Adam Smith and Liberal Economics: Reading the Minimum Wage Debate of 1795-96
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Adam Smith’s outlook still inspires and informs modern sensibilities and argumentation. It is of interest beyond Smith aficionados whether a particular line of modern thought “fits” Smith. One important such dispute involves recent “left Smithian” writers who argue that he was more open to government intervention—especially on behalf of the poor—than had previously been believed. Perhaps the best short statement of this view is Emma Rothschild’s 1992 essay “Adam Smith and Conservative Economics.” Although insightful in many ways, this article seems to imply—in the historical context of the British grain supply crisis of 1795-96—that a minimum wage law is consistent with a Smithian worldview. Rothschild associates opposition to a minimum wage policy (as proposed in 1795), an opposition elaborated and defended by William Pitt, with “principles of political economy” and coldness toward the poor. Advocacy of the policy, led by Samuel Whitbread, marked, according to Rothschild, a warmth and compassion true to Smith but since forsaken by posterity. The tension Rothschild sees in the debate between these two men isn’t, however, found in Smith’s own writings or in the actual discussion Pitt and Whitbread held in Parliament. A closer look at this historical episode invites reconciliation between the ostensibly opposed strands of “warmth” and “principle” in Smith’s writing and in our own thought today.
Podcast related to this article: Christopher Martin on Adam Smith and Liberal Economics (EJW Audio, May 2011).