Monday, November 28, 2005

Smith on Colonies, Empire and War - Winner of the November "Lost legacy Prize"

David R. Henderson, a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an associate professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School, writes on Adam Smith’s attitude to colonies and Empire in ( read the full article at:

Entitled, “Adam Smith’s Economic Case Against Imperialism” it correctly summarises his views on the then current ‘disturbances’ in the American colonies. While Smith was careful how he phrased his sympathy for the rebellion against the British Crown it is fairly clear where his sympathies lay. His case against going to war to hang onto the colonies was economic: it cost £170 million to defend a colonial trade worth £20 million.

From Smith’s “Lectures in Jurisprudence” (1763-4; first published nearly a hundred years after he died and reprinted in the Glasgow edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith, Liberty Fund, 1982) we see his adherence to liberty and democratic, essentially republican, values: independent judiciary; laws made by the legislature, not judges or the executive, i.e., the separation of powers; Habeas Corpus; trial by jury; power of impeachment of the Executive by the legislature; regular and frequent elections to the legislature, all of which featured strongly in the US Constitution from 1783.

David Henderson makes an excellent read and you are strongly recommended to visit at

One comment may be in order. Adam Smith was not a pacifist. Several of his male relatives on his mother’s side were soldiers and he speaks highly of ‘martial values’ in both “Moral Sentiments” and “Wealth of Nations”, despises cowardice, preferred a standing army to a militia (except when the militia had been in the field for long enough to be as good as or better than a standing army) and generally considered a soldier’s life ‘honourable’.

Henderson quotes Smith’s views on policy in fighting certain wars which he regarded as wrong headed. On the issue of the ‘first duty’ of government, that of protecting society “from violence and invasion of other independent societies’ by means “of a military force”, he was unequivocally supportive (WN: Book V). The failure of Rome to defend its people from the invasion of the barbarians led to a thousand years of the ‘dark ages’, the destruction of civilisation, and the spread of rapine and disorder, amidst countless local wars.


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