Thursday, January 24, 2008

Adam Smith Was Not A Socialist Nor A Fantacist

Inexplicably, my regular copy of the Times Literary Supplement for 18 January did not arrive last Friday and, as mentioned yesterday, there is a reference to a review of Ian Maclean's 'Adam Smith: egalitarian and radical', in which Adam Smith's Lost Legacy is mentioned (or at least was mentioned by a comment on it on the Blog I commented on yesterday).


This week's issue of TLS has a letter from Bernard Crick, a distinguished professor of politics for many years, a biographer of George Orwell, plus a long-time editor of Political Quarterly.

His letter to TLS (found at Times On-line here) reads:

Body-snatching Adam Smith

Sir, – Richard Bourke is right in his review (January 18) to protest against Iain McLean’s apparent body-snatching in his Adam Smith, Radical and Egalitarian, aided and abetted by the foreword by Gordon Brown. Bourke takes us back to what Smith meant at his time. But this is either a somewhat limited vision or it is disingenuous not to explore why there is body-snatching from both the Left and the Right. Yes, intellectual history must, on the one hand, contextualize; but, on the other, it must explain why the general theory propounded by such a writer must be, if it is a theory at all, applicable to different circumstances in later times. The problem is the same as famously with Rousseau and Rousseauism, Hegel and Hegelianism and (God save the mark!) Marx and Marxism. What creates different readings of such writers? They all create political waves.

Bourke does say that “the combination of scholarship and politics comes at a price” and that Maclean and others “are part of a more widespread endeavour to retrieve Smith from the deforming clutches of Hayekian economic dogma”. Indeed. But he seems to think that it is reasonable to conduct a debate with Hayek himself. Perhaps. Yet he ignores the extraordinary extent to which Adam Smith is invoked by Hayekian radical advocates of an unfettered free market who may not have read The Wealth of Nations at all, almost certainly not The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The price for the inevitable combination of scholarship and politics does have to be paid – a certain open-mindedness to the view not so much that texts are reinterpreted over time but that the applicability of important theories will always be open to politically and morally differing interpretations in different circumstances.


Excellently put by Bernard Crick.

There is much msiunderstanding expressed by those trying to squeeze Adam Smith into or out of modern political affiliations that is not based on what he wrote, but which reflects their own political leanings.

Lost Legacy is not about claiming or disapproving of Adam Smith for Left or Right. It is about asserting the ideas he held and published.

In so far as I make numerous comments of modern interpretations of Adam Smith among academe, many of which have no foundation at all, this brings into focus the expressions of Adam Smith's alleged authority for broadly rightwing corporate habits of aligning Adam Smith with selfish ('greed is good') notions, or irresponsible assertions about whatever individual and corporate leaders regard as maximising their so-called self-interests somehow (appeals to false invisible hands!) is good for society.

These are perversions of Adam Smith's moral philosophy and are not supported textually by Wealth Of Nations, Moral Sentiments, or Lectures On Jurisprudence.

Neither are claims that Adam Smith was some kind of socialist or proponent of ideas expressed by New Labour (Tony Blair or Gordon Brown). Smith was humanitarian in outlook, but socialists and New Labour do not have a monopoly on humanitarian feelings and policies, nor are right-of-centre political parties devoid of them. It is crass to assert the contrary and make such distinctions.

The commercial society that Adam Smith analysed and wrote about was seen as the great change agent for transforming human societies, hitherto notable by their inabilities to raise the per capita incomes of the majority of the earth's population above subsistence - and for many above biological subsistence - while, slowly and gradually, certain societies moved into a position to achieve that historical challenge towards the end of the 18th century. That commercial society succeeded in thwe 19th and 2oth centuries is among the greates achievements of the human species

Smith was a Natural Law theorist (Grotius, Pufendorf, Carmichael, Hutcheson) and the emphasis should be on 'theory', for there had never been any society that conformed to these ideals. Adam Smith was a realist, not a visonary, and he stated firmly in Wealth Of Nations, in repudiating Quesnay and his followers, that Perfect Liberty was not a pre-condition to prosper (otherwise no prosperity would ever have been made by any known human society) (WN IV.ix.28: p 674)

Adam Smith accepted that society, with all of its imperfections (many of which he detailed), would not conform the the purist's demands for total change in everything before anything can be improved. His programme was for slow and gradual change where change could be facilitated, and legislators could be persuaded, to allow some element of economic growth to proceed. From such growth, per capita incomes could rise for the majority of the population (mainly poor labours families), which defied 200,000 years experience of human societies and 10,000 years of recorded history, without disturbing the settled 'great orders' of existing 18th century society.

Socialist and New Labour, and other radical parties (including extremists, both secular and religious) are in a hurry for sweeping changes. This distinguishes them from the philosophy and political economy of Adam Smith. Nothing written on Lost Legacy can possibly lead a reader to suspect or to entertain the notion that Adam Smith was a kind of 'closet' socialist or social democrat. Neither was he a conservative in the modern sense.

He wanted society to change itself; not be changed by politicians who all have a different agenda, and timescale, and a different regard for human beings on the chess board of their fantasies.


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