Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Another Review of Phillipson's New Book on Adam Smith

Another review of Nicholas Phillipson's excellent Adam Smith: an enlightened life (Allan Lane) on Blomberg, HERE. This one is written by James Pressley.

The review is supportive of the qualities of Nicholas Phillipson’s new book, as I believe it should be.

However, it is always difficult to review a reviewer’s interpretation of an author’s work, particularly when the reviewer reports some things that do not quite fit with known facts about the subject.

For instance James Pressley asserts that ‘Only 193 of Smith’s letters have survived’, which rings false when Adam Smith’s Correspondence (1977; Oxford University Press) published 323 letters from and to Adam Smith, from 1740 - 1790.

Moreover, some new letters have been obtained and are to be published in the forthcoming new edition of definitive biography of Smith by Ian S. Ross: The Life of Adam Smith, 2nd ed. 2010, Oxford University Press. There are, of course, also letters from Adam Smith in his official capacities of Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University (1752-64) and scores more from his Commissioner’s work at the Customs House in Edinburgh, 1778-90.

James Pressley, the reviewer and journalist, cannot resist the temptation to appear ‘with it’ (as we used to say in 1960s) by quipping that the alleged paucity of letters to and from Smith was:

a vanishing act befitting the man who described how “an invisible hand” guides the economy.’

The problem with this attempt to be ‘with it’ is that Smith never described ‘how “an invisible hand” guides the economy’.

The notion that he did has nothing to do with anything that Adam Smith wrote about the economy. The notion that he did was ‘invented’ in the 20th century by modern economists seeking to differentiate the capitalist economy from the Stalinist dictatorship in the Soviet Union.

James Pressley adds to his offence to Adam Smith’s legacy with the classic modern myth by asserting that:

And so it is that every individual pursuing his own gain is “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was not part of his intention,” as Smith later wrote in “The Wealth of Nations.”’

We can trace the origins of this particular myth to Paul Samuelson on page 36 in his otherwise excellent textbook, Economics: an introductory analysis, 1948, McGrawHill. It certainly will not be found in anything Smith wrote.

Smith referred to the consequences of an individual trader, who for his own security, invested locally rather than abroad, who thereby added to national output and employment, which was a pubic benefit (and major consideration from Smith).

Smith used the metaphor of ‘an invisible hand’ to describe the less obvious consequence of a merchant’s insecurity, which is precisely what a metaphor is supposed to do, namely, as Adam Smith expressed it in his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1762, November 29) from giving ‘due strength of expression to the object to be described and at the same time does this in a more striking and interesting manner’ (p 29).

In short, 'an invisible hand' was Smith's metaphor, not a theory, principle, nor paradigm.

Lastly, I think James Pressley, in repeating an oft stated observation of the actual coincidence of the publication of Wealth Of Nations and the rebellion of the British colonies in North America, misses the point and the facts:

'He wrote amid the Tea Act, the Boston Tea Party and the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775. It’s no coincidence that it was published in 1776.’

Smith’s manuscript of Wealth Of Nations was written from 1764 to 1773 and was ready for publication in 1773, but it was delayed until 1776 by Smith’s active involvement in trying to influence British policy (he was in London from 1771-76) on the rebellion, largely in broad but not uncritical sympathy with the British colonists.

Smith did not add much to the final text of Wealth Of Nations. His intervention came too late to change British policy. But the publication and the rebellion were a coincidence, nothing more.

Many potential purchasers of Phillip Nicholson’s book read Bloomberg and I hope many will buy it; my quibbles with its reviewer, James Pressley, notwithstanding.



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