Two new posts of mine have appeared on the Political Theology Today blog

1. Adam Smith, Storyteller

2. 100 Years of Political Theology: Roland Boer’s Top Ten

Apparently, Adam Smith lived with his mother and was, as one commentator puts it, ‘unmarriageable’. Perhaps the reason may be found in one of his common practices:

He became one of the sights of Edinburgh, where he was given to rambling the streets in a trance, half-dressed and twitching all over, heatedly debating with himself in a peculiar affected voice and careering along with his inimitable “worm like” gait. (Norman Davies, Europe: A History, p. 604)

The other day as I was out at the shops, I was pondering my chapter in Idols of Nations called ‘Adam Smith the Story-Teller’. But I needed a piss, so to the toilets near the shops I went. Minding my own ‘business’ and deep in thought, I completed the required task and made to leave. As I did so, the door in the cubicle before me creaked open to reveal a somewhat hairy man with his pants around his ankles. One hand was busily at work upon a very visible ‘hand’ while the other raised a finger and beckoned to me invitingly. A lop-sided grin on the man’s face completed the picture. I can say that it was not enough to entice me to join him. Even though the image remains etched on my brain, I must have been there for a nano-second, for before I knew I was out and in the shops, telling Christina with a laugh. The thing is, he was a dead-ringer for this guy:


Wealth of Nations really is a massive jumble of material, reading much like a compendium into which Adam Smith threw his opinions on the world, the universe, anything. I fail to see how mind-numbing and seemingly endless accounts of herring preservation, turnpikes on English roads and bridges, and the varying roles of the clergy since the Roman Empire, have anything much to do with what causes “wealth” among the nations. So too his reflections on the current state of universities:

If the teacher happens to be a man of sense, it must be an unpleasant thing to him to be conscious, while he is lecturing his students, that he is either speaking or reading nonsense, or what is very little better than nonsense. It must too be unpleasant to him to observe that the greater part of his students desert his lectures; or perhaps attend upon them with plain enough marks of neglect, contempt, and derision. (V.i.f.14)

An autobiographical moment perhaps, since he is, after all, a “man of sense.” As for a young man engaging in a bit of travel before studying:

he commonly returns home more conceited, more unprincipled, more dissipated, and more incapable of any serious application either to study or to business, then he could well have become in so short a time, had he lived at home. By travelling so very young, by spending in the most frivolous dissipation the most precious years of his life, at a distance from the inspection and controul of his parents and relations, every useful habit, which the earlier parts of his education might have had some tendency to form in him, instead of being rivetted and confirmed, is almost necessarily either weakened or effaced. Nothing but the discredit into which the universities are allowing themselves to fall, could ever have brought into repute so very absurd a practice as that of travelling at this early period of life. By sending his son abroad, a father delivers himself, at least for some time, from so disagreeable an object as that of a son unemployed, neglected, and going to ruin before his eyes. (V.i.f.36)

Smith was, by all accounts, a jealous and surly man given to sudden sudden bouts of extreme anger.

Probably the most abused slogan from Adam Smith is his “invisible hand.” Even though it appears only three times in his writings, it has made more than one economist drool and not a few theologians see divine traces. First, the appearances: in his lectures on astronomy, he mentions the “invisible hand of Jupiter’, and then he casually drops a reference once in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and again in Wealth of Nations. In the former, as the rich engage in their natural selfishness and rapacity,

They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have made, had the earth been divided into equal proportions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition. (IV.1.10)

We should all be thankful for the rapacious rich! And then, in possibly the most quoted section from Wealth of Nations:

As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestick industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the publick interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestick to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other eases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. (IV.iii.9)

The phrase has become rubbed and worn by passing through too many hands. Many have extracted the invisible hand from the particular concern of this passage with domestic industry and extended it to become an image of how the possessive individualism of capitalism works to spread capitalism as a whole.

Apart from all the usual dross on this well-worn member, I would like to suggest another dimension. In the Hebrew Bible, yad or hand is occasionally used as a euphemism for penis. For instance, in the Song of Songs 5:4, one of the lovers is said to put his “hand” to the hole. Further, in the sexual text of Isaiah 57:8 we find literally “you have looked on a hand,” and in Lamentations 1:10 the adversary puts his hand on “all her precious things.” Given the masculine propensities of the mighty hand of God in the Hebrew Bible (Exodus 32:11; Deuteronomy 4:34; and so on); given that Smith is not averse to an occasional biblical allusion; and given his unremittingly masculine concerns, especially of males of ruling class propensities, I would suggest that the invisible or hidden hand may well be a subconscious allusion to that member concealed in his pants.

What is the real cause of a famine? A bad season perhaps, or greedy grain speculators. No, for Adam Smith,

a famine has never arisen from any other cause but the violence of government attempting, by improper means, to remedy the inconveniencies of a dearth.

In fact, those silly farmers and wasteful workers who complain of bad seasons are really not making the best use of their resources:

the scantiest crop, if managed with frugality and economy, will maintain, through the year, the same number of people that are commonly fed in a more affluent manner by one of moderate plenty.

But if you have a real famine, then the solution is simply to let the grain merchants and speculators loose:

The unlimited, unrestrained freedom of the corn trade, as it is the only effectual preventative of the miseries of a famine, so it is the best palliative of the inconveniencies of a dearth (Wealth of Nations, IV.v.b.5-7)

Ah, those dreadfully sinful, interfering governments.

That spinner of tales, Adam Smith, provides the answer:

It is not the multitude of alehouses, to give the most suspicious example, that occasions a general disposition to drunkenness among the common people; but that disposition arising from other causes necessarily gives employment to a multitude of ale-houses (Wealth of Nations, II.v.7).

The same argument is used by gun lobbies: don’t blame it on the guns, for the real problem is the occasional nutter who uses one. More guns, then, since people want them. And more ale-houses, since they meet a certain demand. If someone becomes an alcoholic or murderer as a result, well, that’s their problem.