Sunday, March 19, 2006

Does Smith Qualify for This List?

Not wishing to be cantankerous for the sake of it, I am still uneasy about the (I hope) passing passion for lists. There are lists for everything almost. They are composed by often arbitrary criteria by selected ‘experts’, with the ‘awkward’ variations squeezed in or out, and the difficulties smoothed over, perhaps on the basis that the majority of readers will only look at the lists to see how they conform to their own prejudices; if they do the list arranger’s criteria counts for naught.

When, on the other hand, a list does not conform to a reader’s prejudices, the criteria might be searched and if disputable (itself a subject for further dispute) will be mocked. In this vein, great rumpuses blow up. I once heard of a university holding an all-day emergency meeting of senior staff when it allegedly slipped from the top 3 spot to the top 5 in the ‘rankings’, as I hear that certain universities refuse to participate in rankings unless they are guaranteed a top spot, which, of course, would frustrate the alleged purpose and impartiality of the ranking criteria. There are, of course, many reasons for not participating in newspaper rankings – not the least that journalists are not the most impartial people to compile them and their main interest lies in selling newspapers and meeting copy deadlines.

Melvin Bragg, a UK media intellectual of impeccable literary judgement and an ‘establishment’ figure in the ‘Arts’, has compiled a list of The World’s Best Books: ‘Twelve Books that Changed the World’ (April 2006, Hodder & Stoughton) and it may seem odd that I feel uncomfortable with the idea that Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’ is among them. Here is an extract from a press release:

Newton took us to the moon; Faraday gave us electricity; Darwin took away God and the gods who had been there since civilisation began; Mary Wollstonecraft started the struggle for the equality of women and Marie Stopes for their right to control and enjoy their sex and family lives.

After Wilberforce the equality of the races was on the march and Magna Carta is the keystone of opposition to the exercise of tyrannic power. Our markets operate through the laws of Adam Smith, our imaginations are most exercised by Shakespeare, our work organised by Arkwright, our language and religious thought by the King James Bible and our world-dominating sport by the FA Book of Rules.”

‘Our markets operate through the laws of Adam Smith.’ Is this true? Have they ever operated through Smith’s so-called ‘laws’? His critique of mercantile political economy was precisely about markets not operating according to natural laws. He didn’t hold much hope of them every doing so. He considered it utopian to think that ‘free trade’ would ever be restored in Britain. He did not write a campaign leaflet as if he believed somehow that free trade was to be worshipped, anymore than Newton believed that gravity was ‘good’. Both men were analysts, not preachers.

Ignore gravity in the proximity of the roofs of tall buildings and there could be fateful consequences; Newton measured the exact velocity of an unfortunate victim’s fall. Intervene capriciously in the workings of an economy and there could be deleterious consequences for a nation’s wealth; Smith explained the nature of those consequences with examples from China and Britain.

The extent to which Smith ‘changed the world’ is debateable. His works largely have been ignored, and if applied at all, the applications have been highly selective and piecemeal, and as often have been quite different from what Smith suggested, even the reverse. Newton did not suffer a similar fate. His ‘laws’ are timeless. Smith’s apply in the long view of history with declining relevance as the 18th century recedes. Capitalism would have developed as it did whether Smith had written ‘Wealth of Nations’ or had stopped with ‘Moral Sentiments’; in a hard sense it did so develop, even with ‘Wealth of Nations’ in print throughout the 19th to the 21st centuries.

I shall read Melvin Bragg’s book with a degree of scepticism when it is published and comment here on how he expresses his judgement.


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