Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Misteaching of Students - I Blame Their Tutors

Three students, judging by their Blogs, which contain their essays on the same set reading, “Garrett Hardin, The tragedy of the Commons, Science, 162(1968):1243-1248”, come to erroneous conclusions about the parable of the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ and, in passing make, reference to Adam Smith and his alleged views of individual self-interested choices and their aggregate consequences for society. These illustrate the epigones in modern teaching at work distorting Adam Smith’s legacy:

First the posts:

1 Chandana Damodaram writes HERE:

According to the conclusions laid down by Adam Smith, all the decisions which reach the individual will in fact be the decision made for the entire society. Each individual pursues his best interest to explore the freedom of the commons so as to maximize his profit which eventually brings ruin to all. Each man is locked up in the system which forces him to increase his usage of the commons without the limit, in a world that is limited. Individual benefits through the denial of the truth of how the freedom of commons is affecting the society as a whole around him. Author refers to this as the “Tragedy of Freedom in a commons”.

2 Jim Totten writes HERE:

In "The tragedy of the Commons" Hardin explores the inherent weaknesses of the socio-economic view (Post Adam Smith) when applied to areas of common property. Hardin argues against Smith's position that the decisions of individuals tend to be the best decision for society as a whole since each individual agent will act an a manner that increases their own benefits. Hardin argues that while Smith's "invisible hand" might have been true at some point in history it fails to hold up in modern times in the face of increased population density.”

Andrew writes HERE:

Hardin contrasts the Tragedy of the Commons to the laissez-faire principles of Adam Smith, which state that what is good for the individual will be good for society. Examples of the Tragedy from the paper include population growth, exploitation of natural resources, and pollution of the environment. The author concludes that “the morality of an act is a function of the state of the system at the time it is performed” and that historically the only way to solve the tragedy of the commons is through regulation or through transforming the commons into private property, forcing people to take responsibility for their own actions.

I also agree that, when possible, transforming the commons into private property is the most effective way of averting the tragedy of the commons. At times in the paper I felt like the paper was more about promoting the author’s own individual beliefs on population than about actual science
.”

Comment
Chandana Damodaram reports that Adam Smith said the individual sees his “best interest” as using the “freedom of the commons so as to maximize his profit which eventually brings ruin to all.”

The tragedy of the commons is not confined to a modern profit-maximisation model; herders can overgraze the commons because of the actual or anticipated overgrazing by others, who may not leave enough grass to keep their animals alive.

Children overuse the cookie jar’s contents out of wasteful eating, by not finishing their biscuits, dropping or leaving them carelessly, and so on; this has nothing to do with profit maximisation; it is the unconstrained use of a resource at zero price to them in the absence of property rights.

The tutor should point that out, gently.

Jim Totten reports that “Hardin argues against Smith's position that the decisions of individuals tend to be the best decision for society as a whole since each individual agent will act an a manner that increases their own benefits. Hardin argues that while Smith's "invisible hand" might have been true at some point in history it fails to hold up in modern times in the face of increased population density.”

This completely over states an alleged position of Adam Smith that “the decisions of individuals tend to be the best decision for society as a whole since each individual agent will act an a manner that increases their own benefits.”

Adam Smith did not make such a nonsensical statement because it equates any and all self-interested actions of people as being benign, which most certainly was not his view at all.

Smith gives over 50 examples in Books I and II of Wealth Of Nations of examples to the contrary of the above alleged assertion:

WN: BK I: 40; 43; 51-2; 77; 78; 79; 80; 84; 89; 90; 91; 95; 96; 106; 111-12; 115; 116; 124; 125; 126; 135; 136; 137; 139;140; 141;142; 143; 144; 145; 146; 151; 152; 153;154; 156; 157; 158; 160; 163; 171; 174; 266-7 [47]; BK II: 285; 302-03; 304-05; 308; 310-17;321; 323-24; 326; 339-42; 344; 346.

Will Jim's tutor make this clearer so that his students are well informed? Or is the tutor the source of such errors?

Which raises the question as to where tutors, including Garrett Hardin, got these ideas from about Adam Smith?

If Hardin ‘argues that while Smith's "invisible hand" might have been true at some point in history it fails to hold up in modern times in the face of increased population density’, he almost certainly is wildly wrong.

The myth of Smith’s use of the metaphor of the invisible hand never applied as ‘true’ or ‘false’ – it was an remains a literary metaphor. As Adam Smith said of metaphors, while discussing Shakespeare’s use of them: they were a ‘figure of speech’ in which ‘there must be an allusion betwixt one object and an other’, and that a metaphor can have ‘beauty’ if it ‘is so adapted that it gives due strength of expression to the object to be described and at the same time does this in a more striking and interesting manner’. (Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, p 29, 29 November 1763, ed. J. C. Bryce, Liberty Fund, Indianapolis).

Andrew asserts another false conclusion of Adam Smith: “Hardin contrasts the Tragedy of the Commons to the laissez-faire principles of Adam Smith, which state that what is good for the individual will be good for society.”

Whatever Hardin contrasts with laissez-faire, they have no relevance for Adam Smith who did not hold to a laissez-faire stance on how commercial societies worked, or ought to work. Smith was not a laissez-faire ideologue at all. That assertion confuses Smith with some of the French Physiocrats (1760-66) who did advocate laissez-faire; the plain fact remains that Adam Smith did not.

Scroll down a few posts on Lost Legacy to Monday's post where I rebut the erroneous mid-19th century notions, endlessly repeated through to the 21st century, about Adam Smith and which are not based on a close reading of Wealth Of Nations (or see Gavin Kennedy, Adam Smith: a moral philosopher and his political economy, 2008, Palgrave Macmillan).

The notion that Smith said “that what is good for the individual will be good for society” is a variation on what Jim Totten says above and to which I have responded.

However, I did agree with Andrew’s accurate assessment of Hardin’s paper that “At times in the paper I felt like the paper was more about promoting the author’s own individual beliefs on population than about actual science.” [A sure sign of a wide-awake student who might go far! I hope his tutor notices his early talent]

Overall, these three short tutorial essays by these three students provides an insight to the continuing harvest by modern economic teachers of new recruits to the ahistorical understanding of Adam Smith’s legacy and the perpetuation by the epigones, including by those at the very top of our discipline, of myths about Adam Smith to the detriment of general understanding of economics and a slight upon the Adam Smith born in Kirkcaldy in 1723.

Readers may download my paper: "Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand: from metaphor to myth" from Lost Legacy's Home Page (click on the red notice)

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2 Comments:

Blogger Tim Worstall said...

What I find really rather amusing about all this is that Hardin was originally using the Commons Tragedy to talk about population growth. Take the parody of the Smithian view, that self/interest necessarily (rather than at times) leads to societal benefit....he was arguing that this did not hold for population.

Now, we all agree that the logical process, the exploitation of a resource at zero cost does lead to problems, fisheries, pastures, pollution and all the rest.

It's just that it doesn't hold for population. For, as we've seen, once any society gets to a certain (and fairly minimal) level of wealth, birth rates drop dramatically to below replacement levels.

It turns out that the self interest (expressed here as the level of desired fertility) does indeed lead to societal interest, a stable of shrinking population rather than exponential growth in it. So Hardin was correct in his logic but not in his example....

11:17 a.m.  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Hi Tim
You are right about population. I first read Hardin's paper while an undergraduate and was impressed about the Common's parable in respect of property rights but never bought the population line he promoted.

That was the 1960s; these students represent the 21st century. There is hope for 'Andrew', however.

2:04 p.m.  

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