Adam Smith on War

Adam Smith used to be at Balliol, which was my college for most of my fifteen years in Oxford, before he left in 1746 to do 'less drinking and more thinking'. In 1776, he more or less invented economics with what Borders, if it had a clue, would no doubt describe as the 'Enlightenment Classic', The Wealth of Nations.

Like many great works, Smith's words contain quotes that challenge any simplistic reading of his ideas. So, for instance, the apostle of markets and commerce warned citizens to be wary of concentrations of capital and of business as an ongoing conspiracy against the public. Smith pointed out that those who profess to trade for the public good are often neither public nor good. You can, on the morning that McDonalds contemplated being offered the sponsorship of British hospitals, read Milton Friedman on Smith's view of business in a semi-mad lecture here.

This Good Friday Morning, recalling the Iraq War, both Glenn Greenwald, the liberal American constitutional lawyer and journalist, and Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek, the free-market website, have found another quote from Smith. It details the position of supporters of Imperial Wars. It is very worth thinking about;

In great empires the people who live in the capital, and in the provinces remote from the scene of action, feel, many of them, scarce any inconveniency from the war; but enjoy, at their ease, the amusement of reading in the newspapers the exploits of their own fleets and armies. To them this amusement compensates the small difference between the taxes which they pay on account of the war, and those which they had been accustomed to pay in time of peace. They are commonly dissatisfied with the return of peace, which puts an end to their amusement, and to a thousand visionary hopes of conquest and national glory from a longer continuance of the war.

(This quotation is in Book V, Chapter 3 of The Wealth of Nations.)

Gavin Kennedy, who has commented below, has asked for a reference for the 'less drinking more thinking quote'. I have to say it was something that people in my circle of undergraduates used to always say that they heard from old college men, and which I thought apposite to put on the post, but it can't be referenced. Smith was at Oxford during one of its hundred-year long dark periods of indulgence, laziness and drunkenness. The records of him at Balliol relate to the Buttery list, and show that he didn't have much money.

I would have assumed that he was looked after by the college as a corporate body of individuals, but got into trouble with the snell award that funded him and whoever disbursed it. Actually, John Jones' History of Balliol (Jones was the College Archivist in my time) suggests differently, because under Master Theophilus Leigh, Scots on the Snell were not welcomed warmly, and the college tended to divert their exhibition monies to college purposes, many of which involved drink. There is a letter to Smith's guardian from his correspondence in 1740 that makes that point.

For a lot of the time he drank Bishop Berkeley's prescribed remedy of 'tar water' for ailments, which suggests that his alcohol-drinking (beyond the normal necessary to avoid dirty water) would have been limited by his perceived health, unless he was a hypochondriac. He also used his time profitably to read very deeply and widely in the Bodleian. His annoyance with the state of the university makes it highly likely that the oral tradition I was handed down about his comment, which I guess could easily have come from Gibbon's observations on Smith, is correct, but no more than that could be said. Smith wasn't so annoyed that he burned all of his boats when he returned to Scotland though, and there is no record of a determined effort to close the option of returning until the immediate moment of separation had passed.

You can read more about Smith at Oxford here, and Gavin Kennedy's blog on Smith, which I recommend, here.


Gavin Kennedy said…
Do you have a source for Adam Smith saying 'less drnking, more thinking', on leaving Balliol?

Otherwise, I liked your post. I have commented on the quotation on my own Blog.