Thursday, February 23, 2006

Smith Cautioned: 'Don't Panic!

Talk about getting something wrong; here’s George Will getting it wrong. He writes a lively piece on the differences between liberals and conservatives (on the US political scale) and supports the idea that conservatives are happier than liberals, who are ‘grim and scolding’. I quote:

Begin with a paradox: Conservatives are happier than liberals because they are more pessimistic. Conservatives think the Book of Job got it right ("Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward"), as did Adam Smith ("There is a great deal of ruin in a nation"). Conservatives understand that society in its complexity resembles a giant Calder mobile -- touch it here and things jiggle there, and there, and way over there. Hence conservatives acknowledge the Law of Unintended Consequences, which is: The unintended consequences of bold government undertakings are apt to be larger than, and contrary to, the intended ones.”

I have nothing to contribute to the question of which political group is the happiest (frankly the question is not worth spending any time upon). But to buttress his case – or fill column space – George Will drags Adam Smith into the argument. Now, while Smith was definitely not a Tory (an 18th-century conservative) and he may have tended slightly towards being a Whig (an 18th-century liberal-minded MP), at least on the issue of Kings having no divine right to rule, which contemporary Tories of his day asserted noisily and Smith denied firmly. Smith, therefore, has no useful role as an advocate for against the proposition: which 21st century Conservatives or Liberals are the laugh most?

Worse, if George Wills is arguing that Smith’s comments about the ‘ruin of a nation’ helps him make the case that Conservatives believe that ‘Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly’ he bags the wrong quotation from Smith.

Smith replied to a correspondent,John Sinclair of Ulbster, who reacted entirely negatively to a then recent reverse for the British in the war with the American colonists, after the surrender at Saratoga, and wrote to Smith saying: ‘If we go on at this rate, the nation must be ruined.’ Like many of that frame of mind, he saw disaster at every step, much as young environmentalists see catastrophe and pending doom for the world.

Smith replied: ‘Be assured, my young friend, that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation’.
(See Adam Smith’s Correspondence, Liberty Fund edition, page 262, footnote 3, or Ian Ross, The Life of Adam Smith, Oxford University Press, page 327).

Was Smith endorsing the pessimism of his young friend? Was he exhibiting Conservative or Liberal attitudes to events? I do not think so in regard to either question.

He calmed the young man’s fears, even his panic, at reverses, and pointed to the fact, still true today, that catastrophes are never as awful as they seem at the time, and over reaction to them is seldom the best policy. Which suggests that Smith was more of an optimist than a pessimist, and his optimism, I suggest was founded on his vast historical vista of history, his knowledge of classical times of ancient Rome and Greece and the millennium that followed, and his acute observations of how people behaved in the long past, and probably will behave in the future.

Read the article at: George F. Will: ‘Smile if (and only if) You’re a Conservative’ 23 February


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