Monday, April 16, 2007

Feminists Don't Need to Mistranslate Adam Smith's Ideas

I won’t get into the issues about feminism and women discussed in this article in “Book Blog” (‘something a bit more serious’) by Bridgetter Gregory. She is reviewing “Women in the Nineteenth Century by Margaret Fuller”, which is full I may say of the usual arguments, though in a 19th century background.

Among them is this paragraph – it’s not clear whether this is Margaret’s claim or Bridgetter’s - and it is almost totally in error:

Individuality is a matter of economics to many, especially with the ideas of Adam Smith and laissez-faire. According to Smith, governments should encourage their population to be individually selfish. He believed that when people were allowed to be selfish with their products and businesses that the economy would prosper. Smith’s laissez-faire helped in many countries including the United States. If this idea were taken as an approach to women’s equality there would be twice as much of the population looking out for their self-interest which could only help the economy more.”

That individuality is the centre piece of the mathematical ideas of neoclassical economics is beyond question. Chicago’s notion of Homo economicus is its most prominent icon. However, I am not quite clear how the consequences alluded to by Margaret/Bridgetter come into the frame.

Smith did not advocate ‘laissez-faire’, in fact he never mentioned the words in anything he wrote, though he knew the words and he knew some of the French economists who used them regularly.

According to Smith’ says Bridgetter (or Margaret); but where precisely did he say this most improbable follow on about ‘governments should encourage their population to be individually selfish’? I know of no such statement (though I’m always willing to be corrected).

On these lines, I wonder if Margaret has read Smith's severe (moral and economic)criticism of selfishness in his dismissal of Bernard Mandeville (‘Fable of the Bees’, 1724), who most certainly did advocate the social benefits of selfishness. Smith never did, either for the individual or for governments to ‘encourage’ selfishness.

In like manner, Smith did not believe “that when people were allowed to be selfish with their products and businesses that the economy would prosper”. His criticisms of ‘merchants and manufacturers’ who acted selfishly are so well-known that I cannot but wonder where Margaret or Bridgetter get the idea from? It was never in Smith’s books, though apparently it is in Margaret’s.

As Smith enver advocated laissez-faire he couldn’t have ‘helped in many countries including the United States’ with it. Something here has got lost in translation as it crossed the Atlantic. Smith advocated the dismantling of the mercantile state’s political economy. He thought governments pursuing the wrong policies should roll back their wrong policies. That was not the same thing as the idea that there was no role for governments in an economy.

He gave specific roles for government: defence against belligerent nations; the setting up of a system of justice (independent from the Executive; trial by jury; habeas corpus; judges appointed for life; the rule of law); public works and public institutions (toll roads, bridges, harbours, canals, national mint, post office, weights and measures, and action against ‘noxious diseases’); establishing a national system of education with a school in each parish on the Scottish model, partly paid by taxation and partly by parents (except from those parents too poor to contribute a 'penny'); education and instruction for people of ‘all ages’; separation of State and Churches (note the plural); and paying for the ‘dignity of the sovereign’ or government. All to be paid for by a fair taxation system that has elements in it of an ‘ability to pay’.

I would have thought, just a suggestion, if you wanted to make a feminist case for the disregard of the roles of women in a society and its economy, you could find many examples of male disregard of women in Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’. He was an 18th century not a 21st century man and his remarks about women are, well, somewhat far from the sympathies of Bridgetter, but that’s another story.


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