Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Would Adam Smith Have Blogged?

Bruce MacEwen hosts an active legal Blog for his fellow professionals called ‘Adam Smith, Esq.,’ and it combines the sort of stuff that ambitious, presumably young, lawyers like to read about their world and the people in it. Lay-persons can also enjoy the topics, especially those where he steps into linking Adam Smith to his themes.

One such is his follow up on the ubiquitous P. J. O’Rourke who asserted (typically) in Forbes that Smith would have enjoyed the Internet because he described its functionality in promoting Wealth Of Nations:

"In The Wealth of Nations , published in 1776, Adam Smith explained the three factors that constitute the free market: pursuit of self-interest, division of labor and freedom of trade. There you have the Internet without so much as a mouse click. [...]

"The Internet is not a wonderful new world. The Internet just is a natural extension of the free market."

"Smith saw that the free market answered liberty's need for a larger network of voluntary association. The pursuit of self-interest means that the free market has built-in incentives for network maintenance and expansion."

The 'net promotes, above all, connections. And this brings us to P.J. O'Rourke's key, and deadly serious, insight:
"Since networks are self-organizing they are, like all do-it-yourself projects, a mess. This makes networks too hard for any one person to understand, let alone dominate.

" Most of our lives are spent in channels or chains of command or circuits. Networks release us from this. We are presented with numerous alternative connections. On the Internet these connections are, without intending a pun, virtually unlimited. We can take our business elsewhere or be that elsewhere by starting a business of our own.

In other words, the 'net permits us to create new connections, to launch new conversations, and to form new micro-communities neither foreseen nor exhorted by any person or group directing our actions or our attention. Sounds like a free market to me. If, as O'Rourke says, "the Internet is an advance for voluntary association," then Adam Smith would surely approve.

And of course he'd be publishing working drafts of Wealth of Nations online for critical commentary as they were done.

What an exciting insight O’Rourke provides about the disorder of the Net emerging into a polite order, and added to by Bruce Macewen’s practicing Smithian outlook on that most ordered profession, the administration of justice (without which, said Smith, society ‘would crumble into atoms’).

Entry is relatively costless and you may conduct your business at low cost, whatever the business you are in, including the usual spam businesses from porn, sex aids and drugs, scams of various kinds and fake degrees. Of course, legitimate businesses dominate the Net and much mail-order selling and buying is conducted to the benefit for both parties. Few regulations and controls intrude on the Net, though they intrude as normal beyond the net when the cash enters the sellers’ bank accounts.

Yes, I think Adam Smith would have approved. But don’t put money on governments keeping their hands off the Net for ever. That’s not the nature of the State.


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