‘NO society can surely be flourishing and happy of which by far the greater part of the number are poor and miserable.’
That’s Adam Smith, the man who has been on the £20 note since 2007, the year Blair gave way to Brown. On the note are his approving remarks about the great increase in production to be got in pin manufacture by splitting the process into small tasks and allocating a person to each: the division of labour. Not on the note are his critical remarks about the downside of this practice: that performing repetitive, limited tasks removed the need for people to exert ‘understanding or invention’ and led workers to be ‘as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human to become’.
Throughout his books and letters, he never left off worrying about the poor. He took benevolence, sympathy and loving one’s neighbour as central tenets of his philosophy and described them as ‘the great law of Christianity’.
The Labour Party has two parents: non-conformist Christianity and vicious, rancorous, failed Marxism. Smith can help the party reconnect with the former. If the Sermon on the Mount is not Labour policy on the poor, the meek, the bereft, the merciful and the peacemakers, what is?
Smith was a stern, Scottish moralist and not, as he is sometimes portrayed on the Right, an advocate of unrestrained free-market capitalism. He deplored the ‘all for ourselves and nothing for other people’ that he said had always been ‘the vile maxim of the masters of mankind’. He asserted that even when those engaged in trades met for ‘merriment’, their conversation always led to a conspiracy against the public or a plot to raise prices. He scorned the excuses that employers often gave for low wages and noted that it was always high wages and not high profits that were said to harm business. He suggested the rich should not only pay a proportion of their income in taxes but something more than that expected of those less well off.
Tories sometimes claim that Smith, like Hobbes a century earlier, was an apostle of selfishness. He is often misquoted as claiming that it is not from the benevolence of tradespeople, the butcher, the baker, and the brewer, that we get our dinner but their selfishness. Not so. He excoriated selfishness in his least cited work, A Theory of Moral Sentiments: what he actually said was that tradespeople supply goods and services out of regard for their own interests. Those are undermined by selfishness, the ‘greed is good’ outlook: it is in our own interest to treat others as we would wish to be treated ourselves, and a shopkeeper who selfishly supplies poor goods at high prices is unlikely to retain the trust and patronage of the public. Smith proposed that we should always try to judge ourselves as we would others. To aid in this ‘greatest exertion’, we should imagine ourselves as an ‘impartial spectator of our own character and conduct’.
Smith described the benefits of free enterprise and free trade in releasing creative energies and increasing wealth. He did not consider the laissez faire approach suitable in all circumstances, specifically education, law courts, public health and public works. In a little noticed aside he said that freedom of trade and enterprise pulled along with it freedom of expression and political freedom. It was no coincidence that the industrial revolution was followed by demands for political freedom. Nor is it surprising that increased political and social liberty in China (admittedly from a low base) has accompanied the explosion in non-state-controlled commerce and industry. Crippled manufacturing and a crippled press are generally found together.
Smith’s writings are extensive and excitingly relevant to our age. He disparaged those who worshipped the rich and neglected or ignored ordinary folk. He mocked the time-wasting and neglect of students in some of our universities. Not everything he said appeals: his opinions on female chastity were archaic even in his own time, and his assertion that young people ridicule ‘the most sacred rules of morality . . . from the vanity of their hearts’ will not, I think, command universal assent. His Wealth of Nations, even in edited form, is a formidable size but absorbing. A Theory of Moral Sentiments reveals the core of his moral disposition and offers no comfort to apostles of greed.
Christianity and with it the values even unbelievers take for granted is under attack worldwide. Even in Britain, legal protections for religious belief seems to mean protection only for Islam: Christians have lost their jobs for quoting the Bible on homosexuality and for expressing commonsense opinions on transsexuality. Conservative governments have shown no inclination to uphold simple truths, so the field is up for grabs. Adam Smith is a worthy philosopher for Labour to study in the aftermath of defeat.