Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Left or Right? Nothing to Do with Adam Smith

The age old conundrum about whether Adam Smith is compatible with ‘rightwing’ or ‘leftwing’ politics is never likely to be settled. Ian Mclean of Oxford University recently published ‘Adam Smith Radical and Egalitarian’ to make the case for Smith being ‘at home’ with Gordon Brown, British Chancellor of the Exchequer, while making side-swipes at the allegedly ‘rightwing’ Adam Smith Institute (London), who on my reading of them are more concerned with Liberty than Gordon Brown.

Meanwhile, daily across the United States its campus students are bombarded with versions of the ‘Chicago Adam Smith’ that pin him to a platform of laissez-faire, small or no government, complete with a bag full of ‘invisible hands’, sometimes presented as ‘theory’ of markets (i.e., nothing common with the Kirkcaldy Adam Smith).

The one thing many of these advocates of Smith as left or right have in common (not including Ian Mclean) is they have not read sufficient of his works (or have forgotten what they read) to present a balanced view of his political economy within his moral philosophy. The other question is why it is important for these people to harness Adam Smith, and 18th-century moral philosopher, who wrote about society as it developed from its primitive stage to its more ‘modern’ form in the mid-18th century, to their ‘true’ version of what is good for society in the 21st century?

For example, I read an article in The Free Liberal (27 September), titled ‘Freedom and Equality: they go together’ by Carl S. Milsted, Jr.

When people talk about having more “community” and “democracy” I think of long boring parliamentary gatherings, and having to ask everyone’s permission before being able to do anything. Bleah!

For these reasons I was one strongly repelled by the Left, and most of my fellow freedom lovers still are to this day. Some are in the Libertarian Party; more are in the Republican Party, making a Faustian bargain with the Right.”

“Throughout history, the bigger enemy of liberty has been the political Right: the aristocrats, the slave owners, and the mercantilists. Adam Smith was a liberal,
and not just in the classical liberal sense of calling for more liberty. He also called for more economic equality. He attacked the industrial policies of his day which enriched the privileged. He stood against the feudal barons. He described policies which would reduce business profits and increase wages.

But the Left has made a similar error. Equality requires freedom. It is good to be the dictator. It is better to be the dictator for the proletariat. Where Marxists succeeded in centralizing all power and ownership to the state, the result was party leaders with enough power to make a god-emperor envious.

This was not the intent. But it was the inevitable result. Centralize all ownership and the leader gets incredible power. Attempts to mix centralized power with democracy break down because democracy is inefficient. When government has limited responsibilities, this inefficiency can be tolerated. When government is in charge of everything, a strong executive is necessary.”

You can see the conundrum in what Carl S. Milsted, Jr says. Rightwing leads to overbearing power of the state; so does leftwing; and leftwing is a threat to liberty, so is rightwing. But somehow, equality (not defined or even scoped out) is better than inequality, which also happens to be a feature of rightwing and leftwing economics!

Into all this, I wonder why complicate everything by bringing in Adam Smith, as if something he wrote about applies and would soothe the transition from where we are now to where the ‘men of system’ (as Smith described them) intend to take us. Given that the intentions of ‘men of system’ lead to same disappointment with the outcome (a rightwing dictatorship has little to recommend it over a leftwing dictatorship), and neither left nor right are particularly promising on degrees of inequality (the Soviet Commissar thrives of coercion by state power and the siphoning off of resources to party bureaucrats; the distribution of income in a capitalist country means the very poor suffers from the coercion on the absence of resources).

I am more inclined to go along with Amartya Sen that economic development, which markets are better at, means liberty. Now I am not sure whether this is ‘right’ or ‘left’ or would make the ‘men of system’ happy; I agree with Smith that most of what make the ‘men of system’ (left or right) happy, usually makes the people they tyrannise profoundly unhappy.

If the Free Liberals want to follow the slogan: “It is time to put the liberty back into liberal, and to put liberal into libertarian”, I suggest they keep Adam Smith out of it, and pursue their goals on their own merits.


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