Friday, June 24, 2011

A Commentator Disagrees

‘Cuauti’ posts two comments (23 June, 2011) to yesterday’s post “A Serious Scholar Disagrees”, exactly the same as that which he/she originally posted as a comment on my 17 June 2009 post that praised Chris Berry’s very short biography of Adam Smith on the BBC, followed by cuauti's second comment, also that he/she posted on 29 June 2009, responding to my: ‘A Wee Gem of a Little Book’ on Hector MacPherson’s biography of Adam Smith (1897).

Please note, his/her comments must have been posted much later than my original 2009 posts because the context refers to my preparations in December to leave my then Edinburgh address in 2010.

This strange, though welcome, behaviour no doubt has a perfectly valid explanation, but while I regard his/her comments as not too serious a criticism, they deserve an answer. The reason why I had not replied at the time to Cuauti’s posts is that I seldom scroll back a year or more looking for unanswered comments awaiting my reply (and I always respond to comments, critical or otherwise that I notice).

Here are the two 2009 posts by Cuauti:

‘The description is wonderfully - stultifying. Smith with a homogeneous life style. In fact, Smith knew nothing about classical economics before being coached by the Économistes in Paris. Being bored in Toulouse for 18 month he started to write the promised book on Government which became the "Wealth". Later in Paris, Smith learned about macro-economics, about productive and unproductive labour. The Économistes tried to avoid the bankruptcy of feudal France and the French Revolution. The opening passage of the Wealth mirrors these ideas. Smith did not understand everything as even after 2,5 years in France his French was very poor. He thought to dedicate the Wealth to Quesnay had the latter not died earlier. But his Wealth is a muddle of his former ideas, before he became educated as a classical economist and classical economics.’
By cuauti on “The Very Best Short Summary of Adam Smith's Life a... and on 23/06/11 A Serious Scholar Disagree (and on or about June 2009).


First: Smith spoke about "an invisible hand" not about "the" invisible hand. Smith spoke about "the invisible hand" in "Astronomy", the hand people refer to if they don't understand the facts. Economists citing "the invisible hand" don't understand the facts. Second: Smith's hand "frequently promotes that of the society" so don't trust it works in your case. Third: An invisible hand "promotes an end which was no part of his intention." So you intend to make a fortune of your invention and the invisible hand helps competition to copy it. An invisible hand procures that competition curtails profits to the benefit of consumers. That's the definition of dynamic competition. (26 June 2011 and- originally posted on Lost Legacy, on or about June 2009).

To which I would comment:

That Smith owed ideas to the Physiocrats is unexceptional. Enlightenment scholars owed much to each other because the conversed without restraint and each influenced everybody else. That’s why it is called the Age of Enlightenment.

How much one philosopher owed to another was a subject of much discussion among later scholars – it still is by modern researchers looking for PhD subjects and forensic scholars digging deep into their special subject areas (a recent example I have read is Paul Russell’s excellent work on ‘The Riddle of Hume’s Treatise: skepticism, naturalism, and irreligion’, 2008, Oxford University Press).

It has been a common thread among modern Mise-ian scholars to downgrade Adam Smith’s contribution from the pedestal he was put on by 19th century economists and his epigones in the 20th century. “cuauti’s” over-extra assertions to debunk Smith are of that ilk.

Comments like ‘being coached by the Économistes in Paris’, ‘Being bored in Toulouse for 18 month’, ‘Smith did not understand everything as even after 2,5 years in France his French was very poor’, and ‘before he became educated as a classical economist and classical economics’, are to be judged as opinions not supported by the whole picture.

Certainly the Physiocrats explained their ideas to Smith and loaned him their many papers, all in French. The facts are he had a good working knowledge of French (his fluent translation of Rousseau’s Essay in 1755, and published in the Edinburgh Review, is an excellent example). Comments were made on his spoken French, but first he was not taught spoken French, he also spoke Scot’s English with a lowland’s accent that was commented on by English speakers let alone attendees at the Parisian salons; its affect on his spoken French was to make it execrable. He certainly spoke fluent Latin (a requirement in Scotland even to attend as a student, let alone teach in a university – which was also a common tongue with educated French men and his tutors at Glasgow and Balliol). Similarly, he was fluent in Classical Greek and had a working knowledge of Italian.

