Thursday, May 03, 2007

Edmund Burke, Conservatism and Adam Smith

I regularly look at a number of ‘conservative’ Blogs that come across my search function, some are strictly ‘political’ about current events with various targets for their ire; some, the more interesting, are ‘philosophical’. If you are not articulate in their ‘speak’, you often are lost in their allusions to authors.

One new Blog of this ilk, I came across this morning: The Paleo Blog(NB: in English normally: ‘Palaeo’; Greek: palaios).

Nisbetian Conservatism by Walter Block (2 May)”

“Burke thought that the state should just keep itself to things that are truly "public." Other than that, it should not get involved in peoples' affairs. Nisbet wrote that "there is not the slightest distinction between Burke and his friend Adam Smith." Both share decentralization and laissez-faire. Burke thought that welfare was not the job of the government. (One thing that made be say "yuck" ---- Adam Smith was OK with education from government.

Edmund Burke, a ‘friend’ of Adam Smith, repudiated his affinities with his ideas after Smith died in 1790 in a reaction to the French revolution, particularly after the French Terror of 1793. Mostly, this was an extension of Burke’s political thinking, bearing in mind his common stance with Smith on the American ‘revolution’, which was broadly supportive of the colonies; Burke was conservative in matters about governance and continuity.

Smith was not a conservative in the same sense. He was not a high Tory; he did not believe in the ‘divine right of kings’, he was not a ‘Jacobite’, after Jacobus, the Latin word for James, who was the last of the Stuart line of kings when deposed by the 1688 ‘Revolution’ that installed William of Orange as King of the United Kingdom (please: since 1604 there has been no such institution as the ‘King’ or ‘Queen of England’, as so many American citizens insist on calling the British monarch).

The sentence: ‘Both share decentralization and laissez-faire’, is problematic. Smith did not support laissez-faire and he never used the words. He was well aware of their meaning and he knew many of the French economists (the Physiocrats) who regularly advocated laissez-faire. The reason he wasn’t in favour of laissez-faire he detailed throughout Wealth Of Nations: merchants and manufacturers could not be trusted to allow competition to continue unhampered by monopolistic measures, legal and illegal. He gives many examples that show that such activities hamper ‘progress towards opulence’, the biggest gainers from which, are the labouring majority of the population.

Adam Smith was OK with education from government

Yes, he most certainly was, though his proposals were a hybrid of public provision and private contributions from each parent, except the very poor who could not afford a penny.

Walter Block may not be aware of the context in which Smith wrote. First, Scotland was a small and very poor country, much more so than England. But it set up, via the national Church, ‘Parish Schools’ in the 17th century and the cost was divided between buildings and remuneration for the school teachers. These were local schools and, mainly, taught boys to ‘read, write and account’.

When writing Wealth Of Nations he knew that schooling in the larger population of England was patchy and recommended that the Scottish ‘parish school’ system was spread into England. A century’s experience of the Scottish system showed that most labouring people were ‘literate’ to a degree and knew a little arithmetic. Any boy who showed academic promise, irrespective of his family circumstance, could go on to University (Scotland had four universities, England only two), supported by scholarships, bursaries and endowments.

Walter Block was educated, I surmise, in a different context. ‘Education from government’ in North America is many levels away from Smith’s day, though I am sure that in the most deprived parts of the richest country in the world there are analogous gaps in provision, public and private, made worse by rich teachers’ unions, well paid public administrators and political interference, giving ‘public’/government schooling a bad name. For this I favour vouchers.

With the scarcity of capital in mid-18th century Britain and the thinness of national organisations, it was most unlikely that the programme advocated by Smith would be funded privately. The school buildings required national efforts, though teachers’ salaries could be funded locally, as they were in Scotland, with small contributions from parents.

Of private education there was next to none. The rich sent their sons on grand tours of Europe with hired professors as their travelling tutors (Smith was one such tutor from 1764-6. with the young 3rd Duke of Buccleuch, stepson of Charles Townshend, British Chancellor of the Exchequer, who imposed the tax that provoked the Boston tea Party).

I don’t think it appropriate to say "yuck" to a person who grappled with a provision two centuries a go when Scotland was so poor (as no doubt the then ancestors of Walter Block were too).

I see his Blog is dedicated to “the late Murray Rothbard”, a scholar whose robust style was also given to inappropriate comments about Adam Smith, which Lost Legacy commented on in the past (see Archives, January-February 2006). Is this a trait among conservatives?


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