Monday, March 19, 2012

Someone Needs to Read More Before Writing About Adam Smith's Ideas

“klukie” posts in Democratic Underground HERE and massages quotations to mis-report Adam Smith on his use “an invisible hand”, a popular 18th-century metaphor. [This continues my critical post on Klukie’s assertions made on Saturday’s Lost Legacy].

“klukie” writes:

More important, many of Smith’s modern acolytes seem unaware of his cautionary warnings, especially in his earlier work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, where (as a Stoic and a Christian) he stressed the fact that everything in a free market depends on a moral foundation of trust, honest dealing and, as he himself put it, “justice”. (He defined justice as not doing “injury” to others.) “There can be no proper motive for hurting our neighbor.” Smith was even a proponent of the Golden Rule and invoked the “invisible hand” simile in his earlier work to characterize our sense of charity toward those in need.”

As in the earlier quotation from Klukie on Adam Smith, this effort is a mixture of misinformation and misunderstanding of Smith on Justice. Smith's reference to Aristotle’s “golden rule”, “an [not ‘the’] invisible hand”, and an invention of our “sense of charity” is riddled with errors.

Adam Smith was most probably not a “Christian” or a “Stoic” (see my paper" "The Hidden Adam Smith in his Alleged Theology", Journal of the History of Economics. September, 2011). He lectured on Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University according the syllabus he inherited from the previous three Professors who held his chair. Universities were – some still are – like that. He had little leeway in expressing his own opinions. There was no freedom of speech in 18th-century Scotland. Indeed, it was risky to depart from the syllabus. The previous three professors, all ordained members of the Protestant Church of Scotland, were charged with “heresy” by the local Glasgow presbytery and, as watchful staff members also tended to attend his lectures and report on any dangerous ideas expressed by professors, it was not wise to give the zealots ammunition.

After he left his Glasgow professorship in 1764, he gradually relaxed expressions of orthodox Christianity in subsequent editions of Moral Sentiments, and in the last 6th edition, published just before he died in 1790, he made many excisions, inserted many qualifications, and dropped import statements of Christian doctrine (including a paragraph on the doctrine of Atonement). This suggests his childhood Christianity had gone, probably from his attendance at Oxford, 1740-46 (see Smith’s “History of Astronomy” Essay published posthumously in 1795).

Of the 13 statements on Stoic doctrine (in the syllabus), 12 are prefaced with reference to its doctrinal roots in classical Greek philosophy, not as expressions of his beliefs. Stoics were Pagans, not Christians, living as they did centuries before Jesus. Likewise with Aristotle’s ‘Golden Mean’ – still taught in modern philosophy classes – was in the syllabus, and corresponds to commonly held views on moderation in all things, and taught even today (for example, where did "Klukie" learn about the "Golden Mean"?

Smith was not naïve about markets in commercial society. In the main, they were and are not “free markets”. Markets in Smith’s day operated after three centuries of government legislation to create what he called a "mercantile political economy". His views of the Elizabethan Acts on Apprentices, Settlement, Guilds, and trade, many acts on tariffs, protection, prohibition, and the habits of ‘jealousy of trade’ in foreign affairs, determination of wages by local magistrates, laws against “combinations” by labour, lobbying of legislatures by “merchants and manufacturers” in their efforts to “narrow the competition”, all of which amount to an indictment by Smith of the realities of the non-existence of “free markets”.

For the record, Smith considered the abolition of tariffs in Britain as a “utopian” idea. He was not optimistic about the chances of “perfect liberty” in commerce, consoling readers with what he told the French Physiocrats about their ambitions for “laissez faire” that if such a condition was regarded as a precondition for progress to opulence, no country in the world would ever have made any progress in that direction. Smith, clearly, applied the “Golden Mean” to his view of markets!

“Justice” was defined in his “Lectures on Jurisprudence”, and was also part of the required syllabus, covering the emergence of the philosophy of justice from classical times. The definition of justice was not invented by Adam Smith, as ”Klukie” appears to mock (what does “Klukie” think university students learn from their professors?). Grotius and Pufendorf’s works were widely read in most European universities, in what is known as the “Natural Law” tradition. Not ‘harming’ one’s neighbours, as the definition of justice, goes right back to classical Rome. “Klukie” obviously is unaware of that, so I shall pass over his lack of appreciation of the widespread and understood classical teachings on justice, which, incidentally, are part of the foundations of US justice.

Smith did not “[invoke] the ‘invisible hand’ simile in his earlier work to characterize our sense of charity toward those in need.” The ‘invisible hand’ was a metaphor, not a simile. In his “earlier work” – The Theory Of Moral Sentiments (IV.1.10: 184) – he referred not to “charity” but to the “unfeeling landlord” who was “led by an invisible hand” to distribute to his serfs a share of the product of “his fields”, planted, tended, and harvested” by the “thousands” whom he employed (in feudal servitude), and he used “an invisible hand” as a metaphor to “describe in a more striking and interesting manner” its object, namely that mutual dependence (see Smith on the role of metaphors in his “Lectures in Rhetoric and Belles Lettres” [1763] 1983, p 29).

The metaphor referred to the obvious mutual dependence of landlords on their labourers which compelled them to feed the labourers and their families, because without food they could not labour for long, and the mutual dependence of the labourers on their landlords, because without labouring they and their families would not be fed, and would not live long enough to plant and harvest next season. “Charity” it was not! This is another absurd idea from “Klukie”, born of I know not what.

I have no idea what the “Democratic Underground” believes or its wider influence, but if this is an example of their knowledge of Adam Smith, then underground is probably where they will deserve to remain.



Blogger Timothy Takemoto said...

Thank you for this article which draws attention to your paper, which you, or someone, has kindly made available for download (in final draft, I presume).

I think (not that anyone cares) that the narrative self, or thought as self-speech, as fleshed out a bit more by Mead, is all that one needs to presume to underpin Smith. (And I am looking for evidence of this connection).

Even the most fervent atheists, such as Dawkins, presume the non-theological (non-spooky?) nature of thought as self-speech, and concommitant doubling of the person ("I divide myself, as it were, into two persons;")

The only critic I know of this position is Derrida, who is so opaque as to be very difficult to recommend, and even he does not criticise (rather he agrees with Smith) so much as draw attention to this doubling.

But there is another branch of research which purports to show the cultural relativity of thought as speech.

Kim, H. S. (2002). We talk, therefore we think? A cultural analysis of the effect of talking on thinking. Journal of personality and social psychology, 83(4), 828.

3:50 am  

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