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Andrew Sullivan Hasn't Read Adam Smith

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Andrew Sullivan is fond of referencing Adam Smith as the 'intellectual father of market capitalism', and is a self-styled Adam Smith conservative. The problem is, Sullivan, like most of his conservative friends, hasn't actually read Adam Smith's work. As Professor Gavin Kennedy, author of Adam Smith's Lost Legacy points out:

"Smith neither wrote about capitalism nor its paradoxes. He was dead
long before 'capitalism' became a word (1854) or a phenomenon.

wrote about the significance of commerce in a predominantly
agricultural society in mid-18th century Britain. His political economy
was integrated into his moral philosophy and both were supported by his
views on Justice and the Rule of Law. People who had not read his Works
carefully hijacked these views and they ascribed to Smith views, which
he never held."

Sullivan is staunchly against wealth re-distribution as he sees taxing the rich as punishing success. He writes:

"I would prefer a candidate who would cut
entitlements and defense to a candidate who raised taxes on the
successful. But such a candidate is not running. McCain's budget
proposals would add more to the debt than Obama's.....In an ideal world, I prefer Ron Paul's economics to Barack Obama's. But Obama will have to do."

Yet here is what Smith himself wrote about distributing wealth:

"Servants, labourers, and workmen of different kinds, make up
the far greater part of every political society. But what improves the
circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an
inconveniency to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and
happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and
miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, clothe, and
lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the
produce of their own labor as to be themselves tolerably well fed,
cloathed and lodged." - Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Bk. 1, Ch.8

Far from being a treatise on 'Free Market Capitalism', the Wealth Of Nations was, according to Kennedy, something quite different:

"Smith's main concern in his polemic against mercantile policies in
Wealth of Nations was to argue against 'merchants and manufacturers'
being left alone to form monopolies, was against the state legislating
to prevent tradesmen from practising their trades unless they had the
permission of local Guilds (monopolists of labour), and was against the
Act of Settlement that prevented labourers moving from where they lived
to other places in search of work."

Under the title of Sullivan's blog is a quote from George Orwell: "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle". An apt phrase indeed.

Ben Cohen is the editor of and a contributing writer to and Boxing Monthly magazine. He can be reached at