Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Murray Rothbard Strikes Again

Mise.Org published nearly 40 pages of an article and a 1998 web debate (at least that is what it took on my printer) on Murray Rothbard’s assessment of Adam Smith and David Friedman’s critical comments. I am always interested in material on Adam Smith and will take sometime to read through the pages to assess its quality.

I posted a comment on the mises.org blog (see below) because I noted immediately that on one issue at least David Friedman was wrong and on one issue at least Murray Rothbard was right: Adam Smith was not an advocate of laissez faire (he never used the words), and if this is what I think the vulgar call a ‘pissing contest’, Rothbard won that round.

For my comments on 'Murray Rothbard’s Myths about Adam Smith' see my article under the button on the left column here.

My posting on mises.org today:

“I am impressed with the amount of resources that Mises.org is devoting to Adam Smith, though I have severe reservations about the approach of Murray Rothbard to the subject. I have already criticised material published under Rothbard’s name on the division of labour (which I believe he got seriously wrong, as well as muddling his reading of the relevant passages). I posted some of this here and also on
www.adamsmithslostlegacy.com (‘Murray Rothbard’s Myths’).

However, I am grateful for your publishing this 1998 exchange between David Friedman and the Misses institute and also this latest article by David Gordon. Ii will take some time to read through it all (36 pages of a web debate), plus what Gordon has published today. I shall return to this when I have digested the issues.

On one point I can contribute right now.

‘Rothbard's contention that Smith did not consistently advocate laissez-faire is much less radical than Friedman insinuates.’

If this is an argument about whether Smith was in favour of laissez-faire, I can state, with authority I hope, that Smith was not in favour of laissez faire to the degree that Friedman appears to be asserting, which I take is from his version of Adam Smith, as preached at Chicago, and not the Adam Smith who lived in Kirkcaldy, Scotland.

Smith never used the words laissez faire in his circa one-and-half-million published words. He was never in favour of (nor thought it was other than utopian to believe that) such an economic arrangement be instituted. He was not an anarchist or a libertarian. If Rothbard is asserting that Smith was less than an advocate of laissez-faire, then he is correct and Friedman is wrong.
On Cantillon, I commented on this blog [mises.org] last week. I shall return to the other issues soon.”

2 Comments:

Blogger David Friedman said...

"If this is an argument about whether Smith was in favour of laissez-faire, I can state, with authority I hope, that Smith was not in favour of laissez faire to the degree that Friedman appears to be asserting, which I take is from his version of Adam Smith, as preached at Chicago, and not the Adam Smith who lived in Kirkcaldy, Scotland.

Smith never used the words laissez faire in his circa one-and-half-million published words. He was never in favour of (nor thought it was other than utopian to believe that) such an economic arrangement be instituted. He was not an anarchist or a libertarian."

I am a little puzzled as to what I wrote that made you think I was asserting that Smith was an anarchist, or that he used the words "laissez-faire," or that his views were entirely libertarian

I haven't reread the old exchange, but my central claim was that Rothbard had extensively, and almost certainly deliberately, misrepresented both Smith's position and the position of the French economists who Rothbard thought more libertarian than Smith. If you can show that my statements in that regard are mistaken, I am interested. But I cannot see how the question of whether Smith used the words "laissez-faire" comes into the question at all.

10:52 p.m.  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

David,

Coming into a debate long after it started and reading it cold is different from initiating a debate and participating from the start. So I apologise if a summary point is made that you feel is inaccurate. We are in what Smith called an exchange of rhetoric (or rather you were in the original debate over Rothbard’s ideas and assertions about Adam Smith.

That is why I asked ‘If this is an argument about whether Smith was in favour of laissez-faire’ which it seems to me was becoming the central question in your debate: Rothbard arguing that Smith wasn’t in favour of laissez-faire, but was a ‘Statist’, a charge made from the Libertarian perspective, and you were arguing that he was in favour of laissez-faire.

That is what I addressed, denying emphatically that Smith was not a laissez-faire enthusiast, certainly not to the degree taught within the ‘Chicago tradition’ (i.e., the tradition that dominates American academe) from Friedman, Stigler, etc., but neither was he remotely a ‘Statist’, as meant, often as a term of abuse among anarchist-libertarians, by the broad Church of ‘leftwing Libertarians to rightwing Libertarians. Smith would have called them ‘Men of system’ (Moral Sentiments, VI.ii.2.13: pp 232-4) and they certainly exhibit many of their features in their published writings.

I have not the time this morning to delve through the over 40 pages of your debate, and the contributions of others, to identify the stances taken by you on all these issues. My question was an attempt to summarise what seemed to be at issue: how much of a laissez-faire economist was Smith? If that was the issue the summary sentence stating that that he never used the words, though familiar with them – he read French fluently (speaking was a different matter) and translated from the French too. But his non-use of the key words, not even in translation, is indicative of the point I made, as a short-cut to the core of the debate. Viner’s 1926 essay is good on this matter, and a close reading of his Works supports my rhetorical use of the distinction between the ‘Chicago’ and ‘Kirkcaldy’ Smith (I read this distinciton somewhere but cannot find the reference).

In your criticisms of Rothbard I find much to agree with you, as shown in my contributions to the current debate. I have made a few observations myself. If you are not arguing that Smith was a laissez-faire economist, great; if you are, you are vulnerable to Rothbard’s, albeit tastelessly-expressed counters, while he pursues his other agenda of denigrating Smith, misrepresenting his views, and advocating the Rothbard ‘System’.

6:56 a.m.  

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