Friday, March 30, 2007

Reclaiming Adam Smith - a conservative contribution

A person called ‘Fletch’ of Loganville, Pennsylvania, USA writes a Blog, “Fletch for Freedom” (a Blog within Town, of which I know no more) has written two most interesting interpretations of Adam Smith, with which I more or less concur, though I am not so sure whether I would support Fletch’s politics, which appear to be ‘conservative’ within the US Republican tradition, and about which I follow Lost Legacy’s position of not being affiliated to any political party, tendency or band of sympathisers, except for selected such alliances within the country I vote in, namely Scotland.

However, that said, the posts by Fletch are extremely good in that they address issues in Smith’s Wealth Of Nations with which Lost Legacy has commented in the past, in particular the much quoted (or rather misquoted) criticism of tradesmen in town guilds or ‘corporations’, who conspire against consumers to raise prices, which many persons of the left, or in US terms of ‘liberal’, persuasion misread and reword to imply that Smith was talking about modern day ‘corporations, when he wasn’t.

Here is his first post on Child labour (28 March):

Reclaiming Adam Smith – Part One: Adam Smith and Child Labor

Frequently, those who would misconstrue Smith’s writings will concentrate, to the exclusion of all else, on the fact that he was a “moral philosopher”. This is a common tactic of the Left – perhaps the most common – wherein the position taken is deemed to be “on the side of the angels” and all others are deemed to be morally inferior and, therefore, unworthy of further consideration. In reality, this is a false debating tactic designed to obscure the fact that, typically, both sides of the debate agree that the societal issue to be addressed (poverty, tyranny, slavery, etc.) should be reduced and the real debate involves the suggested methodologies to bring this about. Thus, those cloaking themselves in the blanket of moral superiority conclude that because Smith was a “moral philosopher” that he must have objected to child labor. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

I have no doubt that Smith would have been delighted that child labor has largely come to an end in the Western world, but that is not the same thing. It must be remembered that the abolition of child labor is a conceit of modern prosperity in an industrialized world. In Smith’s time, child labor was the norm, considered by all concerned to be completely ordinary because the economies of the world in the late eighteenth century were overwhelmingly agricultural. Suggesting to a farmer then (and in many parts of the world today) that the family farm should not be worked by all members of the family would be met with simple incredulity.

As the very things that Smith observed began to take hold over time – primarily the greater reliance upon the division of labor and industrialization – the related increase in overall prosperity ultimately made it possible to consider freeing the society’s children to engage in other pursuits. It did not, however, happen overnight. As much as twelve years after Smith penned The Wealth of Nations, the new water-powered textile factories in England and his native Scotland were overwhelmingly staffed with children. It wasn’t until Lord Shaftesbury campaigned to bring an end to child labor in England that the trend was even reversed - and he wasn’t even born until more than a decade after Smith was in his grave.

In this country and elsewhere, the move to bring child labor to an end was less the result of concern for the little kiddies than an attempt by the newly growing organized labor movement (in the early nineteenth century) to restrict employment opportunities for others so that their own wages and employment levels would be increased. It was the trade unions that began agitating for restrictions upon child labor in the early 1830s and it wasn’t until the 1830s and 1840s that child labor laws were passed for the first time both here in the United States and in England. In fact, it would be another century (1938) before minimum ages of employment were established by federal law in this country.

How refreshing to read somebody placing an issue in its proper context. Child labour in 18th century Scotland was in no way analogous to child labour in 21st century developed countries, which have abolished it in the main, requiring children to be attending universal education institutions. In the developing world, and the non-developing, world child labour remains a harsh fact of life, and the pennies earned may make a difference of life or death for their families. Well-meaning affluent observers who campaign against child labour in plants supplying foreign-owned markets sometimes condemn the exploited children to worse than they seek to protect them from – child prostitution, male and female, literal starvation, lives of crime, and so on.

Twelve-hour days in factories are an alternative to 18-hour days in the fields. Child labour from the 17th century in Britain was worth pennies a day that added to a few shillings a week, supplementing a family’s income to at or above the survival diet. Children attending the Parish schools in Scotland (long before universal education in England) often left at around eight because of family destitution – that Adam Smith was able to continue attending school until 14, when he went to Glasgow University, was not a universal practice – occasional talented children (boys exclusively) who showed eligibility for university, sometimes made it through with charitable support, but desperately poor parents normally pulled them out of school and put them to work.

Until society produced the capital to hire labourers for above subsistence wages, and the raw materials to work upon, there was no alternative, and there still isn’t in many developing, and all non-developing, countries today. The corruption, vileness, and mendacity of many of the rulers of these countries, with their mercantile policies (mirroring the same policies of mercantile governments in the richer developed countries), locks poverty away from the only lasting remedy: the creation of wealth – the annual flow of ‘the necessities, conveniences and amusements’ of life, and these comes from establishing wealth creating enterprises and not, unfortunately from palliatives of rock concerts, charities and ‘aid’ to governments (aka ‘filling the pockets of the corrupt’, and also ‘massaging the consciences of the mega-rich’).

I shall cover the interesting second article by ‘Fletch’ later.

[In the meantime, read the whole article at:


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