AdamSmith1790b: Portrait of Smith by John Kay, 1790

Commentary Type

Celebrating the legacy of Adam Smith: Making the multilateral trading system great again

Photo Credit: Portrait of Adam Smith by John Kay, 1790

Prepared remarks for the Conference on the Occasion of the 300th Anniversary of the Birth of Adam Smith, University of Glasgow


One of the most important parts of the legacy of Adam Smith is the multilateral trading system. Founded in 1948 as part of the liberal international order, the system marks its 75th anniversary this year, a year that is also the 300th anniversary of the birth of Adam Smith, author of  The Wealth of Nations. These two occasions should be especially marked at the World Trade Organization (WTO), the steward of the world trading system.

When you visit the WTO, a handsome Italianate building on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, you will find the entrance flanked by two allegorical figures. They represent Peace and Justice. Inside the lobby, on the right-hand wall in a place of prominence are four small plaques in honor of some of the individuals who most influenced the creation of the WTO and the shaping of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the GATT, which preceded it.

There is at least one tribute that is missing to an individual of central importance to the world trading system. Adam Smith deserves a place of honor at the WTO. The multilateral trading system, administered by the WTO—this grand design of benefit to humankind – is a major part of Adam Smith's legacy. This institution and its members are indebted to his insights. A formal acknowledgment of Adam Smith and his work is overdue.

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