Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Left-Right Meaningless for Adam Smith's Politics

Well, today I found the source to yesterday's post on 'Adam Smith Betrayed' (I was looking on email when it was on Economics Roundtable HERE:) and as it is normal courtesy to indicate one’s sources on the Internet, I append a short extract. Readers should follow the link to Oxonomics because the case Mark Koyama makes is fairly compelling.

The source was posted by Mark Koyama on the Oxonomics Blog run by Oxford University post-graduates and with whom I have exchanged views recently on Lost Legacy and on Oxonomics (HERE)

Mark Koyama writes on ‘The Fight Over Adam Smith’ (HERE)

Unlike other philosophers or economists of the past, Adam Smith is a uniquely tussled over figure. Both left and right claim Adam Smith as their own. As a result as Gavin Kennedy's blog demonstrates, Smith is consistently misappropriated and misrepresented by journalists and by scholars. I was wondering why this was? I suppose one reason is that unlike Hobbes, Rousseau, Ricardo or Marx, or even his contemporaries like David Hume, Smith is perceived to be 'the' thinker of modern liberal capitalism. Nevertheless, this leads to some painful attempts at 're-interpretation'.

Why are these reinterpretations so often inaccurate? One reason for this is to be found in Emma Rothschild's Economic Sentiments. Though I do not agree with all of the arguments in it, this is one of the best books that I am aware on the politics of Smith

The commercial society that Adam Smith observed and analysed in Wealth Of Nations was quite different from modern capitalism, which occurred long after him. That is why direct line-for-line transpositions, usually made without any obvious sense about the different context (e.g., his analysis of the East India Company transposed into those of modern corporations, or the famous reference to incorporated tradesmen under the Statue of Apprentices and in local monopolies with business traders in today’s markets without such legal privileges) betrays a partial knowledge of Adam Smith’s writings and conditions in the 18th century, and perhaps the urge of the quotation hunters to support their leftist politics (post-the French Revolution).

The ‘Right’ do it too, best shown in the regular quotation of Adam Smith’s paragraph on the ‘butcher, brewer, and baker’ to support spurious arguments that Adam Smith advocated selfishness, when in fact he identified exchange transactions in which the self interest of the parties was mediated by negotiation, in which each party moderated their different demands to a common demand that both parties are able to volunteer to accept, which is usually different from their original demands.

Readers of Lost Legacy will know how often I comment on this passage. There is also a religious bias when quoting it in that many mainly Muslim economists and Christian church people of a temperance disposition, censor Adam Smith’s famous paragraph to read ‘butchers and bakers’, with the ‘brewer’s trade’ dropped (I speak here on this subject as a non-drinker of alcohol, offended purely by the mutilation of Smith’s text and not by anybody mentioning alcohol, of which nectar, guests consume liberally at our dinner parties!).

I recommend readers to bookmark Oxonomics meantime.


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