Friday, July 06, 2007

Adam Smith Was Not a Philistine, Mr Hutton

"Creativity is not just about artistic expression - it can also generate wealth", writes Will Hutton, in The Guardian (6 July):

"There's no unbridgeable gap between culture and business"

“The more creativity and culture we have, the better - but it is also a source of wealth generation. Adam Smith thought that culture was a non-productive activity, and from a different perspective [Mark] Lawson is making the same argument: there is "arts" and "industry" and never the twain shall meet. In fact, companies who attempt to meet deep-seated human desires for culture need the same business disciplines as any other sector

I class this comment as ‘mischievous’, on the grounds that Will Hutton, a prominent spokesperson for the left literary class in the UK is bound to know that Adam Smith’s productive/unproductive labour distinction had nothing to do with the importance, social usefulness or civilising influence of culture.

Mr Hutton is given to acerbic distaste for anything to do with centre politics in the UK (he didn’t like Mrs Thatcher too much, if at all, and his opinions of Mr Blair are not much warmer).

Adam Smith was in fact a stalwart enthusiast for the Arts.

His first ever publication was to write a Preface and introduction to a book of poems by the Jacobite exile, William Hamilton, in 1749.

His second publication was to write a review of Samuel Johnsons’s Dictionary in the Edinburgh Review, (1755) in which he criticised Johnson’s treatment of the worda ‘But’ and ‘Humour’, with detailed references to Shakespeare, Milton, Sidney, Addison, Dryden, Pope, South and Bacon.

His third publication was his Moral Sentiments (1759) which demonstrated an intimate knowledge (apart from moral philosophy) of classical Greek and Roman literature and Rhetoric.

We know now from manuscripts published posthumously by his literary executors in 1795, which include four essays or part essays on:

Of the External Senses;
Of the Nature of that Imitation which takes place in what are called the Imitative Arts;
Of the Affinity between Music, Dancing, and Poetry;
Of the Affinity between certain English and Italian Verses

Throughout his life Adam Smith was a patron of the theatre (an emerging art in Edinburgh under pressure from the ever vigilant zealots of the Church of Scotland), he read poetry in his social hours, and he wrote and delivered a series of thirty (30) ‘Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres’ each winter in Edinburgh from 1748 to 1751, and he continued these lectures at Glasgow University as part of his moral philosophy degree course from 1751-63.

So, far from being portrayed a philistine, only interested in the creation of wealth, Adam Smith has strong qualifications to be considered a man of letters and a patron of arts, at least to a similar standard as William Hutton (I am being generous here to Mr Hutton).

In terms of Smith’s distinction between productive and unproductive labour it had nothing to do with the merits of works of art, or ‘culture’. It related solely to how labour contributed to the accumulation of capital in a commercial society.

Smith’s growth model identified net investment, from savings out of revenues, that arose when capital, plus productive labour and land, produced output that could be sold for a price that covered its costs and added some ‘neat’ (net) amount which constituted profit, some of which could be re-invested in each round of the ‘great wheel of circulation’, to add to the annual production of the ‘necessaries, conveniences and amusements of life’.

Productive labour enhanced productive investment rather than consumption. Unproductive labour didn’t (though Adam Smith’s distinction was too tightly drawn even for the last quarter of the 18th century (brothels, plays and hotels met Smith's productive labour definition), and too tight certainly for the 21st century, with much of artistic activity captured electronically and in live performances, which also produce a net profit available to allocate in some positive proportion for savings and investment.

I suspect nobody would be more pleased with accessibility to art or culture than Adam Smith. Comments on him should at least recognise Smith’s undoubted support for the arts when it was sometimes difficult to get many ventures started and free from censorship.


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