Monday, July 02, 2007

Articulate Nonsense About Smith is Still Nonsense

The manner in which Adam Smith is turned on his head by misquotes, made-up quotes, and outright, barefaced, fiction about him is a wonder to behold and to be treated contemptuously. I found the following by an author who purports to offer ‘a guide to Life’.

Ghad! Sir, what sort of life is he guiding his readers to I wonder? His name is Steve Joe Parker, and his ‘Guide to Life’ is here:

I select the following pieces of fiction, masquerading as good sense for my comments, trying not to be impolite:

Adam Smith and his "invisible hand" of the free market created the concept that acting in our own self-interest was the most efficient way to promote the public good. Instead of donating $20,000 to charity to assist struggling families, I can buy a $20,000 car and provide jobs at the factory, health insurance, and other social benefits. Plus, I get to keep the car. Adam Smith made it okay to be selfish.”

Errors: Adam Smith never had ‘his invisible hand’ of the free-market’. That is a fallacy created by 20th century neoclassical economists attempting to dress mathematical theories of general equilibrium with the accolade of Smith’s name. His single use of the metaphor in Wealth Of Nations had nothing to do with ‘free-markets’. Go on, check it out: WN IV.ii.9: p 456 …

In the case where individual merchants were risk averse to sending their capital abroad, they could invest it at home. If enough of them chose to do so, domestic GDP would higher than if their individually dispersed capital was sent abroad. The whole is the sum of its parts. Other cases of such consequences exist.

But, many more cases of self-interest working against the public good also exist – Wealth Of Nations is full of them. Monopolists and protectionists narrow the market, engage in uncompetitive practices, reduce workers wages, support policies that benefit their interests in the name of ‘the public good’ and lobby against policies that would benefit society.

Steve Joe Parker:

”So, what's wrong with this view of the world? Maybe a few things. First, it promotes a consumerism that is not necessarily environmentally sustainable, and it places a higher value on things than anything else. Unfortunately, we often learn through experience that happiness does not come from our things.”

Consumers promote ‘consumerism’. If Steve Joe Parker does not want to be a ‘consumerist’, he does not have to participate. He can quit; cut down on his income and give what he has to charity.

Adam Smith practiced what he preached. He lived frugally, gave most of his income to private charity, had an ‘open house’ for students, indiginous scholars, visitors to Edinburgh, and such like. He shared his frugal dinners with anybody who had conversation to offer. Steve Joe Parker, if he lives like that, is living as Smith did; if Steve Joe Parker is a well-heeled ‘consumerist’, holding on to his money, he ain’t living as Smith did.

Secondly, Smith wrote extensively on human motivation and happiness too. He was clear that urging that the ambitious “poor man’s son” would spend a lifetime chasing a chimera, a false dream; so much so, that he said that ‘heaven in its anger’ are misled him to follow a life that he would regret when he was aged, even if successful in his quest.

People admire the rich and wish to emulate them, he said. Admirers, said Smith, do not really imagine that the rich are ‘happier’; the imagine, falsely, that the rich ‘posses more means of happiness’.

Steve Joe Parker should read Moral Sentiments, Book IV.I.8: p 182; better still he should read the entire chapter, and see why Smith that this illusion was what kept society driving forward. It’s what formed the USA across its continent, and it is what makes ‘poor men’s sons’ risk everything to cross the border in search of a piece of it.

If Steve Joe Parker wishes to opt out, I expect he will be posting from Mexico soon, or from even less consumerist societies – why not Darfur, or North Korea? – neither of which is remotely consumerist. Or he could go to corners of his own country and doss down with those who have nothing…

Steve Joe Parker:

“Second, Smith's view suggests that selfishness is not only okay but it is desirable. While this might be good economically in the short-term, it doesn't do much to help the people of the world co-exist peacefully.”

Sorry, Steve, those are not Smith’s views at all. You are confusing him with Bernard Mandeville (1724), whose ideas Smith said were ‘licentious’ and wrong.

Steve Joe Parker:

”Third, sometimes Adam Smith is just plain wrong. If Jonas Salk acted in his own interest, he would have patented his vaccine instead of giving it away. He could have raised the price and become a very rich man. However, the result would have been the suffering of thousands who could not afford his vaccine.”

What has this to do with Adam Smith?

