In the wake of the Black Lives Matters protests last year, Edinburgh Council announced the creation of the 'Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review Group'. Headed by Sir Geoff Palmer — an academic and human rights activist — the group is looking at all public memorials on council land that ‘perpetuated racism and oppression’ with the option of ‘removal or re-interpretation’ for problematic monuments.
The grave of Adam Smith, as well as a statue dedicated to the Enlightenment thinker, have both been identified by the review due to a passage in which Smith, according to the body, ‘argued that slavery was ubiquitous and inevitable but that it was not as profitable as free labour.’ A quick statement of personal interest, I am the deputy director of the Adam Smith Institute, which supported the unveiling of that statue of Smith on Edinburgh's Royal Mile.
Smith did indeed write that it is ‘almost impossible that [slavery] should ever be totally or generally abolished.' Slavery was a constant feature of the societies Smith observed, as well as the classical civilizations that he had studied. Describing the slavers of his time, Smith wrote in no uncertain terms:
“Fortune never exerted more cruelly her empire over mankind, than when she subjected those nations of heroes [on the coast of Africa] 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.
Of ancient Rome’s slaves, he said ‘nothing was to be heard but the cries of slaves whom their masters were punishing’ and bemoaned the ‘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.’
Regardless of whether the review group deem it unacceptable or not, it is a statement of fact that slavery has been a consistent feature of human history. It is sadly too apparent today in the 46 million forced labourers across the globe, hence the passing of the Modern Slavery Act back in 2015. To describe a process is not to condone it. It is perfectly consistent to argue that slavery is ‘ubiquitous and inevitable’ while wanting to see it curtailed in all its forms.
Indeed, Smith was one of history’s greatest allies against slavery — and often quoted by abolitionists in popular anti-slavery literature. In his Lectures on Jurisprudence and in the Wealth of Nations, Smith explained that the cost of enforcement and control and in pushing people to act against their own interests made slavery demonstrably more expensive than free labour. Slavery, Smith argued, concentrated benefits to powerful masters while the costs were borne both by slaves themselves and by wider society through the socialised cost of inefficiency.
Free individuals, Smith argued, work harder than slaves and invest in the improvement of resources, motivated by their interest in earning a higher income. Everyone acting with regard to their 'own interest', not coerced into action by others creates through the famed invisible hand a general prosperity. History has borne his view out, as men and women became masters of their own destiny and were able to own property, they were able to specialise and invest while prosperity rose across the world.
So Smith's argument against slavery was two-pronged. First, the moral case, that the life of the slave was 'miserable' and that the contempt they felt towards the brutal slavers was just. The second case, the economic, was that slavery made little sense even to the societies that supposedly benefiting from it. It is a powerful argument that can rely both upon the listener's moral sympathies and their economic self-interest. And even though he was pessimistic that his argument would succeed, Smith still made it.
Scotland and Britain owe a lot to the great man, whose works inspired the generation after him to use the force of law and the might of the British army to wipe out slavery across the Empire. The inheritors of Enlightenment liberalism made even the idea of slavery, which had been ubiquitous across cultures and territories, utterly abhorrent and irrational in the minds of modern day men and women. Adam Smith's legacy should be celebrated — and luckily, those who wish to do so can still visit his statue in Edinburgh, at least for now.