Emma Rothschild

Leven Beach, near Smith's hometown of Kirkcaldy on the south-east coast of Fife.

Adam Smith was born three hundred years ago, in the small port town of Kirkcaldy. In time for his birthday, he -- or some large condition of which he is supposed to have been the prophet, capitalism or industrialism or universal selfishness -- has been inculpated in an awesome charge. It is that Smith, or the large condition, is the cause of the climate change that now threatens civilization.

I don't think that the awesome charge is plausible at all. But as Smith himself wrote (often), it is only natural or human to look for large and systematic explanations of disjointed, discordant events. So in honour of Smith's tercentenary, I will try over the next few days -- it is only the date of Smith's baptism, registered on June 5, 1723 (or June 16, 1723, in the modern calendar) that is preserved in the historical record -- to describe some of the ways in which Smith's ideas can be of interest in thinking about the discordant times in which we now live.

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Adam Smith was baptized on June 5, 1723, and this is the date that is celebrated in his home town of Kirkcaldy, and in the University of Glasgow. There is no evidence, or none that has been found so far, that Smith ever had a birthday party. In 1752 -- Smith was living at the time in Glasgow -- Scotland adopted the Gregorian (new style) calendar; September 2, 1752 was followed  by September 14, 1752. So the three hundredth anniversary of Smith's baptism -- in the not entirely intuitive sense of the date at which 109,500 days (or 3 x 300 x 365) days will have elapsed, will be on June 16, 2023. This is the date, apparently, that is being celebrated by the Smith-inspired policy institutes that have flourished over the past generation ("capital matters.")

The choice is a reflection, at first sight, of two enduring approaches to Smith: Smith as someone who once lived, and who can be understood in his own times; and Smith as an inspiration for our own changing eternity. We revere him, and there is a frisson of togetherness in thinking that he was born (or baptized) exactly 300 years ago today. Or we respect him, and we are interested in the date that he himself would have thought of as his birthday, even though this was not the sort of thing that people thought about much at the time. Time and commemoration mean different things at different times. I have just finished reading the extraordinary, moving novel Time Shelter, by George Gospodinov; the "days, names and stories" are "quietly slipping away."

When Amartya Sen and I first went to Kirkcaldy in the early 1990s, we stopped at the Tourist Office, and asked for directions to where Adam Smith's house used to be. The young woman didn't know, and she didn't know who Adam Smith was. Amartya, disappointed, asked "so what is Kirkcaldy famous for?" The answer was, "It used to be famous for linoleum." Kirkcaldy is now famous for Adam Smith. Happy Birthday(s).


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