My apologies. I recently learned that last year, 2023 in the Christian calendar, was the 300th anniversary of the birth of Adam Smith. He was baptized on June 5, 1723, in Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland. The Caux Round Table should have been more alert and made some comment months ago on Smith’s contributions to the well-being of humanity.
What is notable is that there has been no commemoration, to my knowledge, of the birth of that most important architect of modern civilization.
While Smith was a thinker and writer and not a doer, his theory on how the “the wealth of nations” could be created year-in and year-out, ad infinitum, provided a compass and road map for humanity to build modern economies.
Even socialisms have had to defer to Smith’s discovery of the “factory system,” with its specialization of function, division of labor, introduction of technology into the means of production, all to create from nothing but innovative thoughts increased productivity and lower per-unit costs of production.
Those socialisms, actually national socialisms or fascisms, like Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge or Mao’s Great Leap Forward, which never mastered the factory system, were collectives of miserable peoples living in poverty and under inhumane oppression.
And we should not wonder, even for a second, why, after World War II, every nation in the world sought economic growth and “modernization,” one way or another.
As Mae West quipped in one of her movies: “Honey, I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor and rich is better.”
Here is a chart revealing what capitalism has done for humanity:
While money isn’t everything (listen to the Beatles on “Money Can’t Buy Me Love”), it’s more helpful to living well and living long than whatever else is in second place.
To give Smith his rightful due, we must never overlook his first book – The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith was, first and foremost, an observing student of human nature. He belonged to the first generation of “scientists,” those who observed first and drew conclusions second. Like Newton and the apocryphal apple falling on his head, leading him to find gravity as a natural phenomenon or the first to use telescopes to view the heavens or microscopes to see minutia or Linneas coming up with names for so many genus and species.
Smith observed how we are governed well or badly by a “moral sense” and then how a mode of production was emerging around him in his time, something new in history. In his second book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Smith described the patterns of cause and effect in this new system based on “factories,” markets and steam power.
Still, as I wrote in my book, Moral Capitalism, we would be better off if our business practices and laws brought together, in one social system, Smith’s recommendations to use our moral sense, with his observations as to how best to profit from the factory system and its supporting market institutions.
My feeling on just discovering Smith’s birth 300 years ago is to say: “Thank you very much. We wouldn’t be where we are today without you.”