Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Misplaced Notion of Landlords in Pre-market Times Being "Concerned" for the "Less Fortunate"

Daniel Gay posts in the Scotsman HERE 
"World first for Scotland"
“Compassion may be a woolly word these days, but there’s an undoubted cross-party commitment to bettering the lot of the worst-off. Scotland’s heritage in this area is second to none. Free-marketeers like to forget that Adam Smith’s other book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, partly concerned the impact of the “invisible hand” on the less fortunate.
Civil society, that much-abused term, was forged by Adam Ferguson in the furnace of the Scottish enlightenment, a time when many of the core tenets of modern democratic society were born. Humanitarianism has long been central to the Scottish tradition. Treat others as you’d like to be treated yourself, runs the old refrain.
Daniel Gray makes a case for “bettering the lot of the worst-off”, but he displays wooly notions about the historical sequence of the gradual articulation of humanitarian ideas from the Scottish Enlightenment into a modern “cross party” consensus.  Prior to the end of the 18th century and until well into the 19th century, the main tenets of moral philosophy as taught in Scottish and English Universities did not include ideas favouring distributive justice in the modern sense of the words.  Specifically, the views expressed in the Scottish Enlightenment, such as by Adam Smith, did not promote modern meanings applied to classical distributive justice.   Several voices were heard from the decades after Adam Smith died to that affect, and modern advocates of distributive justice often seek to find such ideas in Adam Smith, or mistakenly assume that he did express such views from obscure interpretive references associated with the wheat trade close to periods of dearth. Philosophy was still dominated by the teachings and concerns of classic Greek texts (Plato, and so on), though it is true to say that philosophers after Smith’s times were edging towards the modern philosophy of civil society. 
I do not know what Daniel Gray means by the overly generalised statement, “Free-marketeers like to forget that Adam Smith’s other book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments.”  For example I support “free markets” generally over state managed solutions, though I prefer to present it as preference for “freer” markets, rather than entangle myself in unhelpful ideological imputations about “free marketeers” that are intended to disparage rather than enlighten readers.  It seems to me to be less ideological to express Smith’s approach as “markets where possible, the state where necessary”, which leaves room for debate on specific and pragmatic boundaries on a case by case basis. Most certainly, I claim some reasonable acquaintance with “Adam Smith’s other book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments” and his other writings and correspondence. The real charge against ideologues on both sides of these debates is that they have not read either book in any depth, let alone that they “forget’ what little they have read, aside from well-worn quotations.  Daniel Gray may not have read TMS very well. The “invisible hand” was not ‘partly concerned [with] the impact of the “invisible hand” on the less fortunate’. 
The “invisible hand” is a metaphor that was only mentioned once by Adam Smith in TMS.  It is more accurate to say that the object of the use of this metaphor was to capture why “unfeeling” landlords had to feed their servants, retainers, slaves, serfs, and peasants, i.e., “the thousands whom they employ”. Metaphors, literally, do not exist independent of their objects.  