Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Adam Smith On Providence

I presented a paper, “The Hidden Adam Smith in his alleged Theology" to the annual Richmond (Virginia) University Summer Institute on the History of Economic Thought in June 2009. The paper may be downloaded HERE:

Subsequently, this summer, I was invited to write a chapter: “Adam Smith On Religion” for the forthcoming “The Handbook on Adam Smith” to be published in 2011 (Oxford University Press).

Strict space and considerations of the available presentation-time, uniquely generous at Richmond, prevented me discussing fully the alleged implications of Smith’s use of providential language, claimed by many authors to demonstrate elements of Smith’s religiosity [see Jacob Viner’s essay: The Role of Providence in the Social Order: An Essay in Intellectual History ,
 Princeton University Press and American Philosophical Society (1972.

However, while drafting my chapter for the ‘Handbook’ (edited by Professor Chris Berry, University of Glasgow), I have come across and expect to continue to do so, various interesting topics within my chapter’s remit, that have proper relevance to Smith’s alleged religiosity. Because I may not have space in the chapter to deal with all such topics adequately in detail, I shall make occasional comments on them on Lost Legacy for interested readers before the necessary editorial culling cuts such topics to the available space.

My ‘religiosity’ paper attracted some critical comments on what I had asserted, to which I shall respond in the new chapter. One of these related loosely to Smith’s assertion in Moral Sentiments in the famous reference to ‘an invisible hand’:

When Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition. These last too enjoy their share of all that it produces. In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, they are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them. In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for” (TMS IV.1.10: 185).

[You may also consult the TMS passage and its textual context Here:

My brief comments on the providential and theological implications of Smith’s passage included this statement in the ‘Religiosity’ paper, directly contradicting Smith’s rhetoric:

Providence had nothing to do with the equal or unequal distribution of land anywhere on Earth. Its distribution was entirely man-made. Providence certainly ‘neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition’ because there was no divine partition.

The invention of property was a human social event, originally in the form of ‘traditional tribal lands’, which were often fought over (the Bible contains many bloody episodes on this happening). The intervention of divine Providence and its supposed benign role was merely gratuitous rhetorical padding, invented long after the events first occurred in pre-history

(Kennedy, December, 2009, p 18, HERE:

Finally, I would present my main witness against Smith’s TMS assertions about Providence, from the very best witness of all, namely, Adam Smith in Wealth Of Nations.

First, some words from Smith on actual attempts at creating equal land distribution:

Equality of land distribution was enshrined in early Roman agrarian law, but, noted Smith, subsequent (very human) events undid its prospects because the “course of human affairs, by marriage, by succession, and by alienation, necessarily deranged this original equal division, and frequently threw the lands, which had been allotted for the maintenance of many different families into the possession of a single person”, and this law “was either neglected and evaded, and the inequality of fortunes went on continually increasing.” (WN IV.vii.a.3: 556-57).

Smith was even more explicit in Wealth Of Nations (HERE):

Of the Discouragement of Agriculture in the antient State of Europe after the Fall of the Roman Empire”

“When the German and Scythian nations over–ran the western provinces of the Roman empire, the confusions which followed so great a revolution lasted for several centuries. The rapine and violence which the barbarians exercised against the antient inhabitants, interrupted the commerce between the towns and the country. The towns were deserted, and the country was left uncultivated, and the western provinces of Europe, which had enjoyed a considerable degree of opulence under the Roman empire, sunk into the lowest state of poverty and barbarism. During the continuance of those confusions, the chiefs and principal leaders of those nations, acquired or usurped to themselves the greater part of the lands of those countries. A great part of them was uncultivated; but no part of them, whether cultivated or uncultivated, was left without a proprietor. All of them were engrossed, and the greater part by a few great proprietors”
(WN III.ii.1: 381-2)

As they say in TV court-room dramas, “ I rest my case”.

As to why the two texts on the same subject apparently are so different, I discuss this in my forthcoming chapter.

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