Posted: July 19th, 2023

Adam Smith’s Critique of International Trading Companies

Discovery of the New World and attendant new trade routes can certainly be described as momentous and significant, but the benefits of conquest and contact have been eclipsed by the inhumane, unjust, and hypocritical consequences thereof.

Three major aspects demonstrating Old and New World exchanges.

Discovery of new raw materials creating market demand and shifting patterns of trade, eg. Tobacco, cotton, corn.

Global trans-Atlantic slave trade creating free labor for the owners of the means of production and generating massive humanitarian disasters.

Decimation of indigenous populations throughout the Americas, representing genocide on unprecedented levels, justified by newfound sense of European superiority.

Five (5) specific groups that were affected by this event and two (2) examples for each cohort describing how they were affected.

A. Native Americans


Forced migration and stripping of access to wealth.

B. Africans

Slave labor, brutality

2. Lack of access to wealth, resources, power, fruits of labor

C. Women in the colonies

1. Some experience greater gender division of labor

2. Others experience enhanced misogyny, ie. Puritan women.

D. Major trade powers

1. English and Dutch multinationals

2. Arab traders.

E. Men in the colonies and Old World

1. Shift in balance of power

2. Dichotomy of new freedom, liberty versus enhanced use of inhumane practices.

III. Five (5) ways that the creation of new global trade routes affected the occupations and lifestyles of the average working American in the colonies.

A. New patterns and material of eating and other mundane shifts in daily life.

B. Changes to African lives.

C. Changes to Native American daily lives and overall balance of power between tribes.

D. Changes to occupation of landowners, highlighting difference between landowners and others, especially women.

E. Changes to role and status of women in certain echelons of colonial society.

A Changing World: Final Paper

The discovery of the New World by European explorers in the fifteenth century shifted the balance of power throughout the world and would leave lasting reverberations that remain extant in the 21st century. Access to new natural resources altered the nature of world trade and the global market economy, ushering in a new model of capitalist enterprise. Likewise, the discovery of new raw materials set the stage for future technological growth and scientific development. The political tensions between European and non-European powers grew, continuing trends of colonization and imperialism that had persisted throughout human history. Yet the discovery of the New World highlighted hypocrisies and dichotomies in European thought. While there may have been a budding interest in humanitarian ideals during the Age of Enlightenment, there was also support for the trans Atlantic slave trade and other forms of exploitation. Europe professed greater interest in democratic rule of law, but permitted the flourishing of racism and misogyny both in Europe and its colonies. While greater interest in critical inquiry in academic circles blossomed, so too was the ignorance and decimation of indigenous knowledge, which had it been heeded, might have benefitted both Old and New Worlds. The discovery of the New World and attendant new trade routes can certainly be described as momentous and significant, but the benefits of conquest and contact have been eclipsed by the inhumane, unjust, and hypocritical consequences thereof.

Few groups were unaffected by the momentous discovery of the New World, but five groups in particular were more affected than others: Native Americans throughout North, Central, and South America taken collectively were affected through systematic and incidental genocide. Africans, particularly West Africans, were affected in multiple ways, such as through the dismantling of old empires and the creation of a system whereby people were traded like goods and shackled for use as free labor in the New World. The pioneers who colonized the New World were affected, as they boldly set forth to begin a new society, while contending with multiple political, social, and economic challenges related to that endeavor. The traders and merchants who fueled the global market economy — whether Arab, Dutch, English, or otherwise — also felt the effects of the discovery of the New World. Finally, Europeans and British who remained entrenched in Old World society and politics altered their way of life in mundane and grand ways via transformations in leadership.

The occupations and lifestyles of Europeans and American colonialists changed dramatically over the ensuing centuries. While there is no such thing as an average American working in the colonies, each demographic group can be considered to have an average character of life. For example, slaves hailed from multiple parts of West Africa and spoke varied languages. They also worked in different environments depending on whether they were held in the Chesapeake Bay region, the low countries, or on plantations in Brazil. Their occupations and lifestyles shifted depending on the local resources available and depending on market fluctuations, Plantation culture varied, too, making it so that some slaves toiled in fields and received bloody beatings whereas others worked indoors. As slave culture became entrenched and took on a life of its own, slave narratives, music, and language evolved independently and in opposition to the dominant white culture that remained firmly in power throughout all the colonies and the world. For this reason, Smith remained “deeply ambivalent” about globalization as it was being carried out by the multinational joint stock corporations that fueled the new model of global economic power (Muthu, 2008, p. 185). In short, while Smith supported liberalism, he also warned against the consequences that global trade would bring to both Old and New Worlds.

