Friday, June 26, 2009

Which Adam Smith Was Wrong?

Shaun Grovers writes the Schlog blog (HERE):


"At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, during the Age of Enlightenment, Adam Smith wrote Wealth of Nations. It’s earned him the title “father of economics” and it greatly influenced the founders of America with its argument that free market capitalism was the best economic system available for a society prone to selfishness.

Adam Smith wasn’t just an economist. In fact, at the time, economics wasn’t its own field yet. The best I can figure it was a branch of philosophy mixed with sociology and even a little religion. Adam Smith, for instance, was a professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow - not some mathematician or finance guru working as a prof in a business school. That doesn’t discredit him, of course, but it’s something to keep in mind when reading his thoughts: They’re as much a prescription for morality or theology as they are for business practices.

“Adam Smith believed, for instance, that in order for a free market society to prosper, individuals must look out for their own self interests foremost. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest

Smith’s observation was that individuals are ‘self-interested’, an assessment with a long pedigree in classical philosophy long before Smith taught his students. But that was not the problem in itself. The main problem was that people depended upon others, mostly unknown others, for their daily sustenance.

Long gone in Europe were the days when individuals sought whatever they could get for themselves from gathering fruits, roots, insects and birds’ eggs in the forest in ‘rude’ societies that were common before farming and shepherding (and still were common in 18th century experience over much of the world, with a few remnants still found today).

Society was more complex (though fairly simple compared to now) and without mutual dependence, largely from the division of labour and the propensity to exchange, common to all people in Europe, and in the ancient stone civilisations of China and India, the mass of the population would soon suffer grosser privations than was already common. There was not enough subsistence available to support distribution by such benevolence as was present to allow everybody, or a majority, to rely on benevolence for their daily survival. It wasn't that benevolence was wanting so much as it would never feed enough people alone.

Smith addressed the prospects for commercial societies (he didn’t use the word ‘capitalism’ nor have knowledge of the 19th century phenomenon), which if allowed to operate without the oppression of existing state-supported monopolies it would continue the spread of opulence to the majority of the population.

Shaun Grovers jumps into assumptions about what Adam Smith said quite clearly and differently, both in Moral Sentiments (1759) and Wealth Of Nations (1776). Smith did not have an idealistic view about human behaviour – he was an observer of how people actually behaved and not how they might behave in an imaginary utopia.

Moreover, Smith dealt in relatives, not absolutes. It wasn’t that the ‘butcher, brewer, and baker’ would behave like perfect boy scouts; given the chance – particularly the opportunity provided by monopoly, a common enough condition under the Guild system that had controlled the supply of food and necessaries in most towns since the 16th century – the butcher, brewer, and baker would behave exactly as Shaun concludes in the substance of his article. The trader would pay more than likely “an unjust wage to his workers, lying about the quality and origins of his products, making promises for immediate gain with no intention to keep them, etc,” and much worse besides.

The Smithian antidote to monopoly is competition, not as an idealistic model, but as the best known remedy to selfish behaviours emanating from monopoly.

The Acts of Parliament that created state-granted monopolies, which often fostered private cartels and 'conspiracies' against the consumers, were often orginally awarded with good intentions (and we know to where those roads lead), and had by mid-18th-century Britain become barriers to commercial growth, jobs and good health.

Smith’s critiques of such government interventions was severe (see Book IV of Wealth Of Nations) – so severe that modern readers often generalise incorrectly his specific remarks about 18th-century government interventions as his supposed opposition to all government interventions, which is far from the case, as regularly discussed on Lost Legacy.

Shaun writes:

“Adam Smith, like I said earlier, came up with his ideas during the Age of Enlightenment - a period characterized in part by radical optimism about the human spirit, denying that all men are born spiritually powerless and corrupt. Ronald Reagan sounded a lot like a modern day Adam Smith sometimes. He was very inspiring but very wrong when speaking about the inherent goodness and strength of mankind: “A people free to choose will always choose peace” or “I know in my heart that man is good” or “There are no constraints on the human mind, no walls around the human spirit, no barriers to our progress except those we ourselves erect.”

I do not know where Shaun got these ideas from, but they certainly were never expressed by Adam Smith. This leads me to ask if Shaun has actually read Smith’s works, or is he confined to what others have said that the wrote, plus a few quotations out of context?

Adam Smith was wrong. Free market capitalism might just be the best economic system the world has ever seen. I assume so, but what do I know about economics? I’m a musician. But it doesn’t produce the rosy results Smith argued it would either. A society full of Smith’s imaginary butchers will not benefit the whole of society because the butcher is not inherently good and self-regulating. He does not naturally pay a living wage to his workers. He does not naturally keep his promises. He does not naturally tell the truth at all times. He’s just like me. And just like you. If we serve ourselves with no outside restraints placed upon us, we’ll cheat to get more and horde what what we get while the distance between us and the have nots widens.”

Having set up an imaginary straw man and called him ‘Adam Smith’, Shaun concludes that ‘Adam Smith was wrong’. What astonishing insight! Sadly, what nonsense too. It’s not that Shaun is deliberately misleading; he is simply uninformed.

And finally:

Adam Smith’s error may come from his understanding of God. Adam Smith is believed to have been a deist - someone who thinks “The Great Architect” built the universe but then walked away from it, never to return, never getting mixed up in human affairs, never entering the human heart, never putting on skin and becoming a man for man’s sake, never sending Spirit to guide and teach, never to lead his People to be creators of equality and justice and, well, regulation.”

Shaun here is interesting. Many make similar interpretations of Smith’s alleged ‘Christianity’ and his alleged providential tendencies, and his alleged Deism, but not as clearly as Shaun does.

However, this would take a lot longer to respond to at this time. I am presently in Denver to read my paper, ‘The Hidden Adam Smith in his Theology’ (in part a response to Lisa Hill’s 2001 paper, ‘The Hidden Theology in Adam Smith’).

Readers interested in the current draft of this paper, which answers in some measure the ideas expressed in the paragraph in his article, should send an email to me: gavin at negWeb dot com.

In sum, Shaun Grovers’ article is interesting but flawed by a reliance on the writings of others (mainly ‘rightwing’ Reagonites it seems who describe a fictional Adam Smith invented in Chicago from the 1950s; though he is not enamoured with the ‘leftwing’ either) and not on the work of the real Adam Smith, born in Kirkcaldy in 1723.

There is a world of difference between these two Adam Smiths, and knowing the differences is important, as well as fairer to the Adam Smith born in Kirkcaldy.

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