Friday, March 30, 2007

Misquoting Adam Smith

Adam Smith is often called upon as 'hook' upon which to hang arguments about current political affairs that are only loosely connected and, as often as not, wrongly associated with the subject selected for 'das Adam Smith' treatment.

In this example, the subject is about the 'duty of government' in a minor incident in the 21st century and has nothing much to do with Adam Smith in the 18th century, especially when the source is misquoted.

Mark Peters writes in his Blog, Taxing Times (‘a blog dedicated to the discussion of matters historical and current inssues of military and political natures), 29 March: “Adam Smith and the Duty of Government”

Adam Smith, in the Wealth of Nations Book IV, maintained that government had three duties, namely:

1) Protection of it's [sic] citizens from external aggressors.
2) Protection of it's [sic] citizens from internal aggressors.
3) The provision of welfare, within society, to those in need and whom could not be supported by the free market

Yes, memory can play tricks on one’s habit of accuracy, and it is not always that important. But readers may not notice the unintended errors and might repeat them in contexts where it is important.

So, at the risk of boring those who noted the errors in the passage above I shall correct them (keener readers may wish to do it quickly themselves – for practice):

● Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations consists of five book, numbered I through V, and Book IV, ‘Of Systems of Political Œ’, contains Smith’s critique of the ‘mercantile system’.

● Smith’s statements of the duties of government are in Book V, ‘Of the Revenue of the Sovereign or Commonwealth’.

● These ‘expences’ pay for the duties of ‘defence’, ‘justice’, and ‘public works and public institutions’ (which include ‘institutions for the education of youth’ and ‘people of all ages’ and, en passant’ relief from the ‘loathsome diseases’) and the ‘dignity of the sovereign’.

● They do not include what we mean by ‘welfare’.

● Neither should we reduce the entire range of justice to ‘protection of its citizens from internal aggressors’, as if it mirrors defence.

As for the context of the Blog post – the hostage taking of British sailors by Iran – I have nothing to say, it having little, if anything, to do with Smith’s legacy.

[Read the post by Mark Peters at:


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