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Lessons From Adam Smith’s Edinburgh and Paris

Blog Post | Urbanization

Lessons From Adam Smith’s Edinburgh and Paris

Examining the places where major advances happened is one way to learn about the conditions that foster societal flourishing, human achievement, and prosperity.

Summary: Amidst the turmoil of modern times, evidence reveals significant progress across various metrics, from rising life expectancy to declining global poverty. Cities have emerged as epicenters of innovation and progress throughout history, fostering collaboration, competition, and freedom of thought. By exploring the unique environments of cities like Edinburgh and Paris, where intellectual liberty thrived, Chelsea Follett uncovers the vital role of peace, freedom, and population density in driving human achievement and societal advancement.


This article appeared in Adam Smith Works on 2/8/2024.

Has humanity made progress? With so many serious problems, it is easy to get the impression that our species is hopeless. Many people view history as one long tale of decay and degeneration since some lost, idealized golden age.

But there has been much remarkable, measurable improvement—from rising life expectancy and literacy rates to declining global poverty. (Explore the evidence for yourself). Today, material abundance is more widespread than our ancestors could have dreamed. And there has been moral progress too. Slavery and torture, once widely accepted, are today almost universally reviled.

Where did all this progress come from? Certain places, at certain times in history, have contributed disproportionately to progress and innovation. Change is a constant, but progress is not. Studying the past may hold the secret to fostering innovation in the present. To that end, I wrote a book titled Centers of Progress: 40 Cities that Changed the World, exploring the places that shaped modern life.

The origin points of the ideas, discoveries, and inventions that built the modern world were far from evenly or randomly dispersed throughout the globe. Instead, they tended to emerge from cities, even in time periods when most of the human population lived in rural areas. In fact, even before anything that could be called a city by modern standards existed, progress originated from the closest equivalents that did exist at the time. Why is that?

“Cities, the dense agglomerations that dot the globe, have been engines of innovation since Plato and Socrates bickered in an Athenian marketplace,” urban economist Edward Glaeser opined in his book The Triumph of the City. Of course, he was hardly the first to observe that positive change often emanates from cities. As Adam Smith noted in 1776, “the commerce and manufactures of cities, instead of being the effect, have been the cause and occasion of the improvement and cultivation of the country.”

One of the reasons that progress tends to emerge from cities is, simply, people. Wherever more people gather together to “truck, barter, and exchange,” in Smith’s words, that increases their potential to engage in productive exchange, discussion, debate, collaboration, and competition with each other. Cities’ higher populations allow for a finer division of labor, more specialization, and greater efficiencies in production. Not to mention, more minds working together to solve problems. As the writer Matt Ridley notes in the foreword he kindly wrote for Centers of Progress, “Progress is a team sport, not an individual pursuit. It is a collaborative, collective thing, done between brains more than inside them.”

A higher population is sufficient to explain why progress often emerges from cities, but, of course, not all cities become major innovation centers. Progress may be a team sport, but why do certain cities seem to provide ideal playing conditions, and not others?

That brings us to the next thing that most centers of progress share, besides being relatively populous: peace. That makes sense, because if a place is plagued by violence and discord then it is hard for the people there to focus on anything other than survival, and there is little incentive to be productive since any wealth is likely to be looted or destroyed. Smith recognized this truth, and noted that cities, historically, sometimes offered more security from violence than the countryside:

Order and good government, and along with them the liberty and security of individuals, were in this manner established in cities, at a time when the occupiers of land in the country, were exposed to every sort of violence. But men in this defenceless state naturally content themselves with their necessary subsistence; because, to acquire more, might only tempt the injustice of their oppressors. On the contrary, when they are secure of enjoying the fruits of their industry, they naturally exert it to better their condition, and to acquire not only the necessaries, but the conveniencies and elegancies of life. That industry, therefore, which aims at something more than necessary subsistence, was established in cities long before it was commonly practised by the occupiers of land in the country. […] Whatever stock, therefore, accumulated in the hands of the industrious part of the inhabitants of the country, naturally took refuge in cities, as the only sanctuaries in which it could be secure to the person that acquired it.

Of course, not all cities were or are peaceful. Consider Smith’s own city: Edinburgh. At times, the city was far from stable. But the relatively unkempt and inhospitable locale emerged from a century of instability to take the world by storm. Scotland in the 18th century had just undergone decades of political and economic turmoil. Disruption was caused by the House of Orange’s ousting of the House of Stuart, the Jacobite Rebellions, the failed and costly colonial Darien Scheme, famine, and the 1707 Union of Scotland and England. It was only after things settled down and the city came to enjoy a period of relative peace and stability that Edinburgh rose to reach its potential. Edinburgh was an improbable center of progress. But Edinburgh proves what people can accomplish, given the right conditions.

