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Do like Adam Smith: Ride the train with your policymaker (as often as possible)

Some of the arguably most fundamental, longest-lasting changes in the world economy resulted from the policy influencing efforts of an entrepreneurial scholar. The advent of laissez-faire liberalism in England was a strategic endeavor pursued by none other than Adam Smith, according to James A. Morrison. This post builds on Morrison’s account of Smith’s influence to illustrate how the power of policy ideas has historically relied to a great extent on long-term strategic engagement with policy makers.

I owe to a journey I made with Mr. Smith from Edinburgh to London the difference between light and darkness… The novelty of his principles… made me unable to comprehend them at the time, but he urged them with so much… eloquence, that they took a certain hold which, though it did not… arrive at full conviction for some few years after, I can truly say has constituted ever since the happiness of my life.
—The Earl of Shelburne, Prime Minister 1782–83.

The quote above illustrates quite persuasively the extent to which personal access to a decision maker can be fundamental in bringing about policy changes. James Morrison claims that the power of ideas should not be assessed without reference to the intellectuals that proposed them. This is because they are chosen partly on their intellectual merits and partly on the persuasive capacities of those who bring them to the fore.

In this light, Britain’s abandonment of mercantilism in favour of trade liberalism was not pre-determined by its military defeat against the American colonies but rather brought about by the intellectual idiosyncrasies and relationships of particular individuals at that time. Smith had been lobbying for these changes since the 1760s, long before the American Revolutionary War. Even Smith’s most influential work, The Wealth of Nations, was produced and strategically published as an attempt to make his ideas count before the Monarchy and Parliament. He deliberately delayed publishing it in order for his predictions about the colonies’ rejection of mercantilist policies to be more explicit.

Over the years, before Shelburne became Prime Minister, Smith frequently sent him progress reports and paid him visits in London, even staying occasionally as Shelburne’s guest. The author argues that this long-term personal engagement process was fundamental in persuading the Earl of Shelburne of the merits of free trade liberalism, which at first he thought ill-conceived.

His connection with Shelburne had originated from his position at the University of Glasgow. Starting in the 1750s, he had inculcated his ideas in his students, many of whom would become influential in London later on. Many of his students also came from important families, which helped Smith secure connections and patronage from the likes of Shelburne.

If relationship building is a long-term endeavor, persuading others of novel ideas is also a process that can take decades to yield. According to this account, Adam Smith not only developed ground-breaking economic ideas but he also devoted decades of strategic efforts to push them into policy-making – and all of this in the 18th century! The potential time lag for new ideas to be accepted (let alone implemented) is presumably more challenging today, given heightened time constraints in all dimensions of political and social life.

The time scale (and criteria) by which we measure and/or evaluate our own efforts to participate in policy processes should be informed by a longer-term perspective. It took Adam Smith long enough – it will take time for us too!