Wednesday, May 18, 2005

A Debate Continues

I am in debate with Intellectual Conservative, a think tank blog in the USA. To follow the exchanges see: and look up 'Articles'. Below is the latest response from Lost Legacy:

Capitalism and Judeo-Christian Religion
Gavin Kennedy

Thomas Brewton's reply to my comments on his original article is wellstated and I thank him for his courtesy in engaging in polite debate. Perhaps he, and Intellectual Conservative, will indulge me again tomy responding briefly.

Thomas Brewton linked the 'invisible hand' in a capitalist market to the alleged self restraints of 'our Judeo-Christian heritage'. I make two points:

1) while it is commonplace nowadays to see the 'invisible hand' as representative of market economies, this is not how Adam Smith saw the relationship. He only mentioned the invisible hand once in"Wealth of Nations" and he did not pack into the metaphor what 19th and 20th century economists added. I was trying to correct this all too prevalent interpretation because it smuggles into Smith's meaning many implications with which he disagreed;

2) Smith's own moral philosophy of the "impartial spectator" and the learning of the appropriate conduct that produces harmonious relations in human societies (presented in his Theory of Moral Sentiments", 1759) did not rest on a Judeo-Christian heritage.

Indeed Smith's rejection of "benevolence" as the guiding principle for expecting the necessary assistance from multitudes of anonymous strangers, who contribute to the living standards of even the"poorest common labourers" of 18th century Britain, was directly contrary to the Christian theology of the time (see "Moral Sentiments", Book VII, section ii, Chapter 3). Smith considered benevolence, the 'supreme virtue of the Deity', to be beyond human replication, and wrote instead in favour of "truck, barter and exchange", i.e., ordinary bargaining as the means to achieving our"dinner" from the "butcher, the brewer and the baker" ("Wealth of Nations", Book I, chapter 2).

In sum, Smith's argued that to serve our own interests best we should serve the interests of others.

It was in the exchange economy of the growing markets and the division of labour, re-appearing in 16th to 18th century Britain andwestern Europe, a thousand years after the Fall of Rome, that Smith saw an opulent future for all 'ranks' of society, including the common labourers (whom he compared favourably in living standards to the richest North American or African 'prince', rulers of a 1,000"naked savages"). His vision had nothing to do with our Judeo-Christian heritage, or any other religion, Muslim, Hindu or Chinese, etc. My point was simply to draw this to Thomas Brewton's attention by critiquing his compulsive melding of the two together. No religion has a monopoly on moral conduct, though they all claim to have such.

Adam Smith's philosophy of human sentiments and moral conduct can be fitted into a Judeo-Christian moral framework; it can also be fitted into any other religion, or none. This does not make any religion right or wrong and I mean no disrespect to people of any religion. It simply states that for smithian markets to function well, the Judeo-Christian heritage is neither necessary nor sufficient.

My point in critiqueing those who suggest differently, is that we need secular democracies, operating under freedom from dominant religious norms (a sure recipe for tyranny, as the Founding Fathers recognised), wedded to smithian markets and the smithian ethic that we serve our interests best by serving the interests of others.

Gavin Kennedy (Prof)

Author of "Adam Smith's Lost Legacy", Palgrave Macmillan, 2005 (


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