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Talk to the Historical Association

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.

Thu 15 Nov 2018, 18:11 | Tags: Nuneaton, public talk, Empire, Historical Association, Adam Smith