Trey Dimsdale: ‘Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand of God’ by Brendan Long

The first time that I read a serious academic work about Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations, I recall being stuck by just how compatible his metaphor of the invisible hand was with the Christian doctrine of providence. It seemed to me then that a project that sought to harmonize the two would be a worthy undertaking. Of course, Smith and his works have been the subject of significant scrutiny and debate by both philosophers and economists, and this has resulted in myriad theories about his own personal religious beliefs and how those religious beliefs may have factored into his work. Some insist that Smith was an atheist, others insist that he was a devout Christian bordering on modern evangelical fervor, with dozens of positions falling in between.


Long takes on this issue with erudition and clarity. The opening chapters provide helpful overviews of several preliminary issues. First, the author surveys the state of the academic conversation that has accompanied a resurgence of interest in Smith. Next, he moves on to summarizing the various philosophical and theological influences on Smith and the various perspectives among scholars as to the nature of Smith’s faith. Only at this point does Long make his own argument regarding the Christian faith and Adam Smith’s thought.

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It is important to note that this particular field of Smith studies has been defined by what is known as the ‘Adam Smith problem.’ Given that his two most notable works, Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations, are central works of two different fields—philosophy and economics, respectively—it is easily lost on even academics engaging in one field or the other that Smith’s tone, references, and methodology engage with Christian theology in very different ways. Many within the field have attempted to bridge the gap and provide a universal theory that harmonizes the two approaches. Frankly, my own engagement with Smith has been quite siloed, so I found Long’s discussion of this issue to be quite helpful and enlightening.


But, who cares? Are Smith’s theories any more or less helpful as a result of the role that religion played in his own thinking and intellectual formation? Prior to engaging in his own analysis, Long argues that it does matter: ‘side-stepping…Smith’s theism has led to an impoverishment in Smithian studies.’ Only when we understand the origin of Smith’s thought can we appreciate the unitary goal of his writing, which according to Long, ‘is ultimately an attempt to produce a coherence theory of human nature that deals with the tension between altruistic love of neighbour, a Christian interpretation of morality, and the reality of self-love through a complex narrative of unintended human action which is part of a providential plan written into the moral fabric of human relationships.’ Teleologically, Smith’s project is anthropological in nature before it is either philosophical or economic. Understanding it rightly, Long argues, ‘represents a call for contemporary philosophy of economics to return to its source in the moral philosophy which is a complex synthesis of the individual’s moral constitution and the role that it plays in the development of the common good.’


Long convincingly argues that the ‘Adam Smith problem’ is solved by recognizing ‘a unifying philosophical core’ in Smith’s diverse works rather than a common methodology, as others have attempted. According to Long, the ‘underlying and organizing principle is…a particular reading of the human as an ethical person.’ Smith understands people to be moral agents who are complex. Self-interest, a theme in Smith’s work that is often criticized as being incompatible with Christian ethics, can be rightly understood as a complex concept with moral and material concerns interwoven when Smith is read through this lens.


Long asserts that ‘in the world of contemporary economic theory people are reduced to variables in a system of linear algebra and differential calculus.’ While most economists, especially Christian ones, would likely take issue with this assertion, it is undeniable that most quantitative research in the field requires the reduction of complex circumstances, motivations, etc. to very narrow, specific, and measurable variables. The value of this type of research is certain, but also limited. It often provides a snapshot of just one narrow aspect of a much more complex issue. That type of work shouldn’t be abandoned. Long’s proposition, however, is that understanding Smith’s work on its own terms, which includes certain theological and philosophical assumptions, has explanatory power that a ‘ruthless mechanistic system’ simply does not have. A recovery of a right understanding of Smith’s work will provide a framework for understanding the economic decisions made by moral agents who ‘operate in a complex world of interpersonal subjectivity driven by a combination of personal and social motivations and by ethical principles.’


One weakness of many approaches to harmonizing Smith’s works is that many seem to be hampered by anachronisms of one variety or another. Smith wrote before the dawn of modern psychology and died well before the emergence of various religious movements. As a result, attempting to square any of his thought with these subsequent developments presents problems. Long, however, has carefully avoided this. I expected to find some indicators of bias driven by the author’s prior assumptions, but these are absent in this work. His analysis is clear, serious, and without any obvious bias to make Smith ‘say’ what Long might hope he would say. His work is not driven by a desire to land at a place with a particular bent toward or against capitalism or Christian theology, but proceeds from what is commonly known about Smith’s life and influences and remains closely tied to the text of Smith’s various writings. Long has contributed something quite helpful to those interested in the fields to which Smith studies belong.


‘Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand of God’ by Brendan Long was published in 2023 by Routledge (ISBN: 978-1-03-207336-1). 178pp.

Trey Dimsdale is an associate fellow with CEME as well as the Executive Director of the Center for Religion, Culture, & Democracy (CRCD), the educational and cultural initiative of First Liberty Institute. He is also an contributing editor at Providence, a magazine focused on Christianity and international relations. He holds a law degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, as well as degrees in ethics and political science.