soft-pedalling on the really rather similar activities taking place in its North American colonies. The former appears as an attack in particular on the merchant/political complex embedded in elite London society, whereas the latter offers something approaching a free pass to those same connections in Glasgow. The paper attempts to unpack the tensions contained in such a conspicuous silence, as they seem to run counter to the teachings of Smith’s system. I speculate on the impact that Smith’s known friendships with Glasgow tobacco merchants might have had on what look like potential misfires of his sympathy procedure when writing about the colonial trade of Greater Britain.
On May 11th 2020 I presented a version of the paper that I will be delivering 'in' Newcastle the following week to the online Political Economy Lockdown Seminar Series. The paper was entitled, 'A Failure of System or a Failure of Nerve? Adam Smith's Conspicuous Soft-Pedalling on the Imperial Adventures of Glasgow's Eighteenth-Century Tobacco Merchants'. In it, I focused on the apparent bifurcation in Smith's critique of Empire, in which the activities of the East India Company were subjected to a withering attack, but the activities of the merchants trading within the Atlantic economy were criticised much more gently, despite being different only in degree rather than in type. Smith's obvious contempt for the East India Company resulted from what he had learnt about the way in which it was intertwined with London's commercial interests to disrupt good governance norms, but the Glasgow tobacco merchants he counted amongst his friends and acquaintances were let off lightly by comparison.
On November 14th 2018 I gave a talk to the Nuneaton Branch of the Historical Association. The ttile of my talk was 'Adam Smith, Enlightenment Sceptic of Empire'. In it, I suggested that the qualification 'Enlightenment' is important. There should be no doubting the fact that Smith, contrary to the position taken by the vast majority of his contemporaries, was opposed to Empire. Some of the most energetic performances recounted in his Glasgow Lectures came when he was outlining his attack on Empire; the same was also true of some of the least guarded passages in The Wealth of Nations. But Smith's scepticism of Empire was definitely of its time. He had overwhelmingly an economic critique of Empire, perhaps for the first time showing how it was possible to turn the image of economic inefficiencies into a political argument. It is much more usual today to think badly of Empire for the way in which it infringed upon all reasonable assumptions about human rights. Interestingly, such an argument can be reconstructed from the sympathy procedure that forms the cornerstone of Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, but it was one that Smith did not make for himself. Moreover, he raised to the position of role models in his Wealth of Nations the Glasgow tobacco merchants who he knew quite well. Yet they benefited from the economics of Empire in exactly the same way as did the East India Company, the real focus of his critique. And they created monopoly conditions from which to benefit in exactly the same way as did it. Moreover, the tobacco merchants made themselves rich on the back of a system of plantation that relied upon the labour of enslaved people. Smith was also a critic of slavery, but once again this was really only an economic argument. The system of slavery can never be as efficient as the system of free labour, he argued, because enslaved people simply do not have the incentives to work hard that free labourers do.