Oddly, two of Britain’s most famous figures have never been associated. Indeed, in modern times, Smith has been associated with Margaret Thatcher, who was said to have kept a copy of The Wealth of Nations (1776) in her handbag.
But Smith was less a Thatcherite than an Enlightened philosopher, looking for a way to create a happy, peaceful and prosperous benevolent society through the celebration of Stoic ideals.
He decried greed, mistrusted private companies, and above all, celebrated the Stoic model of duty, which he felt could be best embodied by an agrarian class of landowners whose main object was disinterested service to the state that could maintain political liberty and free markets.
When Smith discusses the virtues of duty, it sounds more like a description of Queen Elizabeth than any free market economist.
Whether one admires the Queen or not, it is hard to deny that she both loved the rhythm of country life and the rigors of duty to the state. She saw her role as that of an advisor who could ideally unify British society so that markets could run freely and smoothly.
Any student of classical philosophy will recognise that these were the chief Stoic virtues celebrated by Adam Smith’s inspiration, the Roman senator and philosopher, Marcus Tullius Cicero.
Cicero’s chief virtues were aristocratic land management, moral philosophy, disinterested friendship, and service to the state.
As a professor of moral philosophy, Smith channelled Cicero into all his work: from his teaching on the humanities and law to his masterworks The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and The Wealth of Nations (1776).
Smith was a Stoic and, as such, he did not believe in greed. The whole point of Roman Stoic philosophy was to use personal moral discipline to support the rule of law and constitutions, and to make society a better place.
Smith believed that disciplined moral leadership ensured a free market by acting as a disinterested referee. Indeed, Smith’s famous description of the “impartial spectator” sounds like a description of the function of the Queen.
Working from the Stoic philosophies of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, Smith believed that civil peace and free markets came from considering the world through the eyes of others, so that one might become an impartial spectator who could help individuals in society “avoid anger” in order to “show them the error of their ways” so that they might “amend their faults”.
Thus, the model Stoic leader, who sounds a lot like the Queen, would help people make “compassionate” decisions both in personal and civic life, as well as in trade.
Smith believed that impartial spectators could lead by example and inspire others to follow suit. These ethically oriented, Stoic individuals could form a chain of benevolence and service to society.
As Smith wrote in his 1773 History of Astronomy, a chain of events, in this case, the personal choice of benevolence, could mirror Newton’s system of planetary movement, and create an “invisible hand” that would keep equilibrium in society. Commerce too, wrote Smith, should operate on this model, and “ought to be, among nations, among individuals, a bond of union and friendship”.
Smith was a constitutional monarchist and an elitist. He believed that the ideal legislator was polite, benevolent, and, in the traditions of Cicero and Locke, capable of the personal self-restraint necessary to only uphold the civil law and constitution, with the dual hope of protecting institutions and fostering societal progress.
Smith complained that, “by a strange absurdity”, greedy merchants saw the “character of the sovereign as but an appendix” to their own commercial interests. The very point of constitutional monarchy and political virtue, he implied, was disinterested service to the nation.
There are numerous critiques of the monarchy. But no one can deny that the Queen saw herself in this Smithian light, and worked to set an example of duty and disinterestedness to calm the passions of a nation.
Indeed, she might be seen as a very visible hand that stood above the fray to remind society about the virtues of compassion and Stoic virtues. When we read Smith, we are better served to think of the example of Queen Elizabeth than of those driven by personal greed.
It might sound archaic, but these values still appeal to a great many today.
Professor Jacob Soll, of the University of South California, is author of Free Market: The History of an Idea