Monday, February 14, 2011

Adam Smith: "Opulence and freedom, the two greatest blessing men can possess"

Adam Smith taught his students about the institution of slavery both throughout history and in the world of his day in his Lectures On Jurisprudence (1751-64). It makes for grim reading today though slavery still exists (quietly) in some countries still, and the trade in slaves continued long after it was made illegal in Britain in such places as North Africa and the Middle East, India, and China.

Adam Smith:

Opulence and freedom, the two greatest blessing men can possess, tend greatly to the misery of the this body of men, which in most countries where slavery is allowed makes by far the greatest part. A humane man would wish therefore if slavery has to be generally established that these blessing(s), being incompatible with the happiness of greatest past of mankind, were never to take place” [Wednesday, 16th February, 1763, as reported in LJ(A) iii.112: 185].

What a wonderful way Smith had of summarising his philosophy in the his words: “Opulence and freedom, the two greatest blessing(s) men can possess”!

He continues his frank account of the history and practice of slavery with a reminder to his students, destined as many were to serve in various appointments in the Churches of England, Scotland, and Rome, of the strident escapism into religious fervour in their calling, and the self-righteousness of their zealots:

But we are not to imagine the temper of the Christian religion is necessarily contrary to slavery. The masters un our colonies are Christians, and yet slavery is allowed amongst them. The Constantinopolitan emperors were very jealous Christians and yet never thought of abolishing slavery. There are many Christian countries where slavery is tolerated at this time” [LJ(A) iii.128: 191).

These put into the perspective the one-sided hyperbole of certain self-styled Christian Bloggers, whom we forgive for they know not what they are talking about when they rant at Adam Smith’s alleged complicity in the maltreatment of indigenous peoples and African slaves transported to the colonies, which are views based on total ignorance of Adam Smith’s philosophy and his Works.

You can read more about the authentic Adam Smith on slavery, and much else, in his Lectures On Jurisprudence, [1762-63], 1978/82, Oxford University Press, and Liberty Fund.

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