The Hidden History of Adam Smith, Father of Modern Economics

The Real Adam Smith: Morality and Markets

Directed by John Norberg (2016)

Film Review

This documentary traces the life and thinking of the father of modern economics Adam Smith. The apparent goal is to correct modern neoliberal distortions of Smith’s views on the free market and laissez faire capitalism. Unfortunately the film introduces a few distortions of its own – for example, it credits Smith’s revolutionary ideas for the current prosperity of the Western world. I believe there is far more evidence that Western prosperity has resulted from cheap fossil fuels, the North Atlantic slave trade, the ruthless Western colonization of the Third World, and the global North’s rapacious exploitation of planet Earth and human labor.

This film also erroneously credits Smith for the concept of the “invisible hand” that directs the (largely mythological) “free market.” According to University of Wisconsin History professor Laurence Dickey, it was actually one of Smith’s contemporaries (J. Harris in his earlier “Essay on Money and Coins”) who invented the term.*

In my view, the chief value of the video is the portrait it paints of Adam Smith as a moral philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment who was chiefly concerned about the plight of the poor. In fact, Smith theorized that human labor was the main source of a society’s wealth a full century before Karl Marx.

Smith was an ardent opponent of the monopolies (such as the 250 year monopoly the British Crown granted the British East India Company), protective tariffs, and the 1773 Tea Act. Passed mainly to prop up the failing East Indian Company, this law taxed East Indian Company tea more cheaply than tea produced in the North American colonies.*

Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776, only months before the American War of Independence. The final section of his seven-volume treatise was highly critical of the immense wealth the UK was extracting from the colonies. He also disagreed with the Crown taxing their colonies without allowing them representation in Parliament.

*Page 260 of Wealth of Nations, edited and abridged by Laurence Dickey. See Reclaiming Adam Smith

**The Tea Act allegedly triggered the 1773 Boston Tea Party.