Saturday, April 07, 2007

How to Quote Adam Smith Accurately - for a change

Sometimes, people quote Adam Smith without reading what he actually wrote too carefully and which I usually criticise on Lost Legacy. Occasionally, someone quotes Adam Smith and makes a careful point about the (usually) well-worn use of a quotation that adds a bit of insight missed by more careless readers, because the quotation is used so regularly even the regular readers don’t read it properly.

One such example of the latter is in a Blog of which I know nothing, Palosverdes blog (‘observations on conservatism, politics, educations, cosmology, astrobiology, evolution and the environment’), a most intimidating title, written by Bill Lama (in Califronia – where else?), and posted on 6 April.

The post is about Thomas Friedman, entitled: “Is Thomas Friedman a Flathead?", an allusion that baffles me, having seen it – the ‘flathead’ bit’ – around but not knowing whether it is an insult or a sarcastic description (or both). The article itself is about politics of that confusing kind for readers on this side of the Atlantic when it uses labels like ‘neo-liberal’ or ‘neo-con’, which I am sure mean different things in Scotland, but what I am not so sure about what particularly.

However, I was interested in a small bit of the attack on Thomas Friedman, of whom I know little, except that he writes for The New York Times and I have commented on his articles a couple of times (as recent as yesterday, I think). Here’s the paragraph that caught my eye:

“Globalization clearly makes the world smaller. It may also make it richer. It does not necessarily make it more peaceful or more liberal. Adam Smith, the 18th century moral philosopher and pioneering political economist, was much closer to the truth when he wrote “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.” Note that it’s not all about economics; peace and justice are required as well for prosperity to reign.”

The last sentence is the important bit that most users of the quotation completely miss. They focus of the ‘easy taxes’ (a most important condition for prosperity that most governments ignore or, worse, defy).

It is not all about economics. With Adam Smith it never was solely about economics. He taught in his moral philosophy classes ethics, history, jurisprudence, natural and perfect liberty, and ‘police’, this last, the 18th-century term for the provision of adequate supplies of the ‘necessities, convenience, and amusements of life’. He had a holistic understanding of society.

Peace and justice were essential ingredients of Smith’s view of the appropriate mix of policies conducive to ‘progress towards opulence’. The above quotation is from his 1755 paper (now lost) in which he defends himself aginst charges of plagiarism (see the Appendix in my Adam Smith's Lost Legacy, Palgrave, 2005). He also added a proviso, when dealing with extremist demands for perfection, that if it required perfect liberty for any progress to be made then there were precious few examples of this condition being met anywhere – in fact none that he could think of, and he concluded that if perfection was necessary no country in history would ever have progressed at all, which would be in flat contradiction of the evidence that progress had been made, despite the absence of perfect liberty at all times.

Smith’s conclusion was that approximations of peace and justice, and economic freedoms, were sufficient and probably were the best that could be expected. That is why Smith took the long view, not the impatient short-term anxiety making view common on the extremes of public discourse. Today we find this short-termism in the shrill demands of the wilder fringes of libertarianism, absolutist free marketers, and their ilk, all of whom are destined to be disappointed by the imperfect trend of events.

[Read the whole article if terms like ‘neo-liberal' mean anything to you at:]


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