The Original Conspiracy Theory

Adam Smith’s Friends and the birth of Conspiracy Theory

By Gwydion M. Williams


The Kirkcaldy Kid And His Context

Adam Smith attached himself to three different ‘networks’ in the developing framework of 18th century Britain. Through his friends and former pupils Shelburne and Wedderburn, and later through the patronage of Viscount Townshend, he had a direct connection with the aristocratic rulers of Great Britain. Especially with the ‘King’s Friends’, the scheming politicians who provoked North America to its War of Independence. These men might have stabilised Britain within 18th century forms, had their conduct of that war been less incompetent or had a stray shot happened to kill George Washington. That was one set of connections that Smith possessed, and the AdamSmithites don’t like to talk about it.

A second of Smith’s social networks was the Deistic intellectual underground that was quietly working to undermine conventional Christian faith. He most likely joined this network – which was probably not very organised or coherent – during his time at Oxford. For certain, it was there that he read the works of David Hume and abandoned his original intention of a career in the Church of England. Hume later became his closest friend and mentor, though Smith himself never published anything overtly hostile to Christianity.  He worked instead on an economic doctrine which was destined to strip Christianity of most of the power and prestige it still had in his day.

How far Adam Smith was conscious of this prospect is uncertain.  Perhaps not at all, perhaps he viewed Gentry Capitalism as the highest stage of commerce. But he certainly did not share Oliver Goldsmith’s view that wealth accumulates and men decay. Observing just the same processes at work, Smith considered that both culture and production were steadily improving.

The third connection critical to understanding Smith was his link with the developing world of science. This link is hardly ever noticed. Economics is commonly placed on the ‘Arts’ side of academic life. It has of course created its own ‘Nobel Prize’ to give it apparent parity with the biologists and chemists and physicists. But most regular scientists view the economists much as the Church of England viewed Joanna Southcott and similar eccentric enthusiasts.

Economics as practised by the AdamSmithites suffers from Physics Envy.  It uses formulae and mathematical models that probably mean very little. One can talk gibberish in mathematics just as in any other language. Or one can find a perfectly plausible model of the world that turns out to be simply wrong.  Ptolemy’s epicycles are nowadays seen as the classic example of bad science, yet as a system for calculating where the planets would be on any specified date, the Ptolemaic system worked quite well.

Mathematical models can be plausible and make useful predictions and yet not relevant to anything in the known universe. Most of economics does not get anywhere near that level, with economists supposing that their theories must be true just because they can express their opinions in mathematical language.

Adam Smith himself is another matter. His link to science was real enough. He made few attempts to express his views in mathematical language – never got beyond economic arithmetic, it was Marx who started that trend to economic algebra, oddly enough. But Smith did know what was going on in the world of 18th century science. At both Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities, Smith formed close friendships with gifted scientists, most notably James Hutton and Joseph Black.

Hutton and Black seem not to be known to people on the ‘Arts’ side of academia, not even to the economists who ape the external forms of science. Hutton is normally passed over as if he were some nonentity who just happened to be an executor of Adam Smith’s last will and testament.

Ross in his Life Of Adam Smith (Oxford 1995) is better than most on the scientific connections that shaped Smith’s world-view. But even he mentions Hutton merely as the author of Considerations On Coal And Culm.  It’s as absurd as if a scientist were to have no idea of who Wordsworth or Coleridge were.  Or if an historian were to mention that Oliver Cromwell employed a fellow called John Milton as a gifted writer of polemical pamphlets in Latin, and showed no awareness that this same John Milton wrote a little poetry when he found himself unemployed during the Restoration era.

Yet ignorance of the contributions made by Black and Hutton is a condition that will apply to many who will read this book. So I shall briefly describe their importance.

James Hutton was a pioneering geologist, a man who risked the wrath of conventional opinion by arguing that the earth was slowly changing and transforming and regenerating, with sea transformed into land and land worn down to sea again. There is legitimate ground for controversy about his exact role, but majority opinion among geologists credits him and Sir Charles Lyell as co-creators of the modern science of geology.

Hutton’s vision of the world – ‘no prospect of an end, no vestige of a creation’ – remains sound even though modern science has now got some definite ideas on both matters. And Hutton’s work was an obvious challenge to the Christian world view – he is always classed as a Deist, a believer in a distant benevolent and undemandingly rational God.

Joseph Black was a pioneer of careful measurement in both physics and chemistry, two sciences that were not clearly distinguished in his day. He discovered Carbon Dioxide, and he also discovered Latent Heat. He did not open up any new areas of thought in the way that Hutton did, and none of his discoveries touched on theologically sensitive matters. But from Joseph Black one comes quite naturally to James Watt, who had the post of scientific instrument maker at Glasgow University when both Smith and Black were teaching there. And Watt learned important habits of thought from Black.

Between Smith and Watt there was little or no connection. No synergy between the pioneering economist and the pioneering engineer.  Smith was remarkably close to the ‘workshop of creation’, and yet saw nothing. It’s not even clear that Smith knew that Watt had anything to do with the ‘fire engines’ that he briefly mentions in The Wealth Of Nations. The main documented link between the two men concerns one of Watt’s minor inventions, a machine for copying handwriting, a device that Smith found useful.

