Thursday, February 16, 2012

Mark Skousen In a Muddle

Mark Skousen (15 February) HERE
posts his talk at Hilldale College “Will the Real Adam Smith Please Stand Up?”

I shall make further comments on this talk later, but first I want to refer to a particularly erroneous few sentences so that I clear up some of Mark’s confusions.

Critics of laissez faire — from Cambridge economist Emma Rothschild to British Labor Party leader Gordon Brown — have recently become quite unhappy by what they consider a conspiracy by free-marketeers to claim Adam Smith as their hero and symbol of laissez faire. They seem to be especially annoyed that the Adam Smith Institute, a London-based free-market think tank, raised a popular statue of the grand old man on Mile High Street in Edinburgh on July 4, 2008.”

Comments
That Gordon Brown, former British Prime minister, is critical of laissez-faire, as understood today, and given his social democratic politics, is not surprising. There may be a different quality in Emma Rothschild’s criticism of laissez-faire on scholarly grounds. She may be closer to my specific and regular criticism of linking Adam Smith to laissez-faire.

In short, it is more complicated than Mark Scousen makes out, especially when these two are associated with the strange charge that “[t]hey seem to be especially annoyed that the Adam Smith Institute, a London-based free-market think tank, raised a popular statue of the grand old man on Mile High Street in Edinburgh on July 4, 2008.”

Gordon would probably be bemused by my comments (I have known him since he was a post-graduate at Edinburgh University and we have regularly debated on Scottish Independence over the years. I am not a social democrat). But I would think that Gordon objects, not to the statue of Adam Smith, erected in 2008 on Edinburgh’s High Street, but to the associated publicity that Adam Smith favoured laissez-faire policies, a common enough attribution in modern economics and in rightist political propaganda. Gordon opposes laissez-faire politically (not that it has ever existed). Incidentally, Gordon has been active since 2010 in his Kirkcaldy constituency (he remains an MP) in raising support and funds for the preservation of Adam Smith's mother's garden (all that remains of her house which was demolished in the 19th century), where Adam wrote Wealth Of Nations between 1767 and 1773).

Now, my own opposition to the attribution that Smith favoured ‘laissez-faire’ has nothing to do with its politics; it’s based on the factual case that Adam Smith never mentioned the words ‘laissez-faire’ in either of his two books, Moral Sentiments or Wealth Of Nations, and on several occasions he drew attention to the need for societies to legislate against instances of what he called ‘natural liberty’, a philosophical concept conveniently but wrongly confused with laissez-faire by left and right commentators. Emma Rothschild, like most scholars, certainly knows the difference. Perhaps Mark Skousen is unaware of these points.

I most certainly have never felt “annoyed that the Adam Smith Institute, a London-based free-market think tank” raised the necessary subscriptions from the public (not the state) to pay for and erect Smith's statue (which an Edinburgh labour council voted the necessary permission under the planning laws). Indeed, I was one of them who donated funds to the ASI project. My name is on the subscription list affixed to the statue. I am also proud to be a Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute, which is not an organisation that requires slavish adherence to every dot and tittle of its programme. It prefers, as I do, markets where possible and the state only where necessary; a very Smithian position indeed.

Mark Skousen does not seem to appreciate the true liberal nature of the ASI, nor the distinction to which I have drawn attention above in respect of Gordon Brown and Emma Rothschild.

Follow the link HERE and read Mark’s full article.

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