During the Scottish Enlightenment centered in Edinburgh, Adam Smith was far from the only innovative thinker in the city. Edinburgh’s ability to cultivate innovators in every arena of human achievement, from the arts to the sciences, seemed almost magical.

Edinburgh gave the world so many groundbreaking artists that the French writer Voltaire opined in 1762 that “today it is from Scotland that we get rules of taste in all the arts, from epic poetry to gardening.” Edinburgh gave humanity artistic pioneers from the novelist Sir Walter Scott, often called the father of the historical novel, to the architect Robert Adam who, together with his brother James, developed the “Adam style,” which evolved into the so‐​called “Federal style” in the United States after Independence.

And then there were the scientists. Thomas Jefferson, in 1789, wrote, “So far as science is concerned, no place in the world can pretend to competition with Edinburgh.” The Edinburger geologist James Hutton developed many of the fundamental principles of his discipline. The chemist and physicist Joseph Black, who studied at the University of Edinburgh, discovered carbon dioxide, magnesium, and the important thermodynamic concepts of latent heat and specific heat. The anatomist Alexander Monro Secondus became the first person to detail the human lymphatic system. Sir James Young Simpson, admitted to the University of Edinburgh at the young age of fourteen, went on to develop chloroform anesthesia.

Two of the greatest gifts that Edinburgh gave humanity were empiricism and economics. The influential philosopher David Hume was among the early advocates of empiricism and is sometimes called the father of philosophical skepticism. And by creating the field of economics, Smith helped humanity to think about policies that enhance prosperity. Those policies, including free trade and economic freedom that Smith advocated, have since helped to raise living standards to heights that would be unimaginable to Smith and his contemporaries.

That brings us to the last but by no means least secret ingredient of progress. Freedom. Centers of progress during their creative peak tend to be relatively free and open for their era. That makes sense because simply having a large population is not going to lead to progress if that population lacks the freedom to experiment, to debate new propositions, and to work together for their mutual benefit. Perhaps the biggest reason why cities produce so much progress is that city dwellers have often enjoyed more freedom than their rural counterparts. Medieval serfs fleeing feudal lands to gain freedom in cities inspired the German saying “stadtluft macht frei” (city air makes you free).

That adage referred to laws granting serfs liberty after a year and a day of urban residency. But the phrase arguably has a wider application. Cities have often served as havens of freedom for innovators and anyone stifled by the stricter norms and more limited choices common in smaller communities. Edinburgh was notable for its atmosphere of intellectual freedom, allowing thinkers to debate a wide diversity of controversial ideas in its many reading societies and pubs.

Of course, cities are not always free. Authoritarian states sometimes see laxer enforcement of their draconian laws in remote areas, and Smith himself viewed rural life as in some ways less encumbered by constraining rules and regulations than city life. But as philosophy professor Kyle Swan previously noted for Adam Smith Works:

Without denying the charms and attractions Smith highlights in country living, let’s not forget what’s on offer in our cities: a significantly broader range of choices! Diverse restaurants and untold many other services and recreations, groups of people who like the same peculiar things that you like, and those with similar backgrounds and interests and activities to pursue with them — cities are (positive) freedom enhancing.

The same secret ingredients of progress—people, peace, and freedom—that helped Edinburgh to flourish during Smith’s day can be observed again and again throughout history in the places that became key centers of innovation. Consider Paris.

As the capital of France, Paris attracted a large population and became an important economic and cultural hub. But it was an unusual spirit of freedom that allowed the city to make its greatest contributions to human progress. Much like the reading societies and pubs of Smith’s Edinburgh, the salons and coffeehouses of 18th‐​century Paris provided a place for intellectual discourse where the philosophes birthed the so‐​called Age of Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment was a movement that promoted the values of reason, evidence‐​based knowledge, free inquiry, individual liberty, humanism, limited government, and the separation of church and state. In Parisian salons, nobles and other wealthy financiers intermingled with artists, writers, and philosophers seeking financial patronage and opportunities to discuss and disseminate their work. The gatherings gave controversial philosophers, who would have been denied the intellectual freedom to explore their ideas elsewhere, the liberty to develop their thoughts.

Influential Parisian and Paris‐ based thinkers of the period included the Baron de Montesquieu, who advocated the then‐​groundbreaking idea of the separation of government powers and the writer Denis Diderot, the creator of the first general‐​purpose encyclopedia, as well the Genevan expat Jean‐​Jacques Rousseau. While sometimes considered a counter‐​Enlightenment figure because of his skepticism of modern commercial society and romanticized view of primitive existence, Rousseau also helped to spread skepticism toward monarchy and the idea that kings had a “divine right” to rule over others.

