Thursday, October 23, 2008

Adam Smith Was Not a Socialist Nor a Neo-Con


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One of the more pleasing consequences of the current financial crisis and its recessionary tendencies is the greater interest in the works of Adam Smith, though, sadly, mainly to mock the false image of his ideas created by neoclassical economists from the 1950s, but also happily, in places, to take an interest in what he actually wrote.

One such example of somebody expressing curiosity about Adam Smith’s ideas is that of ‘wipeltz’, for example, who writes in Daily Kos, (‘the state of the nation’) 22 October, HERE:

wipeltz’ asks: ‘Adam Smith, socialist? The search for the Historical Adam’, followed by several quotations from Wealth Of Nations and one from Moral Sentiments, which he/she finds curious in view of Adam Smith’s reputation in the media and academe for his being installed on a pedestal by various figures, including Nobel Prize winners as an icon of laissez-faire, small government, and the ubiquitous ‘invisible hand’ that allegedly asserts that when anybody pursues their self interest, usually elided into ‘greed’ and selfishness’, by some mystical process they end up benefiting society as well as themselves.

Readers of Lost Legacy will recognize that ultra-libertarian ideas about Adam Smith and his political economy are often misleading.

Here is the comment I sent to Daily Kos in response to the questions by ‘wipeltz’:

First the good news for readers of KOS: none of the passages quoted by ‘wipeltz’ from Wealth Of Nations and Moral Sentiments were ‘possibly inserted much later, under the influence of [Marx's] Manifesto’, itself a very strange idea.

While the majority of economists have not read Wealth Of Nations, a small minority of scholars in each generation have read Smith’s Works closely and none have reported to my knowledge any such corruptions. We can state categorically that the worry that ‘Very possibly, some of the original text has been corrupted during its various editions’ is unfounded.

The Wealth Of Nations, published in 1776 and the five editions of it (1776, 1778, 1784, 1786, 1789) edited by Adam Smith before he died in 1790, are intact as he wrote them. The definitive six-volume edition of Adam Smith’s Works and Correspondence is known as the ‘Glasgow Edition’ and was published by Oxford University Press throughout 1976-83.

A popular priced, ‘exact photographic reproduction’ of the Oxford University Press volumes is published by Liberty Fund, Indiana. [I can assure any Kos readers who may suspect its integrity that no changes or omissions have been made in the Liberty Fund reprints.] An authoritative American edition of Wealth Of Nations was edited by Edwin Canaan in 1904 and reprinted in 1937 by Random House, and it is still widely used by scholars. My copy is kept on my desk for reading Canaan’s editorial footnotes.

Perhaps, one brief comment: while the actual text written by Adam Smith has not been altered, his ideas have largely been emasculated from their original meanings by modern economists from the mid-50s onwards. In particular in respect of ideas Adam Smith never advanced, such as laissez-faire (he never mentioned the words), a so-called ‘invisible hand’ explanation of how markets worked (only mentioned once in Wealth Of Nations and on a different topic), ‘small’ government (Smith had a relatively large public expenditure agenda), and ‘non-intervention’ in markets (Smith made several suggestions for intervention, including in banking).

I shall discuss the various quotations offered by ‘wipeltz’ in Daily Kos in a later post today.

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1 Comments:

Blogger Brother Billy said...

Good blog -- I'm with you all the way. My style of presentation at Daily Kos was intended as a send-up a la Stephen Colbert.

6:02 p.m.  

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