Friday, January 07, 2011

I Am Still Not Sure About Chomsky's Version of Adam Smith

Possible Lost Legacy References to the still missing comment I ‘lost’ this morning:

"From Noam Chomsky: Education is Ignorance (2 May, 2009) in W.E.A.L.L.B.E. here: Barsamian interviews Chomsky:"

"David Barsamian: One of the heroes of the current right-wing revival... is Adam Smith. You've done some pretty impressive research on Smith that has excavated... a lot of information that's not coming out. You've often quoted him describing the "vile maxim of the masters of mankind: all for ourselves and nothing for other people."

Noam Chomsky: I didn't do any research at all on Smith. I just read him. There's no research. Just read it. He's pre-capitalist, a figure of the Enlightenment. What we would call capitalism he despised. People read snippets of Adam Smith, the few phrases they teach in school. Everybody reads the first paragraph of The Wealth of Nations where he talks about how wonderful the division of labor is. But not many people get to the point hundreds of pages later, where he says that division of labor will destroy human beings and turn people into creatures as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to be. And therefore in any civilized society the government is going to have to take some measures to prevent division of labor from proceeding to its limits."

The key passage that I disputed is in Chomsky’s reply:

And therefore in any civilized society the government is going to have to take some measures to prevent division of labor from proceeding to its limits."

Chomsky’s Reply said in reference to the dispute:

My point was and remains: where in Smith did he say that “the Government is going to have to take some measures to prevent division of labor from proceeding to its limits”?

Chomsky distorts Smith’s views in Book V.i.f of Wealth Of Nations where he made a rhetorical case for the Government (through local finance, supported by private, donations and charity) to fund and encourage across the UK the ‘little schools’ funding that operated in Scotland since the 17th century - John Knox’s time - to provide basic educational access for all infant boys in ‘reading, writing, and account’, and a smattering of Latin, irrespective of their poverty.

These arrangements, inadequate as they were by today’s standards, spread literacy among Scottish labourers, which, however, remained a serious problem in England (and, of course), Ireland, particularly as the industrialization of the economy gathered pace from the 1750s.

Smith tagged the educational reforms he favoured by linking them to potentially very real concerns among the rich agricultural interests that dominated in all localities, and which was the main source of taxation needed to initiate the ‘little schools in each parish” (all 60,000 of them!).

Smith’s emphasis was on those potential concerns, a real problem in the turbulent times (two rebellions in Scotland, one threatening (and succeeding) in some British Colonies in North America, and one breaking out in France as Smith died in 1790. His emphasis was not on the “government … tak[ing] some measures to prevent division of labor from proceeding to its limits”.

I suggest that Chomsky had misread the context of Smith’s remarks and that Smith had what amounted to a pragmatic political agenda (and therefore attainable), and not a futile agenda to halt the division of labour,which continued to raise productivity and thereby employment, from which living standards, especially among the poor majority – always Smith’s major concern – was firmly linked to widening and deepening the division of labour, through more complex supply chains, also discussed in Book I, Chapter ii of Wealth Of Nations (the day labourer’s ‘common woollen coat’).

The ignorant, because uneducated, labour poor, illiterate and innumerate to a greater degree as they were in England compared to Scotland needed basic education in ‘little schools’. Smith suggested dropping Latin and, instead, teaching ‘elementary geometry and mecahnics’ (WN V.i.f.55: 785)

[Americans, then and still, often fail to distinguish between the historical contexts of each separate country that makes up Great Britain, and use ‘England’ loosely to mean all of Great Britain.]

For these reasons, I believe that Chomsky is wrong to claim that his “paraphrase of the passage … is exactly accurate.”

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Blogger Robert Johnson said...

Nice commentary here. It's a shame that Chomsky gets Smith so wrong. Chomsky does the same thing when he discusses the invisible hand, claiming, absurdly, that Smith meant the invisible hand to mean fellow feeling, or kindly regards to others when in fact Smith meant the invisible hand to mean unintended beneficial outcomes, I.e. exactly the opposite of what Chomsky claims.

9:02 am  

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