What Adam Smith really said

Gavin Kennedy in The Scotsman:

SmithSome on the Right brazenly saw in Smith’s name an authority against much of what he opposed on moral grounds. He was cited to oppose shorter working hours, to continue employing women and children in coal mines and dark satanic mills, even in defence of slavery. Smith allegedly advised against interference in the business of business.

The cries went up – Laissez faire! Leave the mine and mill owners alone! They know best. The invisible hand will come right in the end. It’s all in Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Interfere at your peril.

Some on the Left naively saw Smith as a compelling authority in favour of state intervention. Wilberforce quoted him against slavery, a practice Smith opposed on moral and economic grounds. Others quoted his support for the government to fund a school in every village so that each child would become literate and numerate. But they did not like his moral sentiments or his political economy.

The distortions of Smith’s views have conquered popular discourse. Libertarians on the Right vie with voices on the Left and sling quotations out of context – they long since gave up reading his books.

The distortions began shortly after Smith died in 1790.

More here.