William Coleman public lecture

Adam Smith’s case against the British Empire

A 2023 Goldsmith public lecture presented by William Coleman

Hosted by The Australian National University Research School of Economics

This lecture is funded through the Goldsmith Economic Research Endowment, and is part of a series of global events supported by the University of Glasgow to commemorate the anniversary of the birth of acclaimed Scottish ‘founding father of economics’.

At the time the Scotland-born Adam Smith was completing his magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations, the American Revolution had plunged the British Empire into crisis. Smith used the Empire as the leading object of his contention and scrutiny. He maintained that valid economic principles taught that the Empire was injurious to the prosperity of Great Britain itself. Consequently, he concluded, the Empire should be transformed into a political union, based on the model of the union of England and Scotland.

But Coleman will argue that Smith’s theoretical case for the British Empire as impoverishing of Great Britain is defective, and that the then favoured system of manipulation of the Empire’s trade – ‘mercantilism’ – was probably to the advantage of Great Britain in the circumstances of the 18th century. Smith’s theoretical errors with respect to mercantilism betray his key and pervading presumption of a ‘harmony of economic interests’ in a system of ‘natural liberty’.

However, Coleman concedes that Smith’s empirical critique of the Empire on economic grounds was strong, and his commanding disdain of the imperial project can be seen as stimulating an influential lineage of 19th Century anti-imperialists, reaching from Jeremy Bentham through to William Gladstone. Smith’s use of economics to scrutinise the Empire’s justification is suggestive not only of explanations of mercantilism in the 18th Century, but, additionally, of the dismantling of mercantilism in the 19th Century in the wake of the industrial revolution.

Smith’s writings, therefore, prepare its readers for the disappearance of the once vast Empire in its economic and political forms.