EVERYONE about knows the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge. Dickens also wrote a justifiably less-well-known Christmas story, The Chimes, in which an economist, Filer, appears – a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

An early attempt at the Gradgrind character in Hard Times, Filer, like Thomas Malthus, clearly believes the poor will always be with us and will always be miserable. He justifies Carlyle’s dismissal of political economy as the dismal science.

Yet economics need not be like that. Throughout his two main works, Theory Of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth Of Nations, Adam Smith maintained a confident optimism that society would improve over time. Knowledge, embodied in literature, would overcome ignorance and superstition and would lead to the widespread cultivation of public virtue.

As 2021 stutters to its locked down close, and we invest hope in 2022 as the year of renewed liberty, in which we reduce the pandemic to a mere annoyance, let us look back to the Scottish Enlightenment for inspiration about how to build a better country. This week and next, I am setting out ideas which might go into a book.

Edinburgh in the winter of 1746. The city occupied by British government troops. The council dismissed for surrendering the city too readily to the Jacobites in September 1745. The university suspended for fear of its students spreading sedition. And a young man, Adam Smith, barely 23, launched his career by giving public lectures on rhetoric, the ancient art of arguing well. The Jacobite rebellion of 1745-46 had come surprisingly close to displacing the Hanoverian King George II. British involvement in European wars had left Scotland’s military defences almost completely unmanned. The Jacobite army had been able initially to evade the four UK army regiments in Scotland – and then to defeat them humiliatingly.

But the rebellion had been a last, desperate gamble. As the rebel army headed south, it became clear that its cause lacked the popular support necessary for it to succeed. The final defeat at Culloden bound Scotland firmly into the United Kingdom.

Over the next four decades, clever Scots took part in what we know as the Enlightenment. Meeting together regularly, often in supper clubs, they argued over almost every subject, but most frequently about the principles of a science of man, and how to apply those principles so that society would be well-ordered.

That is the context in which we should read Smith’s books. In Robert Heilbroner’s phrase, he was the first of the “worldly philosophers”.

The National: Sir John Sinclair’s work has enabled historians to deduce much about the state of Scottish societySir John Sinclair’s work has enabled historians to deduce much about the state of Scottish society

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This is to think of the 18th-century Enlightenment as an intellectual response to nearly two centuries of simmering religious conflict, which had often spilled over into civil war. Across the Holy Roman Empire, the Thirty Years War, in which one-third of the population died, was an experience never to be repeated.

In this Age of Reason, the political context in Scotland gave a distinctive edge to discussion. For young men such as Adam Smith, direct experience of violent conflict was a seminal experience. They saw it as a disastrous failure of politics. They aimed to learn from it, and to ensure that it would never happen again.

An important element of that was the need to secure what we might now call losers’ consent. The Jacobite defeat on the battlefield meant that the problem was to define how to manage Scotland as a stateless nation.

FORMER rebels could be part of the ongoing debates. And if they could argue well, and persuasively, then their ideas might be adopted. The ideal, then, was inclusion.

In this intellectual ferment, knowledge became almost entirely secular, with the assumption that people should be able to find natural causes to explain everything which they observed. God was departing; literature was in the ascendant.

Imaginative projections, predominant in classical thought, could have no place. David Hume famously dismissed such “metaphysical” thinking, arguing instead that knowledge required experience and observation.

Reading The Wealth of Nations, a modern economist will be struck by the lack of such evidence. Adam Smith spent years carefully refining his argument. He had a fund of anecdotes, but very little systematic data.

Quite simply, at the time, there was scarcely any available to him, especially when compared with astronomy’s basis in more than 2000 years of careful observation. Enlightenment scholars realised that they needed to initiate a similar tradition as part of their social scientific enquiry.

And so, in 1790, Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster began what should be considered as perhaps the ultimate expression of the Enlightenment: The Statistical Account Of Scotland. He sent a questionnaire to the minister of every parish in Scotland, inquiring about its history, topography, climate, settlement, industry, customs and much else – happily mixing up anything which might allow him to set out the wealth, and wellbeing, of the country. Over the next decade, he was able to compile the responses, which were eventually published as 21 volumes of essays.

With its hundreds of participants, and free-form replies to the questionnaire, it was an early attempt at “citizen social science”.Sinclair’s work has enabled historians to deduce much about the state of Scottish society in the 1790s. Yet, acquiring such an understanding requires a huge amount of work because its compilers had no template of how to collect and present data. In all its glorious complexity, it is at once fascinating – and infuriating.