The salons were famous for sophisticated conversations and intense debates; however, it was letter‐​writing that gave the philosophes’ ideas a wide reach. A community of intellectuals that spanned much of the Western world—known as the Republic of Letters—increasingly engaged in the exchanges of ideas that began in Parisian salons. Thus, the Enlightenment movement based in Paris helped spur similar radical experiments in thought elsewhere, including the Scottish Enlightenment in Edinburgh. Smith’s many exchanges of ideas with the people of Paris, including during his 1766 visit to the city when he dined with Diderot and other luminaries, proved pivotal to his own intellectual development.

And then there was Voltaire, sometimes called the single most influential figure of the Enlightenment. Although Parisian by birth, Voltaire spent relatively little time in Paris because of frequent exiles occasioned by the ire of French authorities. Voltaire’s time hiding out in London, for example, enabled him to translate the works of the political philosopher and “father of liberalism” John Locke, as well as the English mathematician and physicist Isaac Newton. While Voltaire’s critiques of existing institutions and norms pushed the boundaries of acceptable discourse beyond even what would be tolerated in Paris, his Parisian upbringing and education likely helped to cultivate the devotion to freethinking that would come to define his life.

By allowing for an unusual degree of intellectual liberty and providing a home base for the Enlightenment and the far‐​ranging Republic of Letters, Paris helped spread new ideas that would ultimately give rise to new forms of government—including modern liberal democracy.

Surveying the cities, such as Edinburgh and Paris, that built the modern world reveals that when people live in peace and freedom, their potential to bring about positive change increases. Examining the places where major advances happened is one way to learn about the conditions that foster societal flourishing, human achievement, and prosperity. I hope that you will consider joining me on a journey through the book’s pages to some of history’s greatest centers of progress, and that doing so sparks many intelligent discussions, debates, and inquiries in the Smithian tradition about the causes of progress and wealth.

BBC | Conservation & Biodiversity

How AI is being used to prevent illegal fishing

“Global Fishing Watch was co-founded by Google, marine conservation body Oceana, and environmental group SkyTruth. The latter studies satellite images to spot environmental damage.

To try to better monitor and quantify the problem of overfishing, Global Fishing Watch is now using increasingly sophisticated AI software, and satellite imagery, to globally map the movements of more than 65,000 commercial fishing vessels, both those with – and without – AIS.

The AI analyses millions of gigabytes of satellite imagery to detect vessels and offshore infrastructure. It then looks at publicly accessible data from ships’ AIS signals, and combines this with radar and optical imagery to identify vessels that fail to broadcast their positions.”

From BBC.

Blog Post | Science & Education

Introducing Our Upcoming Book, Heroes of Progress

Over the past two centuries, humanity has become massively more prosperous, better educated, healthier, and more peaceful.

The underlying cause of this progress is innovation. Human innovation―whether it be new ideas, inventions, or systems―is the primary way people create wealth and escape poverty.

Our upcoming book, Heroes of Progress: 65 People Who Changed the World, explores the lives of the most important innovators who have ever lived, from agronomists who saved billions from starvation and intellectuals who changed public policy for the better, to businesspeople whose innovations helped millions rise from poverty.

If it weren’t for the heroes profiled in this book, we’d all be far poorer, sicker, hungrier, and less free―if we were fortunate enough to be alive at all.

Considering their impact on humanity, perhaps it’s time to learn their story?

Heroes of Progress book advertised on Amazon for pre-order

Heroes of Progress Book Forum

On March 21st, the author of Heroes of Progress, Alexander Hammond, will present the book live at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. He will be joined by Marian Tupy, the editor of Human Progress, and Clay Routledge, the Archbridge Institute’s Vice President of Research, who will speak on the individual’s role in advancing human progress and the need for a cultural progress movement.

Learn more about the event here.

Praise for Heroes of Progress

Making an inspiring case for progress at this time of skepticism and historical ingratitude is no easy feat. Yet, by relentlessly outlining the extraordinary ability of individuals to shape our world for the better, Alexander Hammond does just that.

Steven Pinker, author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Innovation is a team sport achieved by people working together, using precious freedoms to change the world, so it’s sometimes invidious to single out one person for credit. But once an idea is ripe for plucking, the right person at the right time can seize it and save a million lives or open a million possibilities. Each of these 65 people did that, and their stories are both thrilling and beautiful.