From his writings Smith would have applauded Jonas Salk. Indeed, Steve should turn a couple of pages from the page I have already referred to, page 185, and read paragraph 11 (it carries on over the page to page 186-7), and read Smith praising the sense of public duty exhibited by some people.

Surprising to some, what you find in Adam Smith’s actual works and not the second-hand, made-up nonsense about him that Steve repeats, mindlessly and, I assume, in all innocence.

If Steve got these silly ideas about Smith from a book or newspaper by somebody, he should demand his money back. After all, that's what people do in consumerist societies with lots of lawyers in them.


Blogger Stevie Joe Parker said...

Stevie Joe has been bushwhacked and by an academic no less! The Good Professor Kennedy decided to undertake a criticism of my writing yet failed to offer notice or the opportunity to respond. Well, that’s not very sporting! You could have sent a little note to say, “Stevie Joe, read your stuff, and I'm not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work, there?”

Before I get to the crux of your arguments, let me address a couple of comments you have made about me, Stevie Joe. You state, “I select the following pieces of fiction, masquerading as good sense for my comments, trying not to be impolite.” You are “trying not to be impolite,” yet you call my writing “fiction” and “masquerading as good sense.” Elsewhere you refer to it as “nonsense” and “silly ideas.” If you talk like that to the gang at the Junebug Tap, you’ll likely find some cold shoulders until you offer to buy another round! Maybe, it’s different in the pubs in Edinburgh.

Furthermore, you also imply that I have not read Adam Smith. Well, just because I am a good old boy from Junebug Holler, don’t assume that I am not well read. Sure, most of the local residents think that Adam Smith is the guy who used to drive the UPS truck, but please don’t feel compelled to lump me in with them. I am well versed in Smith and the subsequent arguments about his work. Maybe I haven’t written a book about it yet, but I am busy trying to save the world here!

Now, to your criticism. It appears that your only real beef is that I have attributed to Mr. Smith views that are not his, and that he would actually be in agreement with my arguments. Well, of course Adam Smith would agree with me. I’m a damn genius!

Now, as far as attributing the notion of acting in one’s own interest to Mr. Smith, we have a couple things to consider. First, there are other academics, economists even, who agree with this attribution. You may disagree, and perhaps rightly so, but that doesn’t change the fact. Calling them “poopy-heads” won’t help. It’s not very scholarly, and it never seems to work for me.

Second, being a university professor, a trade with which I am well acquainted, you have made a common academic error. Being so concerned with the minutiae of the topic, you miss the big point. Who is concerned with what Adam Smith actually said? Economics professors and a few other assorted intellectuals and eggheads. This is all well and good, and I am not denying there is some value in it. After all, publishing articles about such things leads to tenure, which leads to the good life. However, what is most important is the discussion and consequences that arose out of Mr. Smith’s writing.

There are those who study what the Apostles said of Jesus (my main man JC), how these stories were carried through oral tradition, and how they were recorded and modified by scribes. This is all in an effort to discover what Jesus actually said and did, and it is of great interest to biblical scholars of which there are many (but not so much in Junebug Holler). However, is the message of JC any less important if the words we read today are not an exact historical record?

While it is apparent that the Good Professor struggles against the idea, Adam Smith has become the symbol of free market economics and the benefits of acting in one’s own interest. Whether he actually is responsible is really not relevant to the discussion. What is relevant is how his arguments, rightly interpreted or not, are applied today.

So, I write not for students of economics but for those who place Smith atop the altar of today’s free market activism (or atop the seat of the UPS truck). I am not the one who created this symbol. I only respond to it. So, if it makes you feel any better, you can disregard the use of his name in my writing. Most of the folks around here disregard far more than that. So, I’m used to it.

Now, Good Professor, I have refrained from making derogatory comments about either Scots or academia. As a former academic myself, I must admit that this degree of restraint was rather challenging! So, the next time I’m in Edinburgh, we’ll sit and have a drink. The Drambuie is on you. The next time you visit Junebug Holler, the Bud is on me. Just watch the fancy talk at the Junebug Tap and remember that Adam Smith works for UPS.

Yours truly,
Stevie Joe Parker

2:01 am  
Blogger Stevie Joe Parker said...

Well, I'm a bit surprised that I have not yet heard from the Good Professor. I'd hate to think that it is because you are uncomfortable engaging is some good ol' fashioned scholarly debate. How about that Drambuie?
Stevie Joe Parker

6:04 pm  

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