Thursday, January 18, 2007

A Difference of Opinion

In “P-I” (Seattle) I find an enthusiastic review (as you expect) for O’Rourke’s new book on Adam Smith. But P-I columnist, Bill Virgin, makes remarks on Smith’s Wealth of Nations with which I disagree, not that my reaction is crucial in deciding on the quality either of Bill’s column or O’Rourke’s new book.

Bill says:

Mark Twain once famously defined a classic as a book that everyone praises but no one reads. Few classics are more praised -- or at least debated -- and less read than Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations," the founding treatise of modern capitalism.

There's good reason for that. Not only is Smith's book long, but Smith, being a man of the late 18th century, writes in the style of the late 18th century, with the resulting sentence structure and vocabulary making for a hard slog

For reasons explained here many times, I do not regard Wealth of Nations as a ‘founding treatise of modern capitalism’. Smith’s book is something well short of being a ‘founding treatise of modern capitalism’. If Smith had not written his book, the economy of Britain would still have evolved into ‘capitalism’ (a word and phenomenon unknown until the mid-19th century) and we can assert with confidence that Wealth of Nations had little impact, if any, on the entrepreneurial activities of the hundred, then thousands, then hundreds of thousands, of people who made up the capitalist economy in the late 19th and 20th centuries that transformed the world.

That Smith is acknowledged as the ‘father of capitalism’ (and other accolades) is not the result of his book (as Bill Virgin and Mark Twain apparently agree: it was, and is, largely unread). Wealth of Nations is ‘famous’ for being famous. The commercial society that Smith studied and wrote about evolved into capitalism, unanticipated almost totally, by those interested in analyzing it. Legislators intervened without understanding Smith’s analysis, other than the odd, often misunderstood, quotation from his book, the bulk of which was skipped, even by most economists.

The debate moved on without Smith, unfortunately, and diverted into deeper analysis, largely mathematical. Smith’s historical method – with strong hints of social evolutionary processes - was ignored; it is only now coming back into its own having been dormant for most of the decades since he died in 1790.

Agreed, Smith was not a modern tabloid writer (no sentence longer than five words; no paragraph longer than three sentences) but neither is he a ‘hard slog’. His style is highly literate. I have read many modern books and articles that are really a hard slog, apart from those that are just plain wrong. But that is only my opinion. I recommend that you read his books (Moral Sentiments is an absolute gem of written fluency) before accepting Bill’s assertions. He wasn’t writing a textbook in Wealth of Nations; it is a report of his detailed inquiry into what caused commerial economies emerging from agricultural dominance and what had characterised their growth paths in given historical and contemporary conditions. Its so-called ‘diversions’ in the main are his assembled evidence for his careful and clear statements.

[Read Bill Virgin’s article at:]


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