Sunday, November 30, 2008

Potted Biographies Add to Myths

Hanjae Lee (described as a 'teacher') writes a ‘biography’ of Adam Smith in the Blog, AP History HERE (I added 'sic' beside the 6 errors and one typo):

I was born in 1723 in Scotland as the son of Adam Smith and Margaret Douglas. My father had died before I was born, so I was raised by my mother. I attended Glasglow [sic] and Oxford universities and became a professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow in 1752. After lecturing for a couple [sic] of years, I published The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759. In the book, I argued that the human communication depends on sympathy between “agent and spectator.” But what I truly focused on was economy. [sic]

I believe that the impulse of self-interest work toward the public welfare in economy. I even wrote a book about it: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. A person “neither intends to promote the publick interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it… he intends only his own gain.” If each person chases his own interest, the general welfare of the society fosters as a whole. [sic] Free trade system is essential in this context for the maximum development of wealth; trades enable exchange of variety of goods. It is the “invisible hand” that regulate the market system and satisfied the economic needs. [sic]
The theory I developed is SO good that it will be still studied three hundred [sic] years later. How do I know?

In its 228 words, there are 5 errors and 1 typo. Smith was elected Professor of Logic in 1751, and transferred to Moral Philosophy in 1752. He published The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759, six years (not 'a couple of) after (7 years if we include his lecturing from 1751, during which he was lecturing on moral philosopy from October 1751 in place of his predecessor who was ill).

He did not focus on 'political economy', though he taught it for some weeks only as part of his lectures in jurisprudence (notes of which we have from his students). some of which were transposed direct into Wealth Of Nations, in addition to which he taught for months on 'ethics'. His interest in 'police', the then current term for the duties of government including the economic welfare of its citizens, was evident in 1762-3, and in rhetoric, a long standing subject he taught from 1748.

He certainly wrote about self interest but did not consider that this would or does 'foster' the 'general welfare of the society ... as a whole'. It was the consideration of the self-interest of others that was the driving force of the successful propensity to conclude exchanges with others. Self interest could also be destructive of welfare - 'the vile rulers of mankind', etc., of which he gives over 70 examples in Wealth Of Nations.

Nor did he consider an 'invisible hand' would "regulate the market system and satisfied the economic needs". That is a mid-20th-century myth for which there is no evidence in any of Adam Smith's writings on how markets work. See my paper downloadable from the Lost Legacy home page.

Hanjae Lee has passed on the myths about Adam Smith emanating from modern economists who use them as propaganda for their version of how economies work.



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