The occupations and lifestyles of white colonists, the first generation colonists and their descendants alike, also changed dramatically and evolved over the several hundred years since the founding of the New World by European explorers. Financial growth and empowerment impacted a large number of colonists, but not al. Those who owned land benefitted directly from the free labor offered by slaves or by their connections to Old World enterprises and institutions. Those who did not own land — the majority of people considering the prohibition on females from economic and political institutions — witnessed fewer changes to their occupations and lifestyles. One of the more major changes experienced by women and those on the lower rungs of the social and economic ladder was in the new model of division of labor, which coincided with the rise of capitalism (London, 2013). Yet those who experienced upward social mobility would have witnessed more dramatic changes than those who remained on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. Greater freedom and liberty trickled down to those who already enjoyed considerable wealth and power (Weber, 2008). The same could be said for the average person in the Old World. In fact, as Grolle (2013) points out, the repercussions of the discovery of the New World were felt on the Pacific and Asia as well as in Europe and the Americas. Women in Puritan New England experienced far different changes to their average daily lives than would have a woman in the South. The foods people ate began to change as the colonists adapted to the New World crops that had never before been tasted by the European palate.

The occupations and lifestyles of the average Native American changed in dramatic ways due to the discovery of the New World. Depending on the geographic location of the tribe, daily work and occupation ranged from subsistence farming to the creation of arts and crafts. After contact, Native Americans found themselves being exposed to deadly diseases, their populations wiped out rapidly. Many were forced from their homes and late, shifted to foreign lands in the central and western portion of what is now the United States. Groups that had enjoyed positions of relative power in terms of military, economic, or political might occasionally tried to ally themselves with European groups and failed due to the dishonoring of agreements and treaties. As a result, the strongest Native American societies witnessed a shift in the balance of power paralleling the global shift taking place since the discovery of the New World.

When Adam Smith stated, in Wealth of Nations, “The discovery of America and that of the passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two (2) greatest events recorded in the history of [human] kind,” the economist and philosopher understood that the New World enhanced the capacity for globalization. Globalization was nothing new when Smith penned those words; since Marco Polo and the Venetian empire traded with Eastern empires, globalization had become de rigeur. Arab traders had well-established global networks of trade on the Silk Road. The opening of the seas changed global trade even more, by introducing Europeans to new natural resources they would then be able to transform into goods and services that could embolden their economies and help improve their position vis-a-vis rival nations. Raw materials provided the means by which to develop new weapons and new technologies, ushering in the Industrial Revolution a few centuries later. Moreover, as the power of the Muslim empires waned, the power of the European kingdoms rose to the fore. The support for Columbus’s journey by the Spanish queen symbolized the triumph of Catholicism over Islam in Western Europe, and signaled the end to centuries of Muslim intellectual supremacy over their Christian counterparts.

With the discovery of the New World, a new era of European arrogance began. The self-perception of Europeans as being enlightened, intelligent, and progressive contrasted with the way Europeans persisted in the slave trade, slavery, and misogyny. Similarly, the perception and portrayal of indigenous people and persons of color of as being backwards or primitive, unintelligent, and antithetical to European principles and ideals belied the tremendous tumult and adverse consequences of colonization. Although Adam Smith was more than correct in noting that the discovery of America and the passage to the East Indies were the two greatest events in recent history, he also believed “commercial intercourse among self-interested nations would emulate sympathy on a global scale, balancing national wealth and international peace without a coercive apparatus to enforce compliance with international law,” (Forman-Barzilai, 2008, p. 391). On this point, Smith was certainly wrong.


Forman-Barzilai, F. (2008). Adam Smith as a globalization theorist. Critical Review 14(4): 391-419.

Grolle, J. (2013). The “Columbian Exchange’: How discovering the Americas transformed the world. Der Spiegel International. Retrieved online:

London, C.R. (2013). When did globalization start? The Ecoomist. Sept 23, 2013. Retrieved online:

Muthu, S. (2008). Adam Smith’s critique of international trading companies. Political Theory 36(2): 185-212.

Weber, C.M. (2008). Adam Smith and globalization. Retrieved online:

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