I would not make too much of Smith’s oversight. Watt was remarkable for being personally responsible for two or three of the numerous steps in the evolution of steam power. Many men helped to turn steam power from an interesting toy into a solid element within industrial civilisation.

Had the infant Watt scalded himself to death while investigating his mother’s boiling kettle, the Age of Steam would still have dawned.  Perhaps a little more slowly, but the Newcomen Engine was already in widespread use before Watt’s birth, and there were numerous attempts to improve on it. Steam power for industrial purposes had been growing all through the eighteenth century. Watt was much more an improver than a creator.

Serendipity: The Mystery Of Robison’s Crusade

Smith’s friends are interesting but not dramatic. But my investigations of Britain’s steam pioneers turned up an unexpected bonus, something that another sort of writer might blow up to some grand sensation. Watt was influenced in his efforts to improve the steam engine by a fellow called John Robison. And Robison was also the originator and inventor of the modern conspiracy theory. Robison wrote a book full of paranoid fears, identifying a conspiracy of Illuminati within Freemasonry as the cause of the French Revolution.

Robison’s notion of an Illuminati / Masonic conspiracy was later reworked to include Jews.  He himself was quite unconcerned by Europe’s Jewish minority, saying nothing either for or against them.  He probably saw it as a matter of no importance, there were few Jews in Scotland.  Nor have Jews ever gained much prominence in Britain’s Celtic Fringes, where there are a lots of energetic and well-educated Welsh, Scots or Irish to fill the social roles that Jews often share in the prosperous Metropolitan centres.

Jews and Scots had a rather similar position within the rich and rising English society, except that the Scots as Protestants had a very definite advantage. They had their own state institutions and they could also sit in Parliament and take government jobs.

There was also rather more anti-Scottish feeling in 18th century England than anti-Jewish sentiment.

Robison began the modern Conspiracy Theory with no concern at all about Jews. But the basic concept created by this misguided genius was picked up by a whole menagerie of rather stupid right-wing thinkers, a process well documented by Norman Cohn’s Warrant For Genocide. Together with massive plagiarism from a left-wing book that satirised Napoleon the Third, the world-view begun by Robison became the Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion and led on to Hitler and Nazism.

The key to understanding modern anti-Semitism is to realise that it has little to do with the actual activities of actual Jews. If the mediaeval Catholic Church had been more thorough, and if certain Islamic sects had been more observant of the original tolerant teachings of the Koran, there might perhaps have been no large numbers of Jews in Europe. The blame for Modernism would have had to have been placed elsewhere, given that Modernism and Cosmopolitanism would still have developed on much the same line. Both were outgrowths of ideas from within Christian Europe, ideas that were taken up by Jews only after the basis of European civilisation had been changed radically by protests within the Christian community.

If Modernism has not had an entirely smooth unfolding, the root of the problem lies with Adam Smith himself, and with all those who chose to believe in him. Smith supposed that it was possible to massively alter the economy of a society without upsetting its politics and its class structure. He had no good basis for this belief.  It was perhaps just in his nature to tell people what they wanted to be told and would praise him for saying elegantly. He led people to believe that one could have ‘cosmopolitical’ trade without loss of national sovereignty.

The clever AdamSmithites have decided to radically restructure the wall. If Humpty Dumpty should somehow suffer an Unscheduled Vertical Transition, this is quite definitely not their fault. Blame it on the Gingerbread Man.

Adam Smith in The Wealth Of Nations had ‘proved’ that the world will be perfect if governments step back and let everyone do as they please. When this has been tried, it is found that the world is not perfect at all. Also that people left to do as they please will not be moderate or modest or reasonable, but will indeed do just as they please regardless of whether or not you yourself approve of it.  (Or even whether they approve of it themselves.)  So either you decide that the basic concept was naive, or else you start looking for wicked conspirators who are maliciously spoiling an inherently perfect world.

Looking for wicked conspirators is always the soft, simple and attractive option. With a bit of imagination, they can be blamed for practically anything. Fall for this seductive idea, and you have started on a long spiral downwards.

From Adam Smith to Black to Watt and Robison and back to the AdamSmithites, I found links. A commercial ‘permissiveness’ that was bound to lead to other sorts of ‘laissez-faire’;  steam power that allowed for a new world built on a much grander and more generous scale; crazy suspicions of ordinary people as the supposed Root of All Evil; continuous outbreaks of hatred and suspicion as the AdamSmithites remove ‘unnecessary’ regulations and protections from old and cherished but vulnerable local identities. One is dealing with one phenomenon, a messy and still very incomplete phenomenon, a global society.

To use the modern terminology developed by mathematicians studying Deterministic Chaos, industrial society was and is an Emergent Phenomenon. An Emergent Phenomenon is often similar to a traffic jam, something that everyone has contributed to, no one approves of and for which no one will accept responsibility.


This is from my book Adam Smith: Wealth Without Nations, published in the year 2000.  Available from Athol Books