Friday, July 28, 2006

A Noisy Radical Shouts Louder that Lew Rockwell

In stark contrast to Lew Rockwell’s (Alabama) trenchant critique of fiat money, my next alert to mention Adam Smith was, well, a rant from a really angry man, Joe Bageant (California), or perhaps, that’s just his writing style when he is in bad mood.

Bageant, like Rockwell, prefers a gold standard. He too has a radical critique of US society, every aspect of which, in his case, is a target for abrasive language and abuse (both apear to be Libertarians). He concludes that “an American makeover ... will cost, at the minimum, maybe ten trillion dollars over at least two or three generations.” Meanwhile, the rest of the world will watch and wait while the US cuts itself off from them. Bageant does not like Malaysians working on Dell computers for 1,000 calories a day – has he been to Malaysia recently?

However, in the interests of even handedness – an irrepressible though boring virtue of a life in academe – I extract a couple of paragraphs which portray an unrecognisable Adam Smith (which editions of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations did Bageant read? - his quotations certainly were not in any edition I have read).

I quote from “Dissident Voice” (, 'A Radical Newsletter in the Struggle for Peace and Social Justice':

“Adam Smith Meets Cousin Ronnie's Boy

Conservatives, on the other hand, entertain no illusions about computers in the schools or anything else. Instead, they stick by the bootstrap myth, and free marketism as the course to personal and national success. We have over 200 years of evidence strongly suggesting that America's favorite theological premise, Adam Smith's “unseen hand,” like the gravity defying bootstrap theory, is a sorry thing indeed for any sane person to hang his ass on, given that both are endorsed chiefly by the smuggest, the greediest and richest among us. Most working folks would simply prefer an even start -- a fair break for everyone without depending on bootstraps or unseen hand theology crafted by a man who offered that the self-interested pursuit of money somehow made men more altruistic. Despite modern apologists' assertions to the contrary, Smith also believed the unseen hand was actually that of God, “whose wisdom works itself through competition for wealth,” and that “providence rightly divided the earth among a few lordly masters.” He disliked government except when it was clubbing down "the vice ridden and slothful poor." Property is government, he said, and “Till there be property there can be no government, the very end of which is to secure wealth, and to defend the rich from the poor,” thereby writing the Republican Party platform a full 89 years before the party was even born. Even allowing for the times, the guy was a bloodless prick. But then, so was Ronald Reagan, yet we are forced to suffer a similar deification of his addled free market cowboyisms. Feel free to hold your head and scream.

...In any case, Adam Smith lived in a time when money was described in terms of its effect on human beings, breathing entities who encountered one another on the streets even as chamber pots of both the rich and the poor were being emptied in the gutters in plain sight of all. He lived in what cyberheads now call “meatspace”, a place where most of the things that governed life were out in the open and fairly obvious. Money simply meant gold. Now money consists of digits coursing through the telecommunications satellites of a global financial system that manages teeming humanity for its own perpetuation, hollowing out the common classes in a new financialized feudalism, although preserving a smaller carriage class necessary to administrate and preserve the system for a handful of unseen global lords in New York, Zurich and Beijing. Calculating bastard that Smith was, I doubt he would much like what we have today.”

I consider replying to the diatribe against Adam Smith not worth the effort. If you read Joe’s piece and find his assessment of Smith believable there is nothing I can say that would change your perspective (you would believe anything, it seems); and if you find his assessments, well, silly in a rhetorical sense, you do not need my comments.

I must add that the problem for conservatives and others who have adopted the ‘Chicago’ version of Adam Smith is that they leave themselves open to Joe Bageant’s kind of critique. The Kirkcaldy Smith was an entirely different person to the one that George Stigler claimed was ‘alive and well in Chicago’. It is a pity that Joe does not know that.

[Joe Bageant is the author of a forthcoming book from Random House Crown about working class America, scheduled for Spring 2007 release. Feel free to contact him at: Copyright © 2006 by Joe Bageant]


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