IDEAS home Printed from
   My bibliography  Save this article

Adam Smith and Liberal Economics: Reading the Minimum Wage Debate of 1795-96


  • Christopher Martin


Adam Smith’s outlook still inspires and informs modern sensibilities and argumentation. It is of interest beyond Smith aficionados whether a particular line of modern thought “fits” Smith. One important such dispute involves recent “left Smithian” writers who argue that he was more open to government intervention—especially on behalf of the poor—than had previously been believed. Perhaps the best short statement of this view is Emma Rothschild’s 1992 essay “Adam Smith and Conservative Economics.” Although insightful in many ways, this article seems to imply—in the historical context of the British grain supply crisis of 1795-96—that a minimum wage law is consistent with a Smithian worldview. Rothschild associates opposition to a minimum wage policy (as proposed in 1795), an opposition elaborated and defended by William Pitt, with “principles of political economy” and coldness toward the poor. Advocacy of the policy, led by Samuel Whitbread, marked, according to Rothschild, a warmth and compassion true to Smith but since forsaken by posterity. The tension Rothschild sees in the debate between these two men isn’t, however, found in Smith’s own writings or in the actual discussion Pitt and Whitbread held in Parliament. A closer look at this historical episode invites reconciliation between the ostensibly opposed strands of “warmth” and “principle” in Smith’s writing and in our own thought today.

Suggested Citation

  • Christopher Martin, 2011. "Adam Smith and Liberal Economics: Reading the Minimum Wage Debate of 1795-96," Econ Journal Watch, Econ Journal Watch, vol. 8(2), pages 110-125, May.
  • Handle: RePEc:ejw:journl:v:8:y:2011:i:2:p:110-125

    Download full text from publisher

    File URL:
    Download Restriction: no

    File URL:
    Download Restriction: no

    References listed on IDEAS

    1. David Neumark & William L. Wascher, 2008. "Minimum Wages," MIT Press Books, The MIT Press, edition 1, volume 1, number 0262141027, July.
    Full references (including those not matched with items on IDEAS)


    Citations are extracted by the CitEc Project, subscribe to its RSS feed for this item.

    Cited by:

    1. repec:hal:journl:dumas-00910208 is not listed on IDEAS
    2. Bruce Kaufman, 2016. "Adam Smith’s Economics and the Modern Minimum Wage Debate:The Large Distance Separating Kirkcaldy from Chicago," Journal of Labor Research, Springer, vol. 37(1), pages 29-52, March.

    More about this item


    Adam Smith; Samuel Whitbread; William Pitt; Minimum Wage; Grain Crisis; Left Smithianism; Emma Rothschild;

    JEL classification:

    • B12 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - History of Economic Thought through 1925 - - - Classical (includes Adam Smith)
    • B31 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - History of Economic Thought: Individuals - - - Individuals
    • N00 - Economic History - - General - - - General


    Access and download statistics


    All material on this site has been provided by the respective publishers and authors. You can help correct errors and omissions. When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:ejw:journl:v:8:y:2011:i:2:p:110-125. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.

    For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: (Jason Briggeman). General contact details of provider: .

    If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.

    If CitEc recognized a reference but did not link an item in RePEc to it, you can help with this form .

    If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your RePEc Author Service profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.

    Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.

    IDEAS is a RePEc service hosted by the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis . RePEc uses bibliographic data supplied by the respective publishers.