Interpreting Adam Smith's Views on the Education of the Poor in the Age of Benevolence

Scott Drylie

Advisor: Daniel B Klein, PhD, Department of Economics

Committee Members: Donald J. Boudreaux, Nelson Lund

Buchanan Hall, #D180
July 25, 2016, 01:30 PM to 10:00 AM


This dissertation provides an interpretation of Adam Smith’s article “Of the Expence of the Institutions for the Education of Youth” by placing it in the historical context of the great flourishing of charity that occurred in 18th century Britain. The common interpretation of the article from Book V of The Wealth of Nations is that Smith advocated for government to partially subsidize education for the poor. The moral degradation resulting from the division of labor required a remedy. However, the presence of a growing tradition of charity schooling in an age of increasing wealth provokes the question of why Smith, who is attentive to and appreciative of benevolence and who is critical of government, would abandon charity when it seemed most promising.

In Chapter 1, I provide a history of charity schools in Britain and a history of thought regarding the education of the poor. The chapter demonstrates how radical and seemingly unwarranted Smith would have been to have advocated for direct government provision. 

In Chapter 2, I explore the nascent discourse on government provision of education in Britain before The Wealth of Nations. The most significant discourse stems from Montesquieu’s 1748 publication of The Spirit of Laws. I reveal, however, how poorly received such emergent statist sentiments were. They do not appear to be a foundation on which Smith would construct a proposal for government provision.

In Chapter 3, I explore Smith’s article from the historical perspective which I have reconstructed in the prior two chapters. I show that the textual material which has been treated as ambiguous, inconsistent and digressive contains many inconveniences for the common interpretation that Smith advocated for government provision. I offer an alternative interpretation that Smith favored both the free market and charity over the option of government. I also show he rejected Montesquieu.

Finally, in Chapter 4, I reveal that in the first few decades after the publication of The Wealth of Nations, Smith’s legacy appears to be that of a philanthropist and not a statist in the sphere of education. As educational politics became more polemical in the 1820s – taking on the form of a public-private debate – Smith’s legacy transformed into that of an advocate of the free-market in education. The common interpretation today that Smith advocated for government bears little resemblance to past interpretations.