Friday, April 29, 2005

An Important Quibble

From: ON LINE opinion - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate

Bring me your Huddled Murdochs!

By John HartleyPosted Wednesday, April 27, 2005

“So how do we get to those digital natives? In his Opinion Journal piece, Mr Murdoch points to the importance of education, but only to claim that it is failing to meet the challenge, a fact that is only disguised by the performance of immigrants:

The evidence of the contributions these immigrants make to our society is all around us - especially in the critical area of education. Adam Smith (another Scotsman) knew that without a decent system of education, a modern capitalist society was committing suicide. Well, our modern public school systems simply are not producing the talent the American economy needs to compete in the future. And it often seems that it is our immigrants who are holding the whole thing up. … The point is that by almost any measure of educational excellence you choose, if you're in America you're going to find immigrants or their children at the top.
Like the US, Australia is a settler society, founded on successive waves of immigration. But is Australia up to the digital challenge?”

In this passing reference to Adam Smith in Rupert Murdoch’s opinion piece, quoted in the extract by John Hartley, we have an almost nonsensical statement:

“Adam Smith (another Scotsman) knew that without a decent system of education, a modern capitalist society was committing suicide.”

In 18th century Britain, Adam Smith knew nothing of what was appropriate for a “modern capitalist society”. He certainly never speculated about the society that he could not foresee in the late 19th century. By then, society had irreversibly changed from the agricultural society Smith knew well (his family were land improving farmers in Fife) into what we now call the industrial revolution.

Smith did not write about ‘capitalism’ – the word was no invented until the 1850s. He wrote about agrarian markets in which commercial markets were reviving after the long centuries of stagnation and decline following the fall of Rome 1300 years earlier.

The education reforms Smith advocated were to serve the needs of the society he knew about, not ‘a modern capitalist’ society that he nothing about. He wrote about the superior education he believed was prevalent in ancient Greece and Rome (Wealth of Nations, V.i.f.: 788) and why the state should fund education of the ‘inferior ranks of people’ to prevent them becoming misled by ‘the delusions of enthusiasm and superstition, which among ignorant nations, frequently occasions the most dreadful disorders’.

He continued:

‘An instructed and intelligent people besides are always more decent and orderly than an ignorant and stupid one. They feel themselves, each individually, more respectable, and more likely to obtain the respect of their lawful superiors. They are more disposed to examine, and more capable of seeing through, the interested complaints of faction and sedition, and they are, upon that account, less apt to be misled into any wanton or unnecessary opposition to the measures of government. In free countries, where the safety of the government depends very much upon the favourable judgement which the people may form of its conduct, it must surely be of the highest importance that they should not be disposed to judge rashly or capriciously concerning it’. (Wealth of Nations, V.i.f.61: 788)

This prescription, of course, may be applied to a ‘modern capitalist society’ two centuries later, but that is not Murdoch’s claim. He says that Smith ‘knew’ that it applied to a ‘modern capitalist society’, which is absurd.

Hartley’s article can be read at:


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