Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Smoke and Mirrors Protected Adam Smith From Religious Persecution

Regular reader, Dan Hirschman, draws my attention to a paper by Benjamin Friedman, Harvard, ‘Religion the Rise of Economics’, presented to the AEA meting in Denver, recently and reported in The Economist, HERE:

This “influence on the work of Smith and other early economists stemming from thinking about matters not just moral but religious in the traditional sense”, Mr Friedman argues in the short paper on which his talk was based, “is not generally understood – indeed...(it) contradicts most current-day interpretations of the origins of economics as an independent intellectual discipline".

Mr Friedman is not making a point about Adam Smith’s own religious beliefs or lack thereof, nor making claims about his own religious practices. Rather, he argues that the ideas that mark out a Smithian conception of human behaviour and motivation mirror, in an intriguing way, what were “then controversial changes in religious beliefs in the English-speaking Protestant world”. Recognising these affinities, he reckons, reverses the view:

“[T]hat the emergence of "economics" out of the European Enlightenment of the 18th century was an aspect of the more general movement toward secular modernism in the sense of a historic turn in thinking away from a God-centered universe, toward
what we broadly call humanism.”

Consider Smith’s seminal “invisible hand” idea—that behaviour motivated solely by individuals’ self-interest can, and under appropriate conditions will, lead to outcomes that are beneficial for society as a whole. This was, of course, a radical notion at the time. In the 18th century, people argued about whether people did or did not have the ability to figure out what was or was not in their own self-interest. But even those who believed that they did did not reckon that there was anything inherently broadly beneficial. Indeed, self-interested behaviour was usually described as “vicious”. Yet around the time that Mr Smith was thinking about the foundations of economic behaviour in Edinburgh, Scotland was in the midst of what would come to be regarded as a shift away from orthodox Calvinism (simultaneously, there was a similar debate within the Church of England).

Mr Friedman identifies three central features of this shift in thinking. First, a shift from orthodox Calvinist belief in the “utter depravity” of all individuals to the “inherent goodness” of people. Second, a shift away from a belief in predestination to a belief in human agency (in the religious context, this was primarily about who was eligible to be “saved”). Third, “while Orthodox Calvinists believed that the sole reason man exists is the glorification of God; their opponents believed that human happiness is also a legitimate, divinely intended end”.

Each of these shifts, he argues, is strikingly congruent with the shift from a pre-Smithian conception of the way people behave and the economy functions, to Mr Smith’s vision. Mr Smith might have developed his ideas even if these religious debates had not been taking place, he argues, but the similarities are striking. The paper concludes that:
Critics sometimes complain that belief in free markets…is a form of religion. It turns out that there is something to the idea—not in the way the critics mean, but in a deeper, more historically grounded sense

Bnejamin’s Paper on which the Economist Article is based, “ECONOMICS AS A MORAL SCIENCE: RELIGIOUS INFLUENCES ON THE SMITHIAN REVOLUTION AND AFTER, Benjamin M. Friedman Harvard University” can be accessed from the link in the original Economist report, cited above.

[NB: Benjamin’s paper is of a “read only” status.]

Lost Legacy’s interest in Benjamin’s paper is two-fold: our continuing interest in the modern fable of Adam Smith’s meaning of the Invisible-Hand metaphor, and our interest in the fables of “Adam Smith and Religion”, which title is a chapter that I am actively engaged in writing for the forthcoming “Oxford Adam Smith Handbook”, , edited by Chris Berry, Maria Pagannelli, and Craig Smith, Oxford University Press, for September 2011.

I wrote the following to Dan Hirschman of my general impression of Benjamin’s general hypothesis (without citing any particular parts of it):

The case put for religion influencing Smith is quite common (see: A. L. Macfie, 1967, Allen & Unwin, or T. D. Campbell’s, Adam Smith’s Science of Morals, 1971, Allen & Unwin to mention only two authors -there are many more), and I consider the case is quite weak. It tends to ignore the context in which Adam Smith worked, or rather identifies the context from the wrong perspective. Smith was not influenced in what he wrote by religious ideas (he was not a Christian) but he was influenced by the repressive environment that religious fanatics created in Scotland; he wrote, therefore, specifically to disguise his skepticism because of the context of the very real dominance of the religious institutions in Scotland at that time, which precluded academic freedom to be frank about it.

This was much like Soviet institutions dominated Easter European academic work from the late 1940s to c.1989, and influenced how non-communists felt compelled to write their papers without being persuaded of Marxist ideas. Communist regimes were part of much deeper totalitarian repression than the dominant Calvinists in Scotland in the 17th-18th centuries, but as long as philosophers in Scotland did not challenge explicitly revealed religion, and made the occasional genuflection towards the scriptures, they tended to be left alone, as was the case with Adam Smith and others (but not honest David Hume but even he refrained from admitting explicitly to atheism). Three professors (two ministers of the Church, and one a professor of divinity) at Glasgow were harassed for alleged 'heresy' by the local Presbytery before Smith's appointment as Professor of Moral Philosophy . Strikingly, totalitarian Communism lasted for 'only' 70 years, while the iron fist of Calvinism lasted two centuries – and Catholicism for a millennia before that.

Smith was careful to write within such constraints until the last decade of his life (particularly after his very religious mother died in 1784) when his cumulative dilution of his earlier conformist religious statements in his 6th edition of Moral Sentiments showed he had moved considerably to a non-Calvinist stance on Atonement, revealed religion, and the after-life, among a score of other shibboleths.

I am detailing this in a chapter I am writing on 'Religion and Adam Smith' for the pending Oxford Adam Smith Handbook to be published in September 2011. A short 'taster' of my ideas can be read in my ‘The Hidden Adam Smith in his Alleged Theology’ in a forthcoming, Journal of History Of Economic Thought.

That evangelical Christians, including Calvinists, played a large and influential role in the AEA in the later-19th century had nothing to do with Smith's works or ideas.

To allege even that Smith was influenced by religious ideas in any positive sense is to misread the evolution of his need to hide his views in public) in both TMS and WN (he was slightly more candid in private). He did whatever was necessary to avoid public chastisement from the unforgiving zealots and enthusiasts’ of the Church of Scotland - and to protect his very religious mother from embarrassment and hurt - as a careful reading of his changes to new editions of his books from the 3rd to the sixth (TMS) and a proper assessment of his chapter on the role of religion in society would show in Book V of WN.

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