Wednesday, February 07, 2007

This Month's Lost Legacy Prize Awarded to Dr Eamonn Butler

The Adam Smith Institute is well known in Europe and in the Blogsphere (it is the most popular economics Blog in Europe – hated by the far left and Guardian columnists still getting over the Thatcher years, itself its highest recommendation to thinking people). I like reading it for its spirited independence of thinking and its lively approach to current issues.

Occasionally, ASI dips into the more heady waters of intellectual theory and one of its star contributors, Dr Eamonn Butler, reports on a talk he gave about Adam Smith to the Hayek Society at Oxford (they are, if anything, well connected). I noted this from his talk:

“There are in fact many parallels in the work of Smith and the Nobel economist F A Hayek, particularly Smith's 'invisible hand' idea, which Hayek transforms into his 'spontaneous order' concept. Quite simply, it is possible to have an orderly society without some central authority (a dictator, or the state) telling us how to run our lives. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith attributes is to divine providence, but by the time he published The Wealth of Nations seventeen years later, he seems to regard it more as just an automatic, natural system that runs itself. Hayek traced the idea from Smith and other contemporary writers, right through to his own day, and gives it an evolutionary explanation: the free-exchange system just simply works, spectacularly well, fuelling economic and population growth. If it did not work, we would not be here to talk about it.”

I think this is 99% correct, and I hope Eamonn does not mind my ‘nit picking’ a trifle.

Smith wrote Moral Sentiments in 1759 while at the University of Glasgow (at that time a far more serious academic institution than Oxford) and his freedom to write without genuflecting regularly to religious orthodoxy was limited (East bloc scientists suffered the same inhibitions under the Soviet era). This was his first major published work and was meant to establish his reputation, a not unimportant consideration for him. Prudent he was to a fault.

Smith was far more serious about his career than the anecdotes suggest; he had already shown brilliant tactical sense and skilful political maneuvering as a Hanoverian ally to achieve his election to his professorship in 1750-1, under the patronage of the most power interest alliance in Scotland, led by the Duke of Argyll. He had the example of what happened to David Hume – a genius and Britain’s greatest philosopher – who lost two elections for chairs in Edinburgh and Glasgow because he was careless with his public scepticism of religious beliefs. Even pious, Professor Francis Hutcheson, Smith’s mentor, was prosecuted by local religious zealots, of which there were many.

Smith never allowed such menacing forces (an 18th century Taliban) to get near him. However, subsequent editions of Moral Sentiments had the more religious passages toned down (his mother read his books)and, after his mother died, he struck out several passages too.

Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, but large parts of it appear verbatim in student notes of his lectures that he gave in 1762-3 (Lectures in Jurisprudence, Liberty Fund, 1982) and show that he had delivered the basic ideas of Wealth of Nations in parallel with his lectures on Moral Sentiments (to the same students) and the bulk of this book was the same as the lectures he gave on ethics.

In the mid-18th century it would be difficult, if not impossible, to give lectures on moral philosophy without regular nods to ‘divine providence’ and stay in post. When he wrote Wealth of Nations (he left Glasgow in 1764) he had no such inhibitions, and political economy was relatively new as a taught subject anyway and had not been written about by divines in the manner by which they dominated in the teaching of moral philosophy. However, read between the lines, and note the subtle qualifications and they are not so religious as they seem.

However, on the linkage between Smith’s social-evolutionary thinking (he called it ‘conjectural history’) and Hayek’s ‘spontaneous order’, I completely concur with Eamonn Butler, and I welcome this idea reaching a wider audience of the thousands of readers of the ASI web site.

Yes, I totally agree Eamonn: what works, lasts!

Now, if only we can keep the acquisitive politicians at bay, who always – no exceptions – seek to interfere and ‘improve’ the world in their own image and end up making it worse, we would break the cycle of ‘what politicians make, doesn’t work’. The cycle only wastes scarce resources and is never put right by throwing money at it. On that we have perfect agreement.

[Read Eamonn Butler at:]


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