Cuauti writes: ‘But his Wealth is a muddle of his former ideas, before he became educated as a classical economist and classical economics.’ Again, an opinion but the evidence rebuts it. Smith did not start writing WN in Toulouse and the documentary evidence for this overwhelming.

A ms known today as the ‘Early Draft’ is in the Glasgow University Library that was written in 1763 for the Duke of Buccleugh’s guardian and follows the general lines of what became WNi, i.e., before Smith left for France in 1764.

Moreover, the students notes of his Lectures On Jurisprudence ([1762-3] 1978) contain long sections that appeared in WN almost verbatim in its early chapters. Smith taught ‘police’ (political economy) in his Jurisprudence classes from 1752 (part of his Moral Philosophy Class) and he claimed, according to Dugald Stewart, to have taught his ideas on political economy in Edinburgh 1748-51 in the 1755 paper then in Stewart’s possession in 1793.

None of this is inconsistent with his being ‘bored’ in Toulouse (prompting him to compile it into a book) before he spent months in Paris with access to Dr Quesnay’s circle, 1765-6, and exchanged ideas on a range of subjects. Nor is it inconsistent, or sinister, that he respected Dr Quesnay’s work, though disagreeing with its narrow conception of productive and ‘sterile’ labour (which he demolished in WN).

Of his second post, I am well aware that Adam Smith referred to ‘an invisible hand’ (I have often drawn readers’ attention to this fact because modern economists since the 1940s have made a noun out of the metaphor as used by Smith (most do not seem to know what a metaphor is). In yesterday’ post I wrote:

“Smith also recognized that other factors guided individuals; indeed, that was the actual point that he made about the ‘invisible hand’: some but not all merchants were led (‘by an invisible hand’) in the form of their insecurity about the evident risks of foreign trade to invest in ‘domestick industry’ and suggested, but did not identify, many other examples of similar non-price driven behaviour (WN Book IV.ii. 1-9). [Smith was no single-track ideologue.]”

This clearly differentiates between the ‘invisible hand’ [separating today’s noun use from Smith’s metaphoric use, which, as I stated: “were led (‘by an invisible hand’)”.

Smith reference to ‘the invisible hand’ in Astronomy did not refer ‘to the hand people refer to if they don't understand the facts.’ He, ‘cuaunti’, does not understand the facts: in Astronomy Smith refers to ‘the invisible hand of Jupiter’ because that is precisely what they (Roman Pagans) believed as part of their ‘pusillanimous superstition’; specifically that their god Jupiter dealt with enemies of Rome by pointing his heavenly finger at them and firing lightning bolts to destroy them. For them it was not a metaphor; it was all too real.

Some Roman coins carried the image of Jupiter’s pointed finger and a lightning bolt. It wasn’t that they did ‘not understand the facts’ – they explained irregular events by their superstitious beliefs. Perhaps ‘cuaunti’ should read Smith’s Astronomy essay more carefully.

He writes: Smith's hand "frequently promotes that of the society" so don't trust it works in your case.” No, it’s the object of the metaphor that promotes the interests of society, not an actual invisible hand (metaphors do not exist!), and the object of the metaphor here is the merchant’s regard for ‘his own security’ that leads him to prefer the ‘domestick industry’ to ‘foreign industry’, which in turn raises domestic ‘revenue and employment’ above what it otherwise would be if he had sent it abroad instead. This is plain to see from what Smith wrote.

Next, ‘cuauti’ asserts: ‘the [!] invisible hand helps competition to copy it’. Now this cannot be derived from what Smith wrote, or indeed, is meant by a metaphor: which ‘describes in a striking and more interesting manner’ its object (Adam Smith, Lectures in Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, [1763], 1983, p. 29).

If cuauti believes that there is an actual invisible hand (a perfectly legitimate belief, like the beliefs of Romans in imaginary gods, just as we have a right not to share his, and their, beliefs), his conclusion makes sense (to him, though not to me, or I would suggest would have made sense to Smith). But it is incumbent on ‘cuauti’ to explain how his ‘invisible hand’ achieves these results in ‘dynamic competition’, or whatever, where is it, can it be seen, who created it, and where does it reside in society?

‘cuauti’ is welcome to reply, with the caveat: I can identify web trolls quickly enough.

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