Friday, March 21, 2008

A Graduate of Balliol College, Oxford Quotes Adam Smith, an Earlier Graduate

Martin Meenagh blog (here) writes (21 March):
Adam Smith on War’

"Adam Smith used to be at Balliol, which was my college for most of my fifteen years in Oxford, before he left in 1746 to do 'less drinking and more thinking'. In 1776, he more or less invented economics with what Borders, if it had a clue, would no doubt describe as the 'Enlightenment Classic', The Wealth of Nations.

Like many great works, Smith's words contain quotes that challenge any simplistic reading of his ideas. So, for instance, the apostle of markets and commerce warned citizens to be wary of concentrations of capital and of business as an ongoing conspiracy against the public. Smith pointed out that those who profess to trade for the public good are often neither public nor good. You can, on the morning that McDonalds contemplated being offered the sponsorship of British hospitals, read Milton Friedman on Smith's view of business in a semi-mad lecture here.

This Good Friday Morning, recalling the Iraq War, both Glenn Greenwald, the liberal American constitutional lawyer and journalist, and Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek, the free-market website, have found another quote from Smith. It details the position of supporters of Imperial Wars. It is very worth thinking about;

In great empires the people who live in the capital, and in the provinces remote from the scene of action, feel, many of them, scarce any inconveniency from the war; but enjoy, at their ease, the amusement of reading in the newspapers the exploits of their own fleets and armies. To them this amusement compensates the small difference between the taxes which they pay on account of the war, and those which they had been accustomed to pay in time of peace. They are commonly dissatisfied with the return of peace, which puts an end to their amusement, and to a thousand visionary hopes of conquest and national glory from a longer continuance of the war

Did Adam Smith say: ‘'less drinking and more thinking'? No source is given but I would like confirmation that this was a genuine quote from him.

Martin quotes from Wealth Of Nations via both Glenn Greenwald (whom I quoted in the post below) and Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek (always a good read).

Now apart from a few quibbles, this is the third approximately accurate (it’s always better to be approximately right than absolutely wrong!) statement I have found today about Adam Smith’s views and that alone pleases me.

Again it’s a member of the 'younger' generation expressing appropriate comments about Adam Smith in place of the usual problematical confusions with Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees (1724).

If such more accurate ideas spread, Lost Legacy will have less to do.


Blogger Martin Meenagh said...

Dear Gavin
I always understood the quote to be oral tradition at Balliol, or at most a quote from Gibbon about Oxford's long decline that was linked to Gibbon's views on Smith. I have checked John Jones' summary of the college archive and have to say that I posted without references from my own understanding of that oral tradition, and I know how shaky handed-down words can be. I hope it doesn't spoil your reading.
You have a great blog--many thanks!

3:02 pm  

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