LONDON -- Conventional wisdom holds that protectionism in any form is a violation of free-trade principle. In the debate over U.S. trade policy, it has become axiomatic that when national economic interests come in conflict with those of free trade, the former must suffer for the sake of the latter.

Predictably, many special interests take issue with such thinking. But the most powerful challenge comes from what many will find a surprising source: the founding father of free-market thinking himself -- Adam Smith, who died 200 years ago this month.

To be sure, Adam Smith was a champion of free trade. No one has articulated its precepts better. But it is often forgotten that he saw free trade as serving state and society, not vice versa. And when compelling national interests demanded the protection of certain sectors of the economy, he justified it in principle and as good policy.

The Navigation Laws of 1660 were a blatant violation of free-trade precepts, guaranteeing Britain a monopoly in colonial trade by restricting foreign ships from transporting goods to British coastal ports and colonies. Protecting British shipping and manufacturers from foreign competition came at a high economic price. But Adam Smith called the laws "the wisest of all the commercial regulations of England." They were "indispensible, and ought never be departed from or relaxed."

His logic was simple: British national power, independence and economic well-being were contingent on a viable maritime industry and fleet, as well as a strong industrial base. The artificial monopoly created by the laws promoted inefficiency, but it was worth it. As he wrote in an often overlooked chapter in "The Wealth of Nations": "The natural good effects of the colony trade more than counterbalance to Great Britain the bad effects of the monopoly, so that, monopoly and all together, that trade, even as it is carried on at present, is not only advantageous, but greatly advantageous."

In a letter to a friend in 1775, he criticized those who complained about the economic costs of the laws, writing: "The sovereign ought never to permit any {of} the most flattering idea{s} of commercial opulence {to} come in competition with the solid ground of national {economic} strength."

Adam Smith also advocated the protection of certain domestic manufacturers for the "national good." No doubt many who claimed the need for protection were, in his eyes, not deserving. However, he did support high "bounties" for the sailcloth and gunpowder industries.

According to Smith, great powers remained such only if they were able to produce certain fundamental goods and avoid heavy dependence on foreign manufacturers. He wrote: "If any particular manufacture was necessary for national power and for the defense of society, it might not always be prudent to depend upon our neighbor for supply. And if such manufacturers could not otherwise be supported at home, it might not be unreasonable that all other branches of industry should be taxed in order to support it."

He also justified protecting industries during periods of economic transition, recognizing that "cheaper foreign goods of the same kind might be placed so fast into the home market, as to deprive all at once many thousands of our people of their ordinary employment and means of subsistence."

Trade disputes were as common (perhaps more) in his day than ours. If a trading partner was competing unfairly, he counseled, "there may be good policy in retaliation, when there is a probability that they will procure the repeal of the high duties or prohibition complained of."

Adam Smith was also sensitive to the "corrosive effects" that excessive dependence on foreign goods could have on a country. In international trade, as in all economic activity, he felt that an individual should look out for the interests of "himself, of that of his family, his friends, his country." He understood that powerful economic incentives could lead an individual to abandon these responsibilities and take up "a base and selfish disposition." He criticized the Dutch in particular for "deserting their country" through an addiction to foreign commerce.

At a time when the U.S. is increasingly reliant on foreign producers for computer chips, machine tools and other important commodities, it is interesting to speculate where Adam Smith might stand in the current trade debate. He might well take issue with many of the claims made by those who see him as their intellectual ancestor. He would certainly reject the attempts of some absolute free traders to turn free trade into an ideology or an end in itself. By the standards of today's debate, some might even label him a "protectionist."

Peter Schweitzer, a Washington writer and scholar, is completing graduate work at Oxford University in England.