Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Strange Claim About Adam Smith

Apropos of nothing, but I came across a Blog today calling itself: “Adam Smith Was A Socialist”. Its author says of himself (here):

Rants & musings of an innuendo-loving, cider-quaffing, number-crunching, faux intellectual, internationalist Scottish nationalist’ and expands on this in his profile:

The title refers to my absolute distaste for the libertarian right and its appropriation of one of the finest political thinkers Scotland (or the world) has ever produced. Personally, on a left-right scale I'm happily on the centre-left, thank you very much.’

It has on its side bar: ‘People of the same trade seldom meet together, ... but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public.

Obviously the author of the Blog does not realise this was a criticism of the remnants of the city guilds that were staffed by skilled labourers, not capitalists (they didn’t exist in Smith’s day), who were given to imposing restrictive practices to prevent anybody who had not served an apprenticeship in the town they wanted to ply their trade in to undertaken any work there.

The quotation (find it at Wealth Of Nations, I.x.c.27: p 145) is often used to attack modern capitalists, forgetting or more likely not knowing, that Smith refers to ‘trades’ as in skilled workers, who ran a monopoly to keep out competition and thereby keep up prices. Today this role is often undertaken by trade unions.

A well-known example of being refused permission to ply his trade as an instrument maker, who had served his apprenticeship in London, was the Greenock (a town a few miles west of Glasgow on the River Clyde) born, James Watt, of steam power fame.

Adam Smith and his fellow professors arranged for him to be appointed the University’s instrument maker, allocated him some rooms for his workshop and employed him usefully around the University fixing machines and such like. The University was then sited just outside the Glasgow town boundaries and therefore the writ of the Glasgow ‘trades’ did not cover the University’s grounds. Smith did not like restrictive practices or monopolists whatever rank they came from in society.

By accident, the University’s model Newcomen steam engine was broken and James Watt was asked to fix it. He did and out of interest, he continued to experiment until he had improved it, discovering in the process an innovation that was to lead to the discovery of directed steam power, a major element in what became the industrial revolution. If the Glasgow skilled tradesmen had had their way, Watt would not have ‘fixed’ the model engine, would not have improved it and the industrial revolution might have been delayed.

What does this teach us about ‘socialism’, or about Adam Smith being remotely interested in it?


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