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Why Adam Smith Burned His Clothes

Dr. West is Professor Emeritus at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

Never before, it seems, have candidates for high office in government been subjected to so much scrutiny. And this is not just the result of a new-found zeal in the joint party committees that review appointments. The press sometimes goes to unprecedented lengths in its role of watchdog/inquisitor. The recent story about women candidates for the post of Attorney General under the Clinton administration is one of many striking examples. These candidates employed illegal aliens as domestics. Such acts by seekers of public office certainly place them well outside the pale these days, however trifling they may seem to the layman. And once appointed the officeholder will find all sorts of problems in the game of keeping his job secure. Have we gone wrong somewhere? Have we succumbed passively to media-induced hysteria? And are there any unintended effects of this new level of harrying?

I am reminded of an event in the life of Adam Smith. He is, of course, known as the man who wrote the classic work The Wealth of Nations in 1776 that argued for market freedom and minimum government. Less well known is the fact that in 1778 he earnestly sought a high level government appointment. Smith succeeded in obtaining the position, that of Commissioner of Scottish Customs, without having to face anything like the same degree of difficulty confronting today’s officeholders. But he was certainly aware that, once appointed, bureaucrats in important positions still have to be very wary in their personal behavior and to avoid so-called conflict-of-interest behavior.

Once in office Smith soon acquainted himself with the full details of custom law, and was promptly alarmed to discover that for some time he had been personally violating it. Almost as if to clear his conscience, let alone his record, he wrote to William Eden (Lord Auckland):

About a week after I was made a Commissioner of the Customs, upon looking over the list of prohibited goods (which is hung up in every Customhouse and which is well worth your considering), and upon examining my own wearing apparel, I found, to my great astonishment, that I had scarce a stock [neck cloth], a cravat, a pair of ruffles, or a pocket handkerchief which was not prohibited to be worn or used in Great Britain. I wished to set an example and burnt them all.[1]

If political conditions had been similar, and if the press had been as active and vigilant in the Scotland of 1778 as they are in the U.S.A. in 1993, Smith might never have been appointed! Moreover his “setting an example” by burning his clothes would not have rescued him either, for he would have advertised thereby that the crime had already been done, and this would have been enough to brand him forever, just as the confession of having once employed illegal aliens seems enough to invite eternal disqualification.

The irony is that if Smith had failed to obtain his government appointment because of a more hostile political and media environment, this would have provided an unintended social service. Smith’s alternative employment—university teaching and taking advantage of many more writing opportunities-would undoubtedly have bestowed significant net benefit on posterity. As his colleague Dugald Stewart observed about Smith’s last 12 years, all of which were spent in the customs office: “It is impossible to reflect on the time consumed, without lamenting, that it had not been employed in labours more profitable to the world, and more equal to his mind.”[2]

The one most important part of his literary plans that Smith left unfulfilled was his intended presentation of an account of the general principles of law and government and their evolution through time. It was this neglect, in particular, that most disappointed the later classical economist J. R. McCulloch: “Thousands of persons could have performed the duties of Commissioner of the Customs quite as well as Smith, or perhaps better; but there was not one, besides himself, who could have given that account of the general principles of law and government, and of the different revolutions they have undergone in the different ages and periods of society.”[3]

But who was McCulloch to talk? He went from a university professorship to fill the mundane office of comptroller of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. And he held this post for the last 26 years of his life (from 1838 to 1864)!

Such, curiously, was the lure of government office to both these fervent advocates of the free market. But then neither of them argued for zero government. And because somebody had to be employed in it, Smith could have insisted, why shouldn’t he be allowed to apply? All the same, the burning of his clothes seems like extremism in defense of moral rectitude; or was it just job security? []

  1.   Letter to William Eden, Edinburgh, 3 January 1780, in Correspondence of Adam Smith edited by E. C. Mossner and I. S. Ross (Oxford: Oxford University, 1977), pp. 244-246. In the letter Smith argues for complete abolition of all import prohibitions because they encouraged monopoly and no revenues arose from them except in consequence of fines and forfeitures. Smith advised substituting moderate and reasonable duties. In this way competition would be kept alive while government would enjoy increased revenues. The best account of Smith’s sojourn at the Customs Office is Gary M. Anderson, William F. Shughart, and Robert D. Tollison, “Adam Smith on the Customhouse,” Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 93, No. 4, August 1985.
  2.   Dugald Stewart, “Account of the Life and Writings of Adam Smith,” in Adam Smith: Essays on Philosophical Subjects, edited by W. P. D. Wightman and J. C. Bryce (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980).
  3.   Mark Blaug and Paul Sturges, eds., Who’s Who In Economics: A Biographical Dictionary of Major Economists, 1770-1981 (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1983), p. 257.
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