Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Authentic Adam Smith at the Tuesday Club

Last evening I attended a monthly dinner club meeting of the appropriately named ‘Tuesday Club’, the format of which was as ‘speaker’, I spoke for 20 minutes on what was billed by the chairman, Michael Fryer, an historian of credible reputation, as ‘Adam Smith in the 21st Century’.

The unusual format, which worked perfectly well, was for the speaker, during the serving of the first course (‘salmon fish cake with rocket leaves, lemon and paprika mayonnaise), to speak to a theme, and then those present are invited in turn to speak and pose their questions, also during the serving and eating of the rest of the dinner: main course (breast of pheasant with apple and rhubarb stuffing, colcannon potato, sweet (white caramel apple pie upside-down cake with vanilla ice cream)and coffee (and dark chocolate truffle), assisted by generous amounts of red or white wine (and a champagne starter). I stuck to orange juice as I do not partake of alcohol while working. Initially, I didn’t stick closely to the chairman’s chosen theme, but the questions led me that way.

The members of the Tuesday Club (running its monthly meetings for ten years) are interested in and are contributors to intellectual discourse from many walks of life (academics, professionals, business managers, politicians, authors, journalists, plus, last night, a young PR professional – is that a spin doctor?). The manners of their discourse were impeccable – nobody raised their voice; nobody was emotionally distraught, and nobody did other than listen politely, and the chairman, Michael Fry, conducted the affair with a calm dignity and impressive light touch.

It was fascinating to find a small coven of civilised human discourse in Edinburgh, which I felt as an echo of what was the norm in the Scottish Enlightenment, when Adam Smith attended his many club from the informal Oyster Club, where he, Adam Ferguson and the others adjourned after dinner to a side room for claret, beer, and conversation, while the other diners turned to singing and dancing with lady servers, allegedly of a willing disposition, to the more sedate and bewigged meetings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh to listen and comment to serious papers on science (natural and literary) in that age of great hope and anticipation. The long dining room table of the Stack Polly Restaurant, Grindlay Street, added to the historic atmosphere perfectly.

The Tuesday Club is right-of-centre politically. There were conservatives, libertarians and classical liberals present among the 20 diners (one attendee had given a lift to Murray Rothbard!). In my remarks I concentrated first on the authentic Adam Smith, a subject touched on many times here Lost Legacy.

His backward looking perspective to the revival of commerce from the 15th century, his analysis of the evolution of the propensity to ‘truck, barter, and exchange’, the cradle-to-grave urge to self-betterment, the division of labour, the foundations and extent of markets and the ‘slow and gradual’ growth towards opulence. His Moral Sentiments was about the harmony-producing sympathy of each to others in society, and Wealth Of Nations was a critique of mercantile political economy, and not a text book on economics.

In the long sweep of history, the key number was not the ‘average per capita income’ (Gregory Clark), which remained low and unchanged for millennia, but from the gross income of society (GDP), large enough proportions of which were extracted as surplus over average subsistence by the powerful, from which they built the stone civilisations that came and went cyclically for 10,000 years. Sadly, beyond sentiment, the history of the poor was not decisive. When all are poor, they all remain poor for always. Meanwhile, as a minority grew richer, knowledge accumulated, technology and innovation slowly spread, and capital formed.

The mid-18th century was the time where this underlying trend was visible and understood; meanwhile the rest of humanity across the world (Africa, Australia, the Americas) remained in Smith's Age of Hunting, equal but poor; even the powerful in these societies had fewer artefacts than an employed common labourer in 18th century Scotland.

Britain, a thousand years after the fall of Rome, re-reached Smith's Age of Commerce, along with other Western European societies, but all of them fell victim to the notions of mercantile fallacies (jealousy of trade, protectionism, wars for trivial ends, colonies and institutional monopolies) all of which distorted natural economic growth and delayed the spread and deepening of commercial societies, which in due course would raise the opulence of the employed poor and draw into commerce the unemployed destitute and abject poor of which those societies abounded.

This thought haunted and sometimes agitated Adam Smith.

Wealth Of Nations addressed these problems; it is not about laissez-faire; 19th-century corporate capitalism; or minimal ‘night watchman’ state activities. Its paradigm is not the ‘invisible hand’ metaphor; it is about letting markets work, within the law, and using funding from taxation, beyond the need for defence (which costs less than fighting unnecessary wars or suffering invasion), and justice (the main pillar of society), for the necessary role of public works and projects to facilitate commerce, including for the education of all children.

During the dinner a most active set of contributions and questions flowed as impressively as the dinner and drink was served with smooth efficiency by the restaurant’s staff. Subjects raised included the role of property, Adam Smith’s politics, his religious affiliation, the labour theory of value, the East India Company, formation of prices, the invisible hand, what Smith might have thought about the current Prime Minister (also from Kirkcaldy), Smith’s attitude to the Guilds, ‘Das Adam Smith Problem’, Eamonn Butler’s recent primer on Adam Smith (an ‘excellent read’), why the rich should pay more tax than the poor, flat tax, the role of self interest, Smith’s ‘different’ account of the division of labour in Books I and V, and his version of laissez faire.

Now I defy anybody to say that they have participated in such a well-informed audience with such a range of subjects related to Adam Smith at a dinner in a restaurant. The time passed swiftly and there was not a moment where the audience flagged in their enthusiasm to keep probing into, what most admitted was completely new territory regarding Adam Smith and his authentic views.

I realised why the Tuesday Club has lasted eleven years and why it is still going strong. I also saw why right-of-centre political philosophy and ideas remain lively and thriving in Edinburgh, but remain perplexed as to why the right-of-centre parties seem to be so marginalised in Scottish political life.

3 Comments:

Blogger Unknown said...

No comments?

In five years?

John Rae, in his account of Adam Smith's stagecoach trips from Glasgow to Edinburgh, reveals how nourishing was the intellectual fare to Smith and his fellow thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment at these dinners.

How inspiring to me, a student of the Enlightenment in eastern Ontario, to know that such ideas still flourish in the same manner.

Were I to know that such things still transpire I would hasten to be there and partake of the temper of the conversation which you so vividly capture.

More. Please!

3:54 a.m.  
Blogger Unknown said...

No comments?

In five years?

John Rae, in his account of Adam Smith's stagecoach trips from Glasgow to Edinburgh, reveals how nourishing was the intellectual fare to Smith and his fellow thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment at these dinners.

How inspiring to me, a student of the Enlightenment in eastern Ontario, to know that such ideas still flourish in the same manner.

Were I to know that such things still transpire I would hasten to be there and partake of the temper of the conversation which you so vividly capture.

More. Please!

3:54 a.m.  
Blogger Unknown said...

No comments?

In five years?

John Rae, in his account of Adam Smith's stagecoach trips from Glasgow to Edinburgh, reveals how nourishing was the intellectual fare to Smith and his fellow thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment at these dinners.

How inspiring to me, a student of the Enlightenment in eastern Ontario, to know that such ideas still flourish in the same manner.

Were I to know that such things still transpire I would hasten to be there and partake of the temper of the conversation which you so vividly capture.

More. Please!

3:55 a.m.  

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