Saturday, February 09, 2008

Adam Smith On Religous Institutions

Walter Russell Meade writes an interesting article, ‘Born Again’ in The (March) on religious movements in the USA and goes back to Adam Smith’s Wealth Of Nations for his theme:

“In 1776, Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, a sly and subversive classic of secular humanism too often mistaken today for a mere lecture on the benefits of capitalism. In it, Smith said relatively little about religion and even less about the United States. Yet he managed to put his finger on the forces that are still shaping the role of religion in American politics today. His analysis is a better guide to the future of the evangelical movement than are most contemporary accounts.

Smith saw what we see: the progress of modernity, he noted, was not undermining religion in the Britain of his day. Instead, religious revivals were blooming. These new religious movements often rejected the liberal values of a free society. They favored absolute moral codes, conservative interpretations of religious doctrines, and political activism to enact their values into law.

Smith observed a relationship between these revivals and the process that we now call urbanization. Young people, arriving in cities in search of work, faced new opportunities and temptations without the structure that village life—with its communities of relatives and others that watched and guided young people—had provided. “A single week’s thoughtlessness and dissipation is often sufficient to undo a poor workman forever,” wrote Smith about life in London. But the city’s small sectarian religious congregations gave rural immigrants a social-support network and a moral code that could keep them on the straight and narrow as they built new lives. These movements were a response to the dislocations of modernity; there was no reason to expect them to fade away.

Yet in the teeming religious marketplace of Britain’s cities, Smith also saw pressures that would limit the political impact of religious beliefs and prevent theocracy. With so many competing denominations, he noted, religious leaders could acquire political influence only by finding allies outside their own version of the faith—and the process of forming those alliances would drive them toward agendas that could appeal to a wider, multi-faith audience. To be politically significant, he wrote, religious extremists had to move toward broader and necessarily more-moderate coalitions. Their entry into politics would, itself, moderate them


A small quibble first:

In it, Smith said relatively little about religion and even less about the United States.”

The United States were created after Wealth Of Nations was published in
1776, but Adam Smith had plenty to say about the British colonies in America. At a rough estimate the American colonies, feature across 109 pages in Book IV, his major and ‘violent attack’ on mercantile political economy, while his discussion on how religions are organized, plus his recommendations discussed by Walter Russell Meade, take up 26 pages (‘Of the Expence of the Institutions for the Instruction of People of all Ages’: WN 788-814). This compares well with Smith’s attention to the education of youth across 30 pages (pp758-788).

I would imagine Adam Smith would admit to paying a great deal of attention to the colonies and ex-colonies of North America, reflecting his close interest in the institutional changes brought about by the rebellion. So much so, that his close friends, David Hume and the Duke of Buccleuch, cautioned him against becoming too ‘zealous’ about American affairs (Corr. 149: p 185-6).

It was also fairly risky for him too, because if he was to influence legislatures and British cabinets on the broader issues of changing British policies towards the economy, it did not help his case by being seen to be ‘indulgent’ towards the King’s ‘enemies’. I believe that among his papers burnt just before he died, he included his unfinished manuscript for his oft promised (since 1759) book on Jurisprudence – ‘an account of the general principles of law and government’ and ‘the theory of the rules by which civil governments ought to be directed’. The key word here is ‘ought’ because this would involve him in taking a stand, I believe in favour, of the principles of the US Constitutional provisions and this would have compromised his influence with the King’s Ministers. Hence, he arranged to become ‘too busy’ to write by taking the post of a Scottish Commissioner of Customs from 1778-1790.

Briefly, Adam Smith favoured the promotion (or the State refraining from curbing) the spread of splinter religious factions and small churches at the behest of the Established Churches of England and Scotland. This was to help create favourable conditions for integrating families uprooted from rural areas into urban environments and fill needs that the Established Churches were less capable of meeting. Proliferation would also prevent any one version of religion from being oppressive, which was one step short of disestablishing to Churches of England and Scotland from their monopolies of social patronage in the United Kingdom.

The article by Walter Russell Meade (author of ‘God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World’, Knopf 2007) can be read here.

PS: I have been reading several academic papers on Adam Smith and religion, such as Brendon Long's 'Adam Smith's natural theology of society', in The Adam Smith Review, no 2, edited by Vivienne Brown, pp 124-48 (Routledge, London: details of the International Adam Smith Society from Aaron Garrett (

I am toying with the idea of doing some serious work on whether Adam Smith was a Christian, or even a deist. Any literature references from readers would be welcomed.


Blogger Jonathan said...

You refer to an article by Walter Russell Meade, ‘Born Again’ in The (March). Is that March 2008 or a prior year? I ask because I have been unable to locate this article and am interested in reading it.
Thanks and Regards,

7:48 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Hi Jonathan

I do not always keep the originals of my posts but I do have another referring to the same articles:

They both simply refer to 'March' which I presume (dangerous!) is March 2008. Magazines often have print dates before their official publication dates - it gets them on the bookstands earlier.



7:51 am  
Blogger Michael Kruse said...

I just finished reading Walter Russell Mead's "God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World." Chapter 18, "The Golden Meme" is devoted to the invisible hand concept. Mead identifies the idea of complex systems and patterns arising out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions as a particularly Anglo-American way of thinking. Thus, it is not only economic action that has invisible hand like qualities but also the order created from evolution and the social order that emerges from common law.

If you haven't read the book I thought you might at least want to know of this presentation of ideas.

3:58 pm  

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