Thursday, October 30, 2008

Adam Smith on Experts and Celebrities

An anonymous author of ‘Politics we believe in’ posted in (‘serving Onieida county in the heart of New York state’) HERE, which reads like a manifesto (or, in extremis, to be like a recitation of a creed). It contains this sentence:

We believe Adam Smith’s abiding suspicion of anyone who claims special privilege or expertise.’

I understand the mood implied in this statement, especially in the context of the rest of declaration, and I can think of several places where Adam Smith expressed thoughts that could contribute to a manifesto writer to summarise them into the quoted sentence. But there is something – I know not what off hand – that is either missing or is left out.

Smith wasn’t too impressed by some examples of men of privilege – ‘vile rulers of mankind’ and he mocked the awe directed at what we describe today as ‘celebrities’, a far wider social phenomenon in the 21st century than was common among the narrower confines of 18th-century aristocratic society.

Smith's mocking tone was relieved by his observations that such popular reverence about the trivia of the daily lives of the ‘rich and powerful’ was a necessary part of the ‘distinction of ranks’ in a stable society (TMS I.iii.2: ‘Of the Origin of Ambition, and the distinction of Ranks’). Of course, in republican America there is little if any similar distinction of ranks based on birth and family lineage than was commoner in the centuries that preceded the foundation of the USA, but i the USA (and elsewhere) there is no mean application of the ‘celebrity’ culture of ‘wealth and fame’ among popular attitudes.

As a scholar, Adam Smith respected ‘expertise’ – his praise of thsoe who demonstrated it is not uncommon for distinguished ‘men of letters’ throughout his books.

Again, at the same time, he was also given to writing withering criticism of those who presumed (like sovereigns, statesmen, legislators in ‘councils and senates’, and those who influenced them, such as scheming ‘merchants and manufacturers’) that they knew better what people wanted, or how they should go about their lawful business, and who attempted to exercise ‘an authority which could safely be trusted … to no single person’ and would ‘be dangerous’ in ‘the hands of a man who had the folly and presumption’ to ‘fancy himself fit to exercise it'. (WN IV.ii.10: p 456)

Adam Smith was not a ideologue. Firm statements he made about many things often had a modifying qualification to go with it. Societies, Smith knew, are complex, not absolutes. And no student of history, of which there is a dearth in our generations, can fail to appreciate the quiet wisdom of Adam Smith as set against slight caricatures of him, even when meant in the best of sense as in the author while ‘serving Onieida county in the heart of New York state’.



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