Jerry Z. Muller on Jacob Soll on Adam Smith

by Don Boudreaux on January 12, 2023

in Adam Smith

When my GMU Econ colleague, and accomplished Adam Smith scholar, Dan Klein shared with me this new essay by Jerry Z. Muller I anticipated sharing it soon in a “Some Links” post. But because the effort to mischaracterize Adam Smith is in full swing – and because the importance of getting Smith right is so great – Muller’s devastating exposé of historian Jacob Soll’s appalling interpretation of Smith warrants its own post. Do read Muller’s entire essay, but here are a few slices:

I must note that all historians make occasional mistakes. We make errors of transcription, cite quotations incorrectly, get page numbers wrong, etc., and the broader our inquiry, the more likely that such minor errors creep into our work. But the errors in Soll’s chapter on Adam Smith go beyond such peccadillos. They include some major mischaracterizations of Smith’s views, based upon a variety of errors, including, remarkably enough, the attribution to Smith of views Smith discusses at length only to refute. Not only that: the relationship of the pages cited in the footnotes to the claims in the text are often casual at best, and at times actually refute the statements they are meant to “prove.”

The first example in the chapter on Smith of a conflict between Soll’s claims and the sources he cites relates not to Smith himself, but to Friedrich Hayek. At the beginning of the chapter, Soll informs us that “In 1944… Friedrich August von Hayek painted Smith as a thinker opposed to all government intervention who focused on economic efficiency.” (196). The footnote refers us to two citations from Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. One of them is a direct and famous quotation from Smith’s Wealth of Nations (Road, p.100) about the folly of the statesman who presumes to direct private people as to how to employ their capital. The other citation is to page 88, where Hayek writes:

“To create conditions in which competition will be as effective as possible, to supplement it where it cannot be made effective, to provide services which, in the words of Adam Smith, ‘though they may be in the highest degree advantageous to a great society, are, however, of such a nature, that the profit could never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals’ – these tasks provide, indeed, a wide and unquestioned field for state activity. In no system that could be rationally defended would the state just do nothing. An effective competitive system needs an intelligently designed and continuously adjusted legal framework as much as any other. Even the most essential prerequisite of its proper functioning, the prevention of fraud and deception (including exploitation of ignorance), provides a great and by no means yet fully accomplished object of legislative activity.”

Elsewhere in The Road to Serfdom and at greater length in his Constitution of Liberty (1960), Hayek would devote himself to analyzing the proper role and the limits of the state in providing for social welfare. But even the quoted paragraph, to which Soll’s footnote calls our attention, is far from advocating opposition to all government intervention.


Yet these discrepancies pale in comparison to the problem with Soll’s main contention, namely that Smith believed that land and agriculture were the only source of a nation’s wealth. This claim is not only central to his chapter devoted to Smith, but is adumbrated in earlier chapters (14, 29), and repeated in later ones (220, 238). That of course was the position of the Physiocrats, a sect of thinkers Smith had encountered during his visit in Paris, and whose work he continued to read thereafter. Soll writes that “Quesnay, du Pont de Nemours, and Mirabeau introduced Smith to their main argument: that land was the only source of a nation’s wealth. With the physiocrats, Smith felt he had found kindred intellectual spirits.” (205) The accompanying note refers to a secondary source: the 2010 biography of Smith by Nicholas Phillipson, an authority on the Scottish Enlightenment, which is to say, a reliable source. But when one actually turns to Phillipson’s account one finds a discussion of how much Smith disagreed with the Physiocrats’ analysis, despite his respect for their attempt to think systematically about the economy.

Soll, by contrast, takes Smith to have embraced the premises of Physiocratic doctrine.


Among other dubious, unsupported and unsupportable assertions about Smith in Soll’s chapter is the following: “Because Smith believed in stages of societal progress and in the British agrarian Lockean compact society, he enthusiastically supported both colonial conquest and slavery.” (210) Smith did make use of a stage theory – of hunters and fishers, nomadic herdsmen, settled agriculture, and finally commercial society. But he used this as a kind of ideal type through which to explore the interrelationship between means of subsistence, structures of authority, law, and forms of property in various societies at various points in history. He did not treat them as necessary, successive stages of progress. Nor did Smith enthusiastically support slavery. On the contrary: in TMS, he described contemporary slave traders and slave owners as

“the refuse of the jails of Europe, … wretches who possess the virtues neither of the countries which they come from, nor of those which they go to, and whose levity, brutality, and baseness, so justly expose them to the contempt of the vanquished.” (TMS V.2.9, pp.206-07.)

In WN, Smith wrote of “the unfortunate law of slavery” (Vol. 2, bk IV, ch. viiib, para 54) which he nevertheless explored, with an eye to minimizing the harms of that practice. It is in that context that Smith came to discuss contemporary slavery. He argued that slaves are worse off when their masters also form the government (as in the American and Caribbean British colonies), since the masters have unlimited control of their slaves. He thought that paradoxically, where there was more “arbitrary government,” — that is greater control by an appointee of the crown — slaves may acquire a bit more protection. Here he cites historical precedents going back to ancient Rome, as well as the situation of contemporary French sugar colonies. Soll chastises him for underrating the brutality of these colonies. But Soll misses Smith’s point, which was not to offer a positive portrait of slavery in the French colonies, but to speculate about the circumstances under which slavery was likely to be more and less oppressive. Smith’s treatment of slavery was anything but an enthusiastic embrace.

DBx: Muller rightly treats Soll’s ‘interpretation’ of Adam Smith harshly.

Each Spring semester for the past decade or so I re-read, cover to cover, Smith’s Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. But even someone who’s read this magnificent work only once cannot help but be struck by Smith’s rejection of physiocracy and by his opposition to slavery. And on each of these topics there is nothing remotely ambiguous, tentative, or qualified about Smith’s position.

The only three possible explanations for Soll’s interpretation of Smith on these (and a few other) scores is that (1) Soll is illiterate; (2) Soll intentionally mischaracterized Smith’s views; or (3) despite a pose to the contrary, Soll didn’t actually read Adam Smith’s books in full or with even the minimum of attention required of someone who will write about Smith. Because both (2) and (3) imply a moral failing while (1) implies only an intellectual failing – and because, without evidence to the contrary, it’s always best to attribute error to a failure of the intellect rather than to unethical intent – I conclude that Soll really can’t read all that well.

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