Matt Ridley, author of How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom

The figures in this book are the overlooked and often unknown figures who have transformed the lives of ordinary people, for the better… This book is a correction to widespread pessimism and is both informative and inspirational.

Dr. Stephen Davies, author of The Wealth Explosion: The Nature and Origins of Modernity

Superman and the Avengers are all very well, of course, but the real superheroes are thinkers, scientists, and innovators of flesh and blood who saved us from a life that used to be poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Alexander Hammond tells their inspiring stories in this magnificent book that will leave you grateful to be living in the world these men and women created.

— Johan Norberg, author of Open: The Story of Human Progress

The 65 innovators honored here made us happier, healthier, and longer-lived. Indeed, it is thanks to some of them that we are here at all. Their story is the story of how the human race acquired powers once attributed to gods and sorcerers―the story of how we overcame hunger, disease, ignorance, and squalor. I defy anyone to read this book and not feel better afterwards.

Lord Daniel Hannan, president of the Institute for Free Trade

The 65 fascinating stories in Heroes of Progress are
testaments to the ingenuity of humankind in delivering a richer,
healthier, and hopefully freer world. Alexander C. R. Hammond
provides an inspirational reminder that when individuals are
free to speak, think, innovate, and engage in open markets, the
heroic potential of humanity knows no bounds.

Lord Syed Kamall, Professor of politics and international relations, St. Mary’s University

In Heroes of Progress, Alexander Hammond reminds us that human minds are the fundamental driver of every discovery, invention, and innovation that has improved our lives. By telling the stories of pioneering men and women who have advanced civilization, this book not only honors past heroes of progress, but also provides inspiration for the next generation to use their uniquely human imaginative and enterprising capacities to build a better future.

— Clay Routledge, Vice President of Research and Director of the Human Flourishing Lab at the Archbridge Institute

Blog Post | Economics

Javier Milei and the Future of Latin America | Podcast Highlights

Chelsea Follett interviews Daniel Raisbeck about the recent election of Javier Milei and what it means for the future of Argentina and the rest of Latin America.

Listen to the full podcast episode or read the full transcript here.

What are some of the most promising events in Latin America today?

Of course, the election of Javier Milei. He took office on December 10th, and it’s all quite encouraging. He had a large decree that repealed many laws and modified others to liberate the Argentine economy, which is currently one of the most regulated economies in the world.

It will depend, of course, on congress and the courts which can potentially block many of his initiatives. Here at Cato, my colleague Gabriel Calderon and I have focused on his main proposal: the dollarization of Argentina’s economy. In general, we think it’s a very good policy, but in that respect, I’ve been disappointed with the beginning of Milei’s government. We can discuss that further if you like.

First, let’s set the stage. Could you describe the situation in Argentina before Milei?

Well, the main problem was inflation, which was around 140 percent at the time of his election in November. And, of course, this is caused by the central bank. Argentina’s central bank is particularly irresponsible even within a Latin American context. Argentina also has one of the most regulated economies in the world. Forty percent of the population is living in poverty, and its economy hasn’t grown in over a decade.

This is especially sad because Argentina was incredibly successful in the 19th century. Its 1853 constitution was drafted based on the ideas of a classical liberal author called Juan Bautista Alberdi, who basically called for free trade, unrestricted industry, free immigration, and infrastructure to connect the country. And that’s what they did. It wasn’t immediate; it took a few decades, but from 1880 to 1916, you had this very successful export model that made Argentina into one of the richest countries in the world. Then, in 1916 and 1920, with everything that was happening in the world, nationalism took hold in Argentina and eventually morphed into Peronism, which is the standard, prototypical Latin American corporatist ideology. There has been a very clear decline ever since.

Could you talk more about Milei’s political beliefs?

Milei describes himself as a classical liberal or a libertarian and even as an anarcho-capitalist. He was actually trained as a neoclassical economist, but he relatively recently became an adherent of the Austrian School. And he’s been very open about it. He has never tried to soften his stances to appease some section of the electorate. He is also very talented at explaining economic concepts like the causes of inflation or the effects of regulation in a way that the public can understand.

Can you talk a little bit about the classical liberal tradition in Argentina?

Argentina has many classical liberal economists. At a per capita level, it’s probably the highest percentage in Latin America. They also have a long tradition of think tanks beginning in the 1950s. One particular think tank was started by a gentleman called Alberto Benegas Lynch, who corresponded with Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. So, Argentina has a rich intellectual tradition in the Austrian School.

You mentioned dollarization. Could you talk more about this policy?

