Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Lost Legacy Open Book Discussion (II).

After Adam Smith: a century of transformation in politics and political economy, 2009, Murray Milgate and Shannon C. Stimson, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford.

There is no doubt that the popular (and academic) portrayal of the lifetime-works of Adam Smith is quite at odds with the actual contribution of the Adam Smith born in Kirkcaldy in 1723. It’s as if a completely new persona was invented bearing limited resemblance to him or his surviving works (sometimes referred to on Lost Legacy as the 'Chicago Adam Smith').

I sometimes wonder if anything similar happened to other historical figures from the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome – spectacularly in the case of Jesus – and the thousands who stand out in the great Pantheon of those who are known to us today for their places in the history of human endeavour.

We have The Glasgow Edition of The Life and Correspondence of Adam Smith, from Oxford University Press (and the low cost Liberty Fund editions): The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth Of Nations, plus his extant essays, The History of Astronomy (1744-<1758) and Origins of Language (1761). To these we have surviving student notes of his lectures, Jurisprudence (1762-63) and Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1763), plus the surviving Correspondence of Adam Smith, and, most important, the definitive biography, The Life of Adam Smith (1996, 2nd ed. 2010) by Ian S. Ross.

We ought, therefore, to be pretty sure as to what constitutes Adam Smith’s oeuvre, but instead of his works being a model of pure scholarship, they are riven by contrary, incompatible, and mutually exclusive opinions as to what he wrote and what he meant, much of it advanced by scholars of indisputable integrity.

However, there is even considerable doubt as to the exact words he used to express his ideas, despite the ready availability of all of his works to whomsoever wishes to consult them – sadly, many scholars pontificate with the certainties of the highly opinionated, who clearly have not read his works for themselves or have forgotten what they may claim to have read years ago.

Now, something must have happened in the 219 years that separate his death from today. It’s not all down to elementary scholarly slackness. Ideas about the past, and the people who lived through them, do not form in a vacuum. Adam Smith – contrary to trite media assertions – did not write his books as veritable bibles; he was not the ‘high priest’ of economics; he did not ‘invent’ capitalism; not was he the manic believer in ‘laissez-faire’, and other similar nonsense (Smith neither used the word ‘capitalism’, nor ‘laissez-faire’).

Readers influence the accepted meanings of what an author writes (see, for instance, Willie Henderson, Evaluating Adam Smith: creating the wealth of nations’, 2006, Routledge). Smith's readers are no exception, and because Adam Smith’s name is often quoted (excessively so today) in support of, or as the problem of, current controversies in the (mis)management of economies, it adds to the intellectual – and popular – confusion as to what credence should be given to this or that declamation on one side of the other of those making the noise, which passes for political discourse in this first decade of the 21st century.

Lost Legacy readers will know that I am researching at present the origins of the spread of the notion of an actual (or metaphorical) “invisible hand” in the teaching of economics since the 1940s. From that teaching came forth consequential policies in business and government as students graduated and entered the “ordinary business of life”, and applied their teachers’ wisdom, either within society generally or in their own teaching careers. A conceptual virus spreads like the biological kind.

Earlier this year, I discussed Steven G. Medema’s excellent, The Hesitant Hand: taming self-interest in the history of economic ideas (Princeton University Press), which covered a slice through history from Adam Smith to 20th-century welfare economics. This fits well with what I am about to undertake with the book by Murray Milgate and Shannon C. Stimson, which takes a broader sweep through the first hundred years from Adam Smith to the end of the 19th century.

It short, Milgate and Stimson have studied how the “grand ideas” that are attributed to Adam Smith are “as much the product of the gradual modifications and changes wrought by later writers”, such that we “are much the heirs of later images of Smith as we are of Smith himself”. I concur with Milgate and Simson in at least this brief survey of their book (I have yet to read the details, which I shall share with you over the next week or so).

I consider from reading their introduction that this is an important quest for all scholars and students of Adam Smith. If their method is correct, and it substantiates their hypothesis, the similar hypothesis embedded in my current research will have stronger foundations.

I, and many readers of Lost Legacy, have lived through the last half of the 20th century, in which “the gradual modifications and changes wrought by later writers” on the unchanged original exposition of the ideas of Adam Smith lie in pristine innocence in his texts. Therefore, we can compare and contrast his original ideas with the “later images of Smith”, which are often a long way from those we read in the works written by “Smith himself”.

How we got from what Adam Smith wrote to what modern economists assert him to have written is an interesting study in the history of intellectual dilution. Murray Milgate and Shannon C. Stimson may have written the first part of that history; we shall discuss that proposition over the next week or two.

Modestly, I would hope that I can emulate their work, as I tackle the intense dilution of Smith’s work in the second-half of the 20th century, which dilution began, almost tentatively, in the late 19th century.

[Thanks to Robert Vienneau, who hosts the Thoughts on Economics Blog HERE:, drew my attention to Milgate and Stimson’s new book in a message commenting on Lost Legacy earlier this month.]



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