TUCKER: R.I.P. Adam Smith

In preparation for a recent holiday in Scotland, I re-read some Scottish history. The father of modern economics, Adam Smith, looms large in any study of Scottish thought, and it was not long before I found myself standing admiringly at the foot of Smith’s statue in Old Town, Edinburgh.

Smith’s writing has lost none of its timeliness. His stern warnings against the mercantilist policies of his day can appropriately be applied to the 21st century. Smith believed the free market far more capable of achieving a beneficial, rational allocation of resources than any scheme put together by politicians or bureaucrats. He understood the belief in free markets as not so much an intellectual philosophy as rather a discovery of natural law and the revelation of history.  Indeed, history is rife with examples of the gross misallocation of resources resulting from misguided (often well intended) government policies. Smith’s free market prescription was simple: “Every man, as long as he does not violate the law of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest in his own way.”

Having become re-acquainted with the wisdom of Smith’s writings, what a disappointment to see that 21st century Scotland seems largely to have rejected the teachings of her famous son. On my arrival in Scotland, I was greeted by newspaper accounts of the unveiling of a grand government scheme “to attack the housing shortage with a radical solution…” The government has declared a severe housing shortage and plans to build over 25,000 new houses per year. Even more disheartening was the rationale:  “Market failure is depriving thousands of young people of the opportunity to own a house….” Imagine Smith’s reaction to a modern Tory government somehow blaming the free market for a lack of housing and proposing such massive intervention in the market.

Similar indications of anti-free market thinking appeared daily during my visit. Finally, on the last day, there was a lengthy op-ed piece from one of Prime Minister Theresa May’s advisors. He solemnly warned May’s conservative government of impending doom unless it heeded the voters’ message from the recent election. He noted the surge in young voters who turned out for the Labour Party and its socialist agenda.  His solution: the Tories must radically intervene in the market and reallocate more resources toward the younger population.

Sadly, there appeared to be no modern defenders of Smith’s free market policies in the UK today. Gone is the vigorous free market advocacy of Margaret Thatcher. Instead of trying to out-promise the Labour Party in order to attract young voters, Thatcher advocated “first win the debate, then you’ll win the election.” The economic facts and the weight of history are on the side of free markets, but you would never know it from today’s UK politicians.

Perhaps the most memorable example of government interference was anecdotal. Our tour group was visiting a large sheep farming operation in the highlands and was being entertained by a demonstration of sheep herding dogs. The head shepherd, a veteran of 30+ years, put on a truly amazing show with his border collies and was fielding questions from our group, when suddenly he veered off into political incorrectness. He recounted the endless regulations imposed by “twenty year old bureaucrats who have never worked on a sheep farm.” His favorite example was the government’s threat to shut down his uncle’s operation because of claims that his uncle, who has been raising sheep for over 60 years, did not know how to hold a sheep properly! Though meant for good, these regulations are strangling this industry’s ability to operate, escalating its costs, and distorting the market.

A final word of warning to Scotland delivered 125 years ago from another famous son, Andrew Carnegie: “The great error in your country (Scotland) is that things are just upside down. You look to your officials to govern you instead of you governing them.” Amen.

Garland S. Tucker III is chairman of Triangle Capital Corporation in Raleigh and author of Conservative Heroes: Fourteen Leaders Who Changed America – Jefferson to Reagan.