Thursday, July 07, 2005

A Sad Attack on Adam Smith's Reputation


From: Al Jazeera, founded and edited by Dr Hassan El-Najjai 7 July 2005, The US Independent News Publication:
www.aljazeerah.info:

What If the Anti-Slavery Campaigners Had Listened to Cynics?
By Johann Hari, The Independent


“The campaigners were sitting at the heart of an empire built on forced labor. Almost all the world’s crops were grown by slaves who earned no money, worked 14 hours a day and died (at best) in their forties. The abolitionists’ goal seemed as distant as the idea of a world without absolute poverty seems now.

But as Adam Hochschild explains in his brilliant new history of the movement, Bury the Chains...to Free an Empire’s Slaves, within little more than a single lifetime, slavery was abolished in the British Empire. Yet there were whole decades when — like today — their cause seemed unachievable.”

Apart from hyperbole about “Almost all the world’s crops were grown by slaves who earned no money, worked 14 hours a day and died (at best) in their forties”, given that Britain grew almost all of its own food without slaves (from the “Corn Laws” – the 18th-century’s version of today’s “EU” idiocy), we should take the main point – campaigners against slavery faced a long uphill struggle – to be made more difficult by the reaction of the Establishment to the French Revolution and the Terror a few years later.

But then John Hari really goes over the top – he drags Adam Smith's reputation into the argument by including him among the “cynics”.

‘But they did not surrender to those who said that blacks were forever condemned to servitude because of their inherently corrupt and stupid natures. They did not listen when Adam Smith declared that “slavery ... has hardly any possibility of being abolished. It has been universal in the beginnings of society”.’

Smith said no such thing about “blacks” and had strong views on the natural equality of human beings, as shown in his famous reference in “Wealth of Nations”, Book I.ii.4, to the lack of differences between common street porters and philosophers and that differences appear are due to the division of labour, not to their “natural talents”. The division of labour was also his sole explanation (nothing to do with racialism) for the different living standards of common labourers in Scotland and those of ‘savages’ in North America and Africa.

John Hari reports on Adam Smith’s views as if the gentlemen who founded the Anti-Slavery movement in 1787 “did not listen” to Smith. I presume he does not know that Wilberforce used to quote favourably from “Wealth of Nations” to support the anti-slavery campaign in his debates with the supporters of slavery in Britain and the Americas. Far from not listening, the Anti-Slavery campaign used Smith’s analysis of the political economy of slavery against its practitioners. It is therefore a travesty of the truth for John Hari to report what he does not understand. Isolated quotations make for poor journalism.


Smith’s analysis of slavery since the Roman Empire can be found in Book III, chapter iii, of “Wealth of Nations”, pages 389-94. The first item that Hari will note is that slavery is not just an abomination imposed upon the “blacks”. It was in widespread use throughout the world long before the British Empire (and in recent times too in Soviet collectivization and Mao’s Communes’). Smith notes that slavery in the 18th century was still common in “Russia, Poland, Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, and other parts of Germany” (he could have added North Africa, the Middle East, India and China) and that it had only recently been abolished in the “western and south-western provinces of Europe”.

Smith’s assessment was: “The experience of all ages and nations, I believe, demonstrates that the work done by slaves, though it appears to cost only their maintenance, is in the end the dearest of any. A person who can acquire no property, can have no other interest but to eat as much, and to labour as little as possible. Whatever work he does beyond what is sufficient to purchase his own maintenance, can be squeezed out of him by violence only and not by any interest of his own.”

Smith adds “It appears, accordingly, from the experience of all ages and nations, I believe, that the work done by freemen comes cheaper in the end than that performed by slaves. It is found to be so at Boston, New York and Philadelphia, where the wages of common labour are so very high” (“Wealth of Nations” I.viii. p.99)

Now let us come to Johann Hari's "spin" put on the quotation from Adam Smith. During February 1763, Smith lectured at the University of Glasgow on Jurisprudence and a student fortuitously for us wrote down what he said. These anonymous Notes were published in 1978 by Oxford University Press. The lectures on slavery are too long to quote here but they reek with Smith’s criticism of the institution, the treatment of slaves and its political economy.

Nobody reading them today would have any doubts about Smith’s condemnation (contempt is not too strong enough a word) of slavery from the earliest times to his day. You can read the lectures for Tuesday 15 and 16 February 1763 in Adam Smith, Lectures in Jurisprudence, OUP/Liberty Press, 1978/82, pages 175-199.

Smith discusses, among other aspects of the inequities of slavery, the question of its abolition and notes that it had largely been abolished in Britain and many parts of Western Europe. He explores why it happened here but faced different prospects of being abolished in the plantations on the West Indies. For abolition a strong government was required because weak governments cannot stand up to local insurrections and neither can the magistrates they appoint (which led to his aside that slaves tended to be better treated by their masters and better protected by the magistrates under arbitrary than weaker governments).

In Britain, stronger governments evolved as the monarchy became more accountable, the judiciary more independent and the authority of the Church more supported. These forces accounted for the abolition of slavery and its replacement by free farm tenants and labourers

“Slavery therefore has been universal in the beginnings of society, and the love of dominion and authority over others will probably make it perpetual.” (p.187)

For abolition to be repeated it required a combination of events because: “The great power of the clergy thus concurring with that of the king set the slaves at liberty. But it was absolutely necessary both that the authority of the king and that of the church should be great. Where ever any one of these was wanting, slavery still continues.” (p.189)

Smith was sceptical – not cynical – that these events were easily repeated and observed that the owners of slaves in the West Indies would not agree to set their slaves free because of their importance in their economy as they saw it, and he had no doubts that they would engage in insurrection rather than submit to the proposition. It was because no single man could force them to do it without overwhelming force, Smith did not think it would happen. He misjudged what a strong British government could and would do in the first half of the 19th century.

Remember Smith's lectures were given in 1763 and had been delivered by Smith in similar form since 1752. Like his contemporaries he evaluated the politics of power as they existed then and not as they began to change toward the end of the century, especially after the American Rebellion and, just as he died in 1790, the outbreak of the events that led to the French Revolution.


Smith’s approach definitely was not cynical. If he was guilty of anything, it was his world-weary pessimism. He was even disparaging about the prospects of free trade (one of his main ideas) ever being introduced in Britain. And no wonder.


All Europe was ruled at the time by largely authoritarian monarchies, not our democracies of today with our free speech, access to media, rights of assembly, human rights, the rule of law and the modes and manners somewhat more humane now than was common in Smith’s time (1723-90). Smith was aware of the nature of 18th century governments - he met and advised Ministers from several of them (including Prime Ministers), though they did not take his advice on many occasions - and he knew how much governments and MPs were in thrall to many private interests, including the despicable slave owners in the plantations, and saw that the room for change from them was likely to be very gradual, if anything was to change at all in the forseeable future.

The change in democratic circumstance no doubt accounts for Johann Hari’s ‘bravery’ (and Adam Hochschild’s, if he is the original source for them), in disparaging the reputation of Adam Smith who lived and wrote what have become, epoch changing radical books, while he was handicapped by political and religious threats unlikely ever to threaten Hari (Scotland had many religious zealots every ready to find offence and judges ready to make examples of those threatening the exisiting stability of the country). Smith's lectures to his students - the sons mainly of the middling to upper ranks of the British Establishment - contained material they were unlikely to hear from their parents. His analysis of slavery was not a manifesto for change. He was an academic trying to inject some reason into what were, after all, young boys aged between 14 and 18, the age that boys attended universities in Smith's days. Wilberforce would not have agreed with Johann Hari's sad attack on someone Wilberforce admired.


0 Comments:

Post a comment

<< Home