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Adam Smith, Free Trader

Here’s a public notice to all of the many people who assert that Adam Smith was really no free trader:

Those of us who have closely studied Adam Smith’s works know – and have known from the start – that the Great Scot explicitly acknowledged his belief that there exists in reality a small handful of situations that might justify government deviating from a policy of complete and unilateral free trade. But it is emphatically untrue that these exceptions to a policy of unilateral free trade thereby mean that Smith was no free trader. His exceptions are few in number, each is highly qualified by Smith, and these exceptions are all made in the context of Smith laying out a brilliant case for unilateral free trade.

And so to insist that Adam Smith was no strong proponent of unilateral free trade is to ignore the great bulk and thrust of Smith’s work while focusing on a handful of qualifications. To read Smith in a manner that portrays him as man of protectionism make no more sense than to read the New Testament in a manner that portrays Jesus as a man of violence. (After all, we are told that Jesus once used “a whip of cords” to physically drive the moneychangers from the temple.)

Adam Smith was no anarcho-capitalist. He recognized a legitimate role for the state. And so Smith’s spelling out what he saw as a (very limited) potential role of the state, including in regulating international commerce, ought not be interpreted as Smith embracing, or even tolerating, a policy of protectionism.


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