Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Limitations of Philosophers

Lauren Axelrod writes the interesting Blog, “Ancient Digger: a view from an archaeology StudentHERE/a>">:

When Adam Smith and the Physiocrats brought about new economic laws, it completely changed society. Wealth could be increased with more agricultural production, so to put it simply, it was the only productive means of increasing state revenues. Consequently, with the establishment of laissez-faire, merchants were allowed to pursue their own economic self interests. This was the start of the small business. As a result, Adam Smith and the Physiocrats were able to establish the foundation known as economic liberalism.”

Comment
While making allowances for a specialist crossing over from archaeology into 18th-century political economy, I found this fairly common error of attributing to, in this case, Adam Smith and the Physiocrats their bringing “about new economic laws, [that] completely changed society”.

Philosophers who observe and then report on the object of their thinking do not “completely change society”. A moment’s thought would show the absurdity of such ascription.

Smith observed the elements of commercial society that already existed and had been underway since the re-emergence of commercial society, circa 15th century, a thousand years after the fall of Rome in the 5th century. Smith didn’t “completely change society” – it had already, long ago, had changed. He only reported what he observed.

In short, if Smith had never been born, commercial society would have continued to develop without the aid of philosophers. Moreover, the idea of laissez-faire was never established in practice – it remained an idea that some Physiocrats put forward for the way that society should be organized.

But Adam Smith was sceptical of the benefit to the public of merchants’ behaviour when “allowed to pursue their own economic self interests” because of their proclivity to monopoly practices to the detriment of consumers. Indeed, the merchant who responded to Colbert’s question as to what the state could do for them – to which he replied “laissez faire” – spoke for himself and merchants and not for consumers (a point unlikely to have been missed by Smith, which probably is why he never used the words ‘laissez faire’, despite his false reputation for favouring the doctrine).

Society is not changed by the pronouncements of philosophers. It changes itself from the actions of individuals undirected, unintentionally, and without foresight, often long before the philosophers, or anybod
">http://www.ancientdigger.com/2010/02/monday-ground-up-philosophes-and-their.html


“When Adam Smith and the Physiocrats brought about new economic laws, it completely changed society. Wealth could be increased with more agricultural production, so to put it simply, it was the only productive means of increasing state revenues. Consequently, with the establishment of laissez-faire, merchants were allowed to pursue their own economic self interests. This was the start of the small business. As a result, Adam Smith and the Physiocrats were able to establish the foundation known as economic liberalism.”

Comment
While making allowances for a specialist crossing over from archaeology into 18th-century political economy, I found this fairly common error of attributing to, in this case, Adam Smith and the Physiocrats their bringing “about new economic laws, [that] completely changed society”.

Philosophers who observe and then report on the object of their thinking do not “completely change society”. A moment’s thought would show the absurdity of such ascription.

Smith observed the elements of commercial society that already existed and had been underway since the re-emergence of commercial society, circa 15th century, a thousand years after the fall of Rome in the 5th century. Smith didn’t “completely change society” – it had already, long ago, had changed. He only reported what he observed.

In short, if Smith had never been born, commercial society would have continued to develop without the aid of philosophers. Moreover, the idea of laissez-faire was never established in practice – it remained an idea that some Physiocrats put forward for the way that society should be organized.

But Adam Smith was sceptical of the benefit to the public of merchants’ behaviour when “allowed to pursue their own economic self interests” because of their proclivity to monopoly practices to the detriment of consumers. Indeed, the merchant who responded to Colbert’s question as to what the state could do for them – to which he replied “laissez faire” – spoke for himself and merchants and not for consumers (a point unlikely to have been missed by Smith, which probably is why he never used the words ‘laissez faire’, despite his false reputation for favouring the doctrine).

Society is not changed by the pronouncements of philosophers. It changes itself from the actions of individuals undirected, unintentionally, and without foresight, often long before the philosophers, or anybody else, noticed what is going on.

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1 Comments:

Blogger The Ancient Digger said...

Thanks for featuring this on your site. I'm the Ancient Digger, and although I don't exactly care for this time period in which Adam Smith made his mark, I still found your assessment interesting. I'm more of a Medieval gal myself. lol

5:10 am  

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