Andrew Sullivan Hasn’t Read Adam Smith

By Ben Cohen

Conservative blogger 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 haven’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.


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 and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.