Dollarization means granting the US dollar legal tender or at least getting rid of exclusive legal tender for a national currency. Panama was born dollarized in 1904, and more recently, Ecuador dollarized in 2000 amid a crisis similar to what Argentina is facing now. El Salvador dollarized in 2001 after facing a similar crisis the previous decade.

When you dollarize, you end up with inflation levels akin to those of the United States. That might seem high from a US perspective after the last few years, but when you have 140 percent inflation in Argentina, 7 or 8 percent isn’t so bad. And even with all the problems with the US Federal Reserve, when you compare that to other countries, the dollar is a good option. By taking away the power of local politicians to interfere in the monetary sphere, you get rid of a huge problem. Now, that doesn’t solve all other problems. The governments can still run deficits and have debt problems. But when you have dollarization, those debt problems don’t really affect the private sector and regular citizens. Whereas with a national currency, a debt crisis usually leads to the deterioration of the currency and a loss in purchasing power.

Maintaining that purchasing power is why nobody is thinking about dedollarizing in these countries. Even in Ecuador, when the left-wing strongman Rafael Correa was at the peak of his power and popularity, with 60 percent or above in approval ratings, the dollar was always more popular than he was. That’s also why we think it’s important for Milei to dollarize and dollarize quickly. If the Peronists come back to power, they could overturn a lot of his deregulatory measures, but dollarization would be very difficult for any future government to reverse.

How hopeful are you that he’ll be able to implement dollarization?

Milei had to join forces with former President Mauricio Macri’s party to win the election, and many people in that party do not favor dollarization. Luis Caputo, the person that Milei put in charge of the finance ministry, who was also one of Macri’s finance ministers, has previously spoken out against dollarization. More recently, he has taken the view that the fiscal issue is more important and that dollarization will be a consequence of stabilizing the economy.

Caputo’s plan involves liquefying the debt through inflation. But the thing with liquefying the government debt is that you’re also liquefying everyone’s savings and salary. So, it’s a bold and even dangerous alternative. I also think that dollarization involves a similar process because once the market realizes you’re serious about dollarizing, the obvious thing would be for inflation to begin to fall and for interest rates to come down, but without destroying purchasing power even more. And I think that would be the better scenario.

It’s not clear if this decision was made out of political necessity or if Milei actually believes in what Caputo is doing. Dollarization is a niche policy that only three small countries have accomplished. Even though it’s been terribly successful, especially in bringing down inflation, relatively few economists understand dollarization and how to bring it about.

What other policies has Milei proposed?

His decree and omnibus law aim to deregulate broad swaths of the Argentine economy. One example is they got rid of price controls for rents that dated back to the 1970s. Another one is the Open Skies policy, which allows airlines from abroad to enter the market and even control flights within the country. Previously, they had a scheme to undercut the low-cost airlines in favor of the national airline, which is heavily subsidized. Milei even said he is privatizing the national airline by handing it over to the workers and cutting subsidies. But there’s a wide scope of reforms. These are just some highlights.

Let’s talk about Latin America as a whole. What are some of the biggest obstacles to the region becoming more prosperous?

One that is not well known is the lack of trade within the region. There is a mostly common language and very similar institutions and historical backgrounds, so you would think Latin America is an ideal region for trade. But trading between countries is very difficult. It’s also very difficult to migrate from one Latin American country to another. For instance, Colombia, where I’m from, restricts how many foreigners companies can hire. And this is standard across the region.

Another major problem is that there hasn’t been a very strong classical liberal element in Latin American politics. In the Anglosphere, you had Thatcherism and Reaganism and these types of movements, but the Latin American right has traditionally been very protectionist and corporatist. A right-wing government in Latin America, especially after the era of military dictatorships, might not bring about a humanitarian collapse like in Venezuela, but at the same time, these governments don’t allow their economies to grow. And, of course, if you don’t grow, you won’t be able to lift people out of poverty. That’s the big problem in Latin America: anemic economic growth. And it’s a question of how conscious people are that you need freedom to have that economic growth.

So that’s also why Milei is interesting. He is, of course, breaking from the leftist model but also from the crony capitalist, protectionist, and interventionist right.

We usually try to end on a positive note. What are you the most optimistic about concerning the region’s future?

I’m not going to be terribly original here, but five years ago, if someone had told me that, in a few years, there would be an openly libertarian or anarcho-capitalist president of Argentina, I wouldn’t have believed them. And this is where we are. And I think the lesson is that sometimes it might seem very difficult to enact freedom-oriented reforms, but it can be done. It is being done now. And it’s being done by someone who was very radical in his approach. He wasn’t moderating his principles to convince centrists. He was straightforward. And I think that’s a very positive example to follow.