Thursday, April 14, 2005

A Distortion of Smith's Doctrine of Freedom

The Times (London)

On 11 April, William Rees-Mogg, a former editor of The Times, wrote in his regular weekly coloumn about his plans to send to the new Pope and to Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, a copy of Adam Smith's Weath of Nations. I sent the following letter to the Editor on 12 April and it was published in The Times on 14 April.

The edition of Wealth of Nations that Rees-Mogg announced he intended to send was the 1804 edition edited by William Playfair, which is particularly noted for the way in which Playfair interpolated into Smith's text his own criticisms of Smith, but did so in identical type face and size to that used to print Smith's Text, hence, it is difficult to see at a glance which are the words written by Smith and which those added by Playfair.

William Rees-Mogg did not mention that he edited Playfair's edition in a specially published expensive edition costing £450 a copy published in 1996. Presumably it was this one that he intended to send to the Pope and Prince Charles. I suggest he send the Glasgow Edition of 1976, published by Oxford University Press instead, which is regarded as the definitive sixth edition written and edited by Adam Smith in 1790 and which is also far more authoritative than the combined Playfair - Rees-Mogg edition.

Letters to the Editor
April 12, 2005

From: Professor Gavin Kennedy


“Adam Smith’s view was that every man should be free to pursue his own interest in his own way, without encouragements or restraints, ‘upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty and justice’.” If this summary, attributed to William Playfair, Smith’s first editor, is what William Rees-Mogg (Comment, April 11) would pass on to the next pope or the next king, more is the pity, for it is a distortion of Smith’s doctrine.

He did not believe in such freedom. His The Wealth of Nations (1776) is a polemic against monopolistic tendencies enshrined in law by gullible legislators and he was against the proclivity of “merchants and manufacturers” to restrict entry to their trades by others. In short he favoured open competition, not the absence of restraints on what today we call capitalists.

The 19th-century mill and mine owners misappropriated Adam Smith in support of their demands to employ women and children, and men too, at whatever wages they decided to pay. This laissez faire doctrine, wrongly ascribed to Smith, continues today.

Even his isolated metaphor about the “invisible hand” (used in reference to something else entirely) is used to justify the false belief that all actions by entrepreneurs are always, albeit unintentionally, socially beneficial. Smith was too sharp an observer to purvey such an obvious error.

If the new pope and the king-in-waiting are to be gifted copies of The Wealth of Nations then not, please, the William Playfair 1804 edition; send the Glasgow Edition of 1976, which is much more authoritative because it is edited by academics and not a politically minded reactionary.

They might also profit from reading Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). That way they will benefit from his real legacy and not that purveyed since the early 1800s.

Yours faithfully



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