Sunday, October 11, 2009

An Hour in the Life Of a Humble Journeyman

I have a copy of Hector C. Macpherson’s (1899) "Adam Smith", Famous Scots Series, Oliphant Anderson & Ferrier, Edinburgh, in my library in France, which I had cause to look up shortly after I arrived at for a week. I acquired my copy in a second-hand bookshop in Edinburgh in the early 90s for £5.00. There is an interesting inscription on the fly-leaf:

“With Mrs Pollocks’ best wishes. To Willie T. McVittie, Manse Auldgirth. July 1916.” Maybe, “Willie” was of an age for a First World War call-up and Mrs Pollocks thought he needed some good moral guidance?

The Manse, of course, was the Church of Scotland’s local Minister’s house, provided by the Kirk (the phrase, "son of the Manse" was a much used one until recently) and many Manses have been sold at good prices because they generally were subtantially built).

When I wrote (2003-05) my Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy (2005, Palgrave Macmillan), I quoted from Macpherson’s book:

“...Smith’s conception of economic science, including as it did the co-operative and sympathetic side of life, was eminently hopeful and enervating. His view of the industrial order was wide enough to give full play to that subtle psychological chemistry by which egoism is transmuted in altruism. In Smith’s words: ‘In civilised society man stands at all times in need of the cooperation and assistance of great multitudes, while his whole life is scarce sufficient to gain the friendship of a few persons.’ In such a state, as Smith goes on to show, man can most satisfactorily connect himself with his fellows through the medium of the reciprocity of services – a process which invests self-interest with a social and ethical quality. From this social and ethical germ develops all the higher virtues of civilisation.” (pp. 75-6)

“Hector Macpherson’s (1851-1924) unpretentious little book demonstrates a clearer understanding of Smith’s works than has been exhibited by many distinguished authorities. The sentence: ‘His view of the industrial order was wide enough to give full play to that subtle psychological chemistry by which egoism is transmuted in altruism’ allied to the phrase ‘the reciprocity of services’ cuts through the worthless babble about ‘selfishness’ and its associated ideas of ‘economic man’ (the one with the dismal personality).”

“...Economic science suffers, from what Macpherson called a ‘distracting confusion’, because it ignored how people actually satisfied their wants through reciprocal exchanges in real markets. Smith’s insight is no manifesto to selfishness, nor a triumph of the one-sided pursuit of self-interest (or indeed, a paean to the ‘granite of self-interest)! It is not necessary to wriggle to ‘softer’ interpretations of self-love’ to defend Smith’s insight.” (p. 114)

By the time I was compiling the Lost Legacy manuscript I had forgotten about Macpherson's ieas on the invisible hand and the social harmony that was induced by reciprocation. That particular part of my Lost Legacy concentrates on Smith’s unique assessment of the role of bargaining (corresponding with mine, as I had spent twenty-years observing and teaching bargaining at Business Scools).

I dealt briefly and inadequately at that time with the invisible-hand metaphor in chapter 39 of Lost Legacy, though traces of my eventual considered opinion are clear enough (see: "Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand: from metaphor to myth", 2009 HERE). It was not as important to me at the time in 2005 as it has become; the almost unanimous and serious misinterpretation of the famous "Butcher, Brewer, Baker" passage in Wealth Of Nations (WN I.ii.2: 26-27) was far more important than the invisible hand was to become.

Macpherson ascribes the invisible hand to the “ability” by which society in modern terms lessens the “individual struggle for existence” (progress to opulence?) in a “constant transformation of the onerous into the gratuitous utilities of life”. Looking at the transformation of the UK throughout the 19th century from Macpherson’s perspective, the spread of opulence was real (though children in Edinburgh slums were photographed shoeless around this time); in the early 19th century, Edinburgh slums were indescribably worse.

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