Among the intellectual figures who have shaped the modern world Adam Smith stands out as someone who doesn't frighten the laity, might be positively welcomed indeed by middle England. Should the neighbours catch a glimpse of the Wealth of Nations sitting on the bookshelf alongside Thatcher's memoirs or the latest Delia Smith, there's no risk of ostracism. Adam Smith's endorsement of the market economy almost guarantees his ideological soundness: businessmen and politicians of the Right assume, with an understandable complacency, that the 18th-century founder of political economy was 'one of us'. Yet Smith's writings provide no warrant for Conservative orthodoxy. The ideological capaciousness of the scriptures of laissez-faire capitalism bears comparison with that of the Bible itself. Take Smith's enlistment in the cause of the poll tax. Readers of Revising the Rating System (1985), published by the right-wing Adam Smith Institute, were immediately - and reassuringly, one presumes - confronted with a text drawn from the Wealth of Nations: 'Capitation taxes are levied at very little expense, and, where they are rigorously exacted, afford a very sure revenue to the state.' Who would guess that Smith disliked capitation taxes, that his very next sentence linked poll taxes with countries 'where the ease, comfort and security of the inferior ranks of people are little attended to'?
LRB 19 July 2001 | PDF Download