Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Adam Smith Always Chose Prudent Discretion

Andy Guess writes a report of an academic meeting in Inside Higher Ed HERE:

Walter Block, an economics professor at Loyola University, New Orleans, a Jesuit institution, gave a talk this month, “Injustices in the Politics and Economics of Social Justice,” at Loyola College in Maryland, a fellow Jesuit institution.

When Austrian Economics and Jesuit Theology Don’t Mix”

“Loyola College’s president, the Rev. Brian F. Linnane, e-mailed students: “While economics faculty members have issued a response and apology, I feel it is important at this time to remind all members of the Loyola community that while our commitment to academic freedom ensures that we welcome students, faculty and guest speakers of all academic and political perspectives, we will not endorse or support racism, sexism or any other form of intolerance.

“We are a Jesuit institution, and as such, a respect for diversity is one of our defining values, and an essential component in our commitment to preparing men and women to become leaders in a rapidly changing world made all the more rich by the many cultures and viewpoints that shape it.”

Perhaps almost as notable as the president’s direct response was the condemnation issued jointly by the college’s economics department and the Adam Smith Society student group, which is named for the 18th-century free-market economist. In an unsigned letter to the student newspaper, members of the department wrote, “It is important to note that the remark was offensive not just because it was racially insensitive, but because it was erroneous and indicated poor-quality scholarship. There is ample scholarly evidence that, after adjusting for productivity-related characteristics (e.g., years of schooling, work experience, union and industry status, etc.) a considerable wage gap remains.”

Block, who is also a senior fellow at the Austrian-oriented Ludwig von Mises Institute, said in an interview that Smith would be “spinning in his grave,” and that he may include the incident in a book he is writing on racial and sexual discrimination, to be published by the Institute

Adam Smith worked as an academic philosopher in a society largely devoid of free speech and academic freedom in the sense that neither he nor his colleagues could speak freely on matters of religion for example. David Hune did and paid the price, refused chairs in both Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities.

Meanwhile, they could, should they wish, make outrageous statements denigrating Africans and in defence of slavery. This latter didn’t change too much right into the 19th century.

Even gentlemen and much lauded scholars such as Thomas Carlyle could publish a pamphlet in 1848 ‘On the Negro Question’ (an absolutely disgusting pamphlet which would shock many devoted admirers of Carlyle).

I have given Carlyle’s pamphlet its polite title; an edition of it was titled ‘On the Nigger Question’. It was also the source for Carlyle’s most famous slur on economics as the ‘dismal science’ which he directed at J. S. Mill for his defence of recently liberated black slaves in Jamaica being as human as Europeans, and which an ‘urban myth’, presumably in ignorance, keeps linking Carlyle’s comments to Malthus and Ricardo and not to his own putrid views on race.

I am not clear why Adam Smith would be ‘spinning in his grave’ (a common claim, twice this week already!) over this incident.

Smith certainly had harsh things to say about the slave trade and the jail-refuse who undertook it and about the futility of the economics of slavery. He thought all men were born with the same capacities – the famous ‘porter’ and the ‘philosopher’ example in Wealth Of Nations – and that it was education that made adult differences possible, plus of course birthrights from the ‘right’ parents.

For reasons given above, he was more exercised by threats to Liberty than the absence of democracy. He participated in some student unrest whilst at Glasgow University as an undergraduate 1737-40 over the local religious zealots hauling their much beloved Professor France Hutcheson (an ordained minister in the Ulster Protestant Church), before a Scottish church court on the absurd charge of apostasy. In his adult professorial and writing life Smith avoided prudently any controversy with the then ‘thought police’ in the church by not provoking them, though I believe he cocked-a-snoot at them by the use of very careful language when mentioning religious subjects in Moral Sentiments, they being too ignorant to see through his rhetorical skills in using underwhelming apparent endorsements of religious orthodoxy (my current research project).

Professor Block answered a question under the assumed protection of his right to free speech; his detractors presumably consider themselves also to be protected by the same right. As long as neither side threatens the other side’s rights, all remains well. But if one or both sides go beyond their rights to threaten the other side’s rights, all is not well.

Adam Smith had a greater respect for the absolute need for justice than for the right to silence one’s opponents by barracking, boycotts, civil disorder, and righteous conduct that denies others their rights.

The Loyola community is a long way from the extremes which these sensitive-issue disputes tend to go eventually. I trust it will pause and reflect, having made its views known and now leave Professor Block alone and the good Professor might stay in New Orleans and not venture back to Maryland to re-ignite the flames on the grounds that where ignorance (of the mores of civilised intellectual discourse) predominate, common vulgarity asserts itself.



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