Wednesday, January 23, 2008

How Left or Right Was Adam Smith?

Fred Siegel writes in Commentary (, "Mr. Smith Bears Left" (here):

The collapse of even watered-down versions of Marxism has fruitfully pushed a number of leftist British intellectuals into a reconsideration of Adam Smith. The publication in 2001 of Emma Rothschild’s Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment set off a flurry of efforts to reclaim Adam Smith from “the Right.” Rothschild rightly saw that Smith was far from the caricature of a heartless demonic elitist so dear to left wing prayer books. Three years later, Gareth Stedman Jones followed up with his book An End to Poverty, which applauded Smith for his anti-statism.

Now, according to January 18 TLS, new books on Smith have entered the lists. Two of them—Ian McLean ‘s Adam Smith, Radical and Egalitarian and Gavin Kennedy’s Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy—try with a less than scholarly touch to claim Smith for New Labor. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a Scotsman, has written the introduction to the MacLean volume. Brown, playing up the Scottish card, claims that “Coming from Kirkcaldy as Adam Smith did, I have come to understand that his (1776) Wealth of Nations, was underpinned by his (1759) Theory of Moral Sentiments” which saw “neighborliness” as crucial to mitigating the underside of economic competition. By this Brown, following McLean, argues that Smith was as much a theorist of social justice as an economist.

Taken in a Tocquevillian light this might seem innocuous. But, in the name of “neighborliness,” MacLean and Brown want if not to replace then at least to displace “the invisible hand” of markets with the “helping hand” of the state. This argument, depending on how you look at it, is either a hypocritical perversion of Smith or a thoughtful means of reconciling British leftists to global competition.
An answer, of sorts to Brown, comes from the Torie’s shadow chancellor George Osborne in his introduction to a new edition of The Wealth of Nations. Osborne sees Smith as the definitive answer to the shapeless anti-market ideology of the anti-globalization movement which has no positive program but is skilled at playing Cassandra. Osborne accurately sees economic nationalism as the road to perdition. But invoking Smith is scant guide for how either the Brits or the Americans should respond to the neo-mercantilist sovereign wealth funds of China and some of the Gulf States which invest politically in open societies while closing their own borders to foreigners.

Smith who was a moral ironist would no doubt be amused at the attempt by contemporary British politicians to enlist his writings in their causes. He once, after all, define an elected official as “that insidious and crafty animal vulgarly called a statesman or politician, whose councils are directed by the momentary fluctuation of affairs.”

I have not yet read the review in the Times Literary Supplement for 18 January (my subscription copy did not arrive last Thursday by post), so I cannot comment on any references to my ‘Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy’.

However, I hope I not included in contributing to a left-leaning Adam Smith or to any endorsement of New Labour and Prime Minister Gordon Brown. While Ian McLean‘s ‘Adam Smith, Radical and Egalitarian’ makes such claims on his own behalf, I certainly do not.

Gordon Brown often makes claims about “Coming from Kirkcaldy as Adam Smith did…Gordon Brown, in fact, was born in Glasgow on 20 February 1951 and lived in Glasgow until he was 3, moving to Kirkcaldy in Fife where his father was a Church of Scotland Minister. He was brought up in Kirkcaldy, but not quite like Adam Smith, who was born in Kirkcaldy in 1723 and brought up there until he went to Glasgow University in 1737.

Adam Smith’s politics are not easy to untangle. Donald Winch, the eminent historian, wrote Adam Smith’s Politics which does not show him to be unambiguously of any particular persuasion, though he was not a Tory. He and his father were supporters of the Hanoverian constitutional monarchy when the Tories in the main supported the deposed King James in the 1688‘revolution’.

You can read into Adam Smith’s works practically any politics you can imagine. He does not conform to some of the wilder ideas of the Right in US academe – he did not advocate laissez faire, for instance and he was not against governments having roles in the economy, though he strongly opposed the specific interventions advanced by mercantile political economy (Book IV, Wealth of Nations).

The important consideration is that he preferred market solutions where practicable and had in mind a separation of initial funding to construct the project distinct from the issue of the public or private form of management of it. Gordon Brown and New Labour are wedded firmly to the idea of State management, in conjunction with major roles for public sector trade unions.

Adam Smith also had firm ideas on the affect of colonies on a country’s own growth and development. His advice at the end of the Britain’s colonies in North America was that the country should adjust itself to ‘the mediocrity of its circumstances’. Unfortunately, his advice was not taken and Britain slid into a second Empire, and even after removing itself from that experience it continues to see itself as a necessary force for intervention in world affairs, at great cost to its economy in treasure and not a little in blood.

In short, the Right’s past monopoly if their interpretation of Adam Smith is a necessary focus for defending his legacy; it is not in any sense a prelude to defending a left wing interpretation of Adam Smith.

If this version of Adam Smith was more prevalent it would attract critics such as myself to set the record straight.

When I receive the relevant TLS, I shall no doubt comment on the review in more detail.


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