Some of Adam Smith’s ideas have stood the test of time less well than others. He argued in The Wealth of Nations that the English were more handsome than the Scots, but that above them all stood the Irish, with “the most beautiful women perhaps in the British Dominions”.
He attributed these differences to the Scots being fed oats, the English wheat, and the Irish potatoes.
These observations may seem amusing now (though perhaps less so if, like me, you are Scottish), but Scotland was a country that was still holding witchcraft trials when Smith was born. It was a tribute to both the country and Smith that an unseemly countenance could now be attributed to dietary deficiencies rather than a curse from some cackling crone. It was this ability to stitch together observation and rational explanation that Smith carried through all his works, even if it sometimes led him down some paths that we might not always find sound or persuasive today. The image we have of Smith is indelibly associated with his Wealth of Nations and his acerbic comment that “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love.”
He even conscripted house pets into this dismal view of mammalian morals at dinner: “[A] spaniel
endeavours by a thousand attractions to engage the attention of its master who is at dinner, when
it wants to be fed by him. Man sometimes uses the same arts with his brethren, and when he
has no other means of engaging them to act according to his inclinations, endeavours by every
servile and fawning attention to obtain their good will.”
“It is also easy to believe that Charles Dickens was inspired to write the character of Ebenezer Scrooge after seeing the gravestone inscription of a ‘mean man’ from Kirkcaldy in Edinburgh’s Canongate Kirkyard…”
You can almost hear Smith mutter “humbug” as he supped his porridge. It is also easy to believe that Charles Dickens was inspired to write the character of Ebenezer Scrooge after seeing the gravestone inscription of a “mean man” from Kirkcaldy in Edinburgh’s Canongate Kirkyard… which, according to several sources, is true. However, the grave was not that of Adam Smith but of his Kirkcaldy-born great-nephew Ebenezer Scroggie, so at least any reputation for meanness was kept in the family. Whether or not the story is true, neither Smith nor Scroggie deserved such an unflattering reputation. (Dickens supposedly misread Scroggie’s grave inscription, which actually read “meal man” – he was a corn merchant.) The Wealth of Nations was based on detached observation of aspects of human behaviour, but its various editions were bookended by the first edition of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759 and the last one in 1790. That work starts,
“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”
So what picture of society did Smith really believe in: that of the Moral Sentiments or that of the Wealth of Nations? The answer is both; to him they did not represent abstract vices or virtues but actual facets of human nature whose manifestations depended on time, place and context. For Smith, “to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature”. You can see echoes of both works today in compound terms such as “social enterprise”, “billionaire philanthropist”, “charity credit card” and “ethical investment”, each of which reflects aspects of the working of the market economy while still capturing elements of contributing to the commonweal.
Smith’s life and work reflected that duality. His daily work as commissioner of customs exposed him to some of the baser motives underpinning market behaviour, but his dinner table reflected friendship and society. He kept open house every Sunday for friends and any visitors who wanted to meet him, and he was a member of dining clubs where the conversation menu could cover the range of the arts and the sciences. At home in Panmure House he was no monastic gruel-munching Scrooge. He never married but was devoted to his mother, who lived with him, as did a cousin and her son. The English statesman William Windham remarked, after visiting the Smiths at home, “House magnificent and place fine… Felt strongly the impression of a family completely Scotch.”
But whatever the typical menu that such guests could have encountered at Panmure House, we can be reasonably sure of one thing: Adam Smith would have ensured it contained healthy portions of potatoes.
Neil Kay is a professorial fellow at Edinburgh Business School, Heriot-Watt University. His most recently published research paper is: Driving innovation through ambidextrous service provision - long cycle products in manufacturing contexts, with Nusa Fain and Beverly Wagner.