Friday, April 24, 2009

Kofi Annan on Adam Smith and African Development

Peter Foster posts ‘Kofi sends Adam spinning’ in the National Post (HERE):

"Adam Smith believed that great danger lay in ‘partnerships’ between government and business. Kofi Annan has done more than anybody to promote such partnerships’
“The inside of Adam Smith’s grave must be worn pretty smooth by now, after two centuries of the great man’s spinning due to constant misinterpretation. Numerous additional rotations were surely in order yesterday when former secretary-general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, delivered the annual Adam Smith lecture at the Kirkcaldy college that bears Smith’s name. Mr. Annan came at the invitation of deeply unpopular British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who spent far more of his youth reading Das Kapital than The Wealth of Nations, but who also claims to be a Smith fan
.”

Mr. Annan typically tried to present Smith as an 18th-century proto-Bono. In fact, although Smith believed that personal benevolence was the highest virtue, he might have regarded Mr. Annan (and Bono) as typical of what he called “whining and melancholy moralists, who are perpetually reproaching us with our happiness, while so many of our brethren are in misery, who regard as impious the natural joy of prosperity, which does not think of the many wretches that are at every instant labouring under all sorts of calamities, in the languor of poverty, in the agony of disease, in the horrors of death, under the insults and oppression of their enemies.”

Smith believed that great common good was provided by the pursuit of self-interest. He also believed that great danger lay in “partnerships” between government and business. Mr. Annan has done more than anybody (prodded by advisers such as Maurice Strong and Jeffrey Sachs) to promote such partnerships and lumber business with social and environmental “leadership,” thus diverting them from job creation.”

The simple Smithian reference that Mr. Annan would perhaps do best to dwell upon is from the Sage of Kirkcaldy’s lectures at Glasgow University, where he suggested that “Little else is required to carry a state to the highest degree of affluence from the lowest barbarism but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice; all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.”

What Africa needs is not more slush funds laundered via corrupt agencies and even more corrupt governments, but “peace, easy taxes and a tolerable administration of justice.”

Comment
I agree with Peter Foster, though, please, would he stop referring to Capital by Karl Marx as Das Kapital – somebody said on a Blog recently that people who refer to Marx’s Capital by other than its title in English have never read it (excepting, of course, those who read German!).

The reference to Adam Smith on ‘whining and melancholy moralists’ is from Moral Sentiments: TMS III.3.9: 139-40, and it is worth reading in context too. At the time he was contrasting two strands of morality (well represented in the Christianity preached in Scotland at the time):

Two different sets of philosophers have attempted to teach us this hardest of all the lessons of morality. One set have laboured to increase our sensibility to the interests of others; another, to diminish that to our own. The first would have us feel for others as we naturally feel for ourselves. The second would have us feel for ourselves as we naturally feel for others. Both, perhaps, have carried their doctrines a good deal beyond the just standard of nature and propriety.

The first are those whining and melancholy moralists, who are perpetually reproaching us with our happiness, while so many of our brethren are in misery, who regard as impious the natural joy of prosperity, which does not think of the many wretches that are at every instant labouring under all sorts of calamities, in the languor of poverty, in the agony of disease, in the horrors of death, under the insults and oppression of their enemies. Commiseration for those miseries which we never saw, which we never heard of, but which we may be assured are at all times infesting such numbers of our fellow-creatures, ought, they think, to damp the pleasures of the fortunate, and to render a certain melancholy dejection habitual to all men. But first of all, this extreme sympathy with misfortunes which we know nothing about, seems altogether absurd and unreasonable. Take the whole earth at an average, for one man who suffers pain or misery, you will find twenty in prosperity and joy, or at least in tolerable circumstances. No reason, surely, can be assigned why we should rather weep with the one than rejoice with the twenty. This artificial commiseration, besides, is not only absurd, but seems altogether unattainable; and those who affect this character have commonly nothing but a certain affected and sentimental sadness, which, without reaching the heart, serves only to render the countenance and conversation impertinently dismal and disagreeable. And last of all, this disposition of mind, though it could be attained, would be perfectly useless, and could serve no other purpose than to render miserable the person who possessed it. Whatever interest we take in the fortune of those with whom we have no acquaintance or connexion, and who are placed altogether out of the sphere of our activity, can produce only anxiety to ourselves, without any manner of advantage to them. To what purpose should we trouble ourselves about the world in the moon? All men, even those at the greatest distance, are no doubt entitled to our good wishes, and our good wishes we naturally give them. But if, notwithstanding, they should be unfortunate, to give ourselves any anxiety upon that account, seems to be no part of our duty. That we should be but little interested, therefore, in the fortune of those whom we can neither serve nor hurt, and who are in every respect so very remote from us, seems wisely ordered by Nature; and if it were possible to alter in this respect the original constitution of our frame, we could yet gain nothing by the change.
” (TMS III.3.8-9: 139-40)

Foster hits home with “slush funds laundered via corrupt agencies and even more corrupt governments” – he could have added that those who use their ‘moral authority’ to provide soft cover for the corrupt agencies and corrupt governments are also part of the problem too.

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