The Australian National University: Adam Smith's Case Against the British Empire

Dr William Coleman, Reader of Economics at the Australian National University, delivered a lecture for Smith Around the World, funded by the Goldsmith Economic Research Endowment.

Focusing on Adam Smith and his thoughts on the British Empire, Dr Coleman argued that Smith's theoretical case for the British Empire as impoverishing of Great Britain is defective, and that the mercantilism, the favoured system of manipulation of the Empire’s trade, was probably to the advantage of Great Britain in the 18th century.

However, Dr Coleman conceded that Smith's empirical critique of the Empire on economic grounds was strong, and his commanding disdain of the imperial project can be seen as stimulating an influential lineage of 19th century anti-imperialists, reaching from Jeremy Bentham through to William Gladstone

Watch the lecture

About the presenter

Dr William Coleman received his PhD at the London School of Economics, and held academic appointments at the Victoria University of Wellington, the University of Tasmania and Cambridge University, before moving to The Australian National University in 2002, where he became a Reader in Economics.

Head and shoulders photo of William Coleman

His primary interest is the history of economic thought, and he is a past winner of the (United States) History of Economics Society’s prize for the best journal paper.

Coleman’s landmark publications take the form of a string of books, for which he has received widespread praise. His most recent book, Their Fiery Cross of Union (Connor Court, 2021), challenges the orthodoxy that sees Australian Federation in 1901 as an unalloyed blessing. He argues that it was the result of political intrigues, was badly designed, and was of detriment to Australia's economic welfare.

In addition to his research and publications, Coleman has been instrumental in many academic societies, notably as CEO of the History of Economic Thought Society of Australia from 2000 to 2007, and from 2007 to 2021 the editor of the economics and policy journal Agenda: A Journal of Policy Analysis and Reform.

Speaker at podium with opening slide entitled 'Adam Smith's Case Against the British Empire'Source: Australian National University

Screen with slide showing a graph entitled 'Britain's Cumulative Exports to North America Compared to her Cumulative Debt Interest £m. 'Source: National Australian University

Audience in a seminar room looking towards the speaker and screen. Source: Australian National University

Speaker with a slide on a screen entitled The Tobacco Market (under Free Trade). Source: Australian National University

Speaker at a podium with people in the audience. Source: Australian National University