Saturday, January 19, 2008

Accusations that Adam Smith Lied Continue to Spread

The Bayesian Heresy posts excerpts from Tim Harford’s Logic Of Life containing the accusation against Adam Smith that he lied. (here) I sent a comment to ‘Marshall Jevons’, which I hope he responds to or at least asks Tim Harford to do so:

The problem with Tim Harford’s account of the division of labour is this sentence:

Adam Smith never actually visited a pin factory. While sitting at home in Kirkcaldy and penning the most famous passage in economics, he was inspired by an entry in an encyclopedia.”

Yet Adam Smith in Wealth Of Nations makes the specific statement that ‘I have seen a small manufactory of this kind [the process described as the ‘18 operations’ to produce pins] where ten men only were employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations’.
(WN I.i.3: p 15)

Tim Harford has been asked for the evidence for his assertion that Adam Smith never visited a pin factory. Smith most likely took the French 18 operations from Diderot’s Encyclopedia (1755 (épingles), which was also based on Chamber’s Cyclopaedia (1741).

But if Adam Smith states in his major work that he visited a ‘small manufactory’ he most certainly did, or he would be guilty of a most infamous lie.

He most probably visited one of which there were several near him in Kirkcaldy (1766-73), though at the time when he first made notes on the division of labour in his ‘Early Draft’ (1762) he was teaching in Glasgow and there were many manufactories (small forges, etc.,) nearby.’

I await Tim Harford’s explanation for his assertion. His literary image of Adam Smith composing the line ‘while sitting at home in Kirkcaldy and penning the most famous passage in economics’ is purely from Harford's imagination.

What we know of Adam Smith’s composing method he used an amanuensis – a writer who listened to his dictation – and he was fairly active in visiting sites of economic activity during the years in which he wrote Wealth Of Nations, of which drafts have survived since the 18th century and are accessible today.


Blogger Marshall Jevons said...

I've posted a response.

12:15 a.m.  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Hi Marshal Jevons

Thank you for your comments.

Tim Harford has sent me the reference to David Warsh's book and, since hearing directly from Tim Harford, I have now re-ordered the book as my copy is in France. I live in Edinburgh.

Let's get this clear. I did not accuse Tim Harford of lying - I have said that the source of this story (whom I believe was Murray Rothbard) was lying, or at the very best was grieviously mistaken. I have commented on this incident in Lost Legacy (Jan 2006), or check the lefthand colum on Lst legacy home page, where my original postings of Rothbard were collected.

The matter rests there until I receive an answer from David Warsh - a most thorough journalist, whom I have met - from whom I have asked for his source.

In the meantime, I shall suspend further public comment, but I do not expect to have to make a retraction as is required of scholars who find they are in error.


8:45 a.m.  

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