Thursday, September 09, 2010

Yet Another Good Review of NIcholas Phillipson's Intellectual Biography of Adam Smith

John Calder writes a book review in the Islington Tribune of Nicholas Phillipson’s, “Adam Smith: an enlightened life” (Allen Lane, London HERE:

“ADAM Smith is one of the most iconic names in history since medieval times, together with Darwin, Marx and Freud, even more so than his close friend and colleague David Hume….

… To modify this view, he described “an invisible hand” that brought out an element of compassion or altruism that he assumed was buried somewhere in the human character that made us want to improve the ­general wellbeing.
Smith’s theories of the wealth-creating advantages of breaking up labour into separate or specialise units (the principle of mass production as well as skilled craftsmanship) lie at the basis of capitalism and free trade. It seems likely that Smith never fully realised the miserable consequences of a capitalist manufacturing industry that forced a peasant population off the land into factories where they were paid starvation wages to create a new affluent middle class and to kill the cottage industries on which so many had subsisted.

…Smith stated: “Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the ­security of property, is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.”

“Dr Phillipson’s book is unlikely to be bettered. It catches not just Smith’s life and ideas, but the background of the Scottish Enlightenment, on which he has already written, too little acknowledged in British history as a result of the Union of the crowns, to which Smith nevertheless gives credit for a temporary trade prosperity, often used as an example to justify his theories.”

A thoughtful review of Nicholas Phillipson’s excellent intellectual biography of Adam Smith by a former(?) British publisher, who did much to produce books of high quality in his own quest for widespread enlightenment in the mid-to-late 20th century.

My comments should be taken in the light of my appreciation of most of John Calder’s review.

Smith did not foresee ‘capitalism’ (the word was not invented in English until Thackeray’s novel, The Newcomes, in 1854 - Smith died in 1790). He was well aware of the condition of the very poor in Scottish society in the last half of the 18th century. Living in rural Scotland from 1723-37, he could not but see how they lived, though his mother’s family were major landowners in Fife. The notion of some kind of ‘peasants’ idyll (Maypoles, etc.,), either in rural Scotland or England (or Wales and Ireland) is suspect.

Landless peasants were very poor by 18thcentury standards, and drifting to the towns and cities for work was often better than actual starvation on the land.

The city-dwelling poor of Glasgow (1737-40; 1751-64; Edinburgh (and 1778-90) walked in the same streets, and sometimes lived in the same buildings (Edinburgh High Street) as the professional and business leaders (at least until they made their fortunes). The fact remains (contrary to Marxian imagery) that real incomes across the board rose steadily in the 19th century (as they are for ex-peasants in India and China today).

Smith’s awareness of the condition of the poor majority appears throughout his works and he saw commercial society and the division of labour as a means to which opulence would spread to wider sections of the people. There were no other realistic alternatives available. Hence, his fierce (even ‘violent’) attack on the British mercantile system which slowed down the benefits of commercial society, particularly for the poor.

‘he described “an invisible hand” that brought out an element of compassion or altruism that he assumed was buried somewhere in the human character that made us want to improve the ­general wellbeing.

The metaphor of ‘an invisible hand’ as Smith used it did not bring out ‘compassion or altruism’; it was a metaphor he used in Moral Sentiments (1759) for ‘proud and unfeeling’ landlords having no choice but to feed their retainers and peasants, albeit at subsistence levels, to ensure each season’s crops, upon which their ’greatness’ depended (without a ‘thought for the wants of their brethren’), and in the case of merchants in Wealth Of Nations (1776), the metaphor was about those who considered foreign trade too risky, who chose to invest in the home and not foreign markets, which had nothing to do with their ‘compassion or altruism’. Their individual motive of risk-aversion (as we would say today) led them unintentionally to add to national ‘revenue and employment’, the latter of which benefitted the poor and the former of which benefitted themselves.

I completely agree with John Calder that “Dr Phillipson’s book is unlikely to be bettered”, my quibbles notwithstanding.



Post a Comment

<< Home