Adam Smith’s Arguments About Colonialism Can Still Teach Us Something

Post Date
11 January, 2024
Reading Time
5 min read

It is a mark of the richness of Adam Smith’s thought that 300 years after his birth we are still asking how it might contribute to our thinking today. Smith’s context and some of his problems are very different from ours and so there are few simple answers for us to draw from his work, although that that hasn’t stopped people from trying (see the article by Greene, Jasinski, Roy, Schober and Scotto). What we can usefully do is follow the contours and trace the tensions in his arguments to improve our thinking about our context and problems.

My article of the National Institute Economic Review’s Adam Smith @300 special issue tries to do this by asking what Smith’s arguments about colonialism can contribute to two concerns we face today. First, the legacy of European colonialism has taken on a new political and cultural significance, as have a series of related matters to do with the perceived superiority of the ‘west’, and what reparations might be due to those who experienced colonial rule. Second, many people are still living with the terrible consequences of ‘liberal imperialism’ – that set of interventions undertaken by western states in the 1990s and 2000s. The over-confidence that accompanied these interventions has ebbed away, but they raise important questions about how ‘liberal states’ ought to relate to non-liberal others, if only because these relationships have sometimes been appallingly destructive.

Smith had a long-standing interest in the colonial affairs of his day, particularly relations with Britain’s North American colonies. He lived through a period when European imperial expansion sharpened the intellectual and political questions raised by growing knowledge of distant and diverse societies and cultures. It was through engagement with these questions that Smith worked out some of the central elements of his thought, including his critique of mercantilism, his understanding of progress and his moral theory. Finally, Smith’s extensive connections with Glasgow through the University of Glasgow as student (1737-1740) and then teacher (1751-1764) exposed him to some of the material realities of colonial and mercantile trade.

Smith’s arguments about European expansion are not straightforward. But we can usefully identify three areas where his thinking might help us. The first is his emphasis on the costs of colonial ventures. Smith recognised the costs to the colonised from European expansion (slavery, famines, and various injustices), but it was the costs to the European powers that really engaged him. There were the military costs of defending the colonies from colonial rivals. There were the economic costs associated with mercantile control of colonial trade (it raised prices). And there were the political costs as commercial and colonial policy was conducted for the benefit of ‘rich and powerful’ interests at the expense of the interests of the country as a whole. Smith concluded in The Wealth of Nations that “Great Britain should voluntarily give up all authority over her colonies, and leave them to elect their own magistrates, to enact their laws, and to make peace and war as they might think proper” (WoN: 616).

This might seem straightforward. But Smith’s arguments are complex because he also thought that European expansion had produced ‘progress’. In views that were reflective of their time, he felt it had “united distant parts of the world” and delivered more economic development in colonised places than would have been the case without it. So, although colonialism was costly to the colonisers, Smith argued that it was beneficial for humanity (if not many of those people who were colonised).

Finally, there is the issue of moral judgments of distant and diverse places. Smith’s moral theory is much disputed, but one reading of the Theory of Moral Sentiments is that people’s moral commitments reflect what is “usual in their own country, and in their own times” (TMS: 204). Smith was charged with relativism when the book was published. He never argued that European colonialism was justified because the people and societies in other places needed ‘civilising’, but he did make various disparaging remarks about ‘savages’ and clearly did think the European civilisation was vastly superior in material, moral and scientific terms.

We can, I hope, see the relevance of Smith’s thinking. Liberal imperialism was hugely costly and foolishly destructive. But a belief in ‘progress’, however defined, leads to the question of whether it might be advanced by forms of liberal imperialism. And while Smith’s moral theory could provide a more respectful account of other places (people respond perfectly explicably to their own contexts), it is hard for us (as it was for Smith) to really embrace moral relativism. We have to think our way out of these tensions for ourselves, but Smith reveals some of what might be involved in that.

David Williams is a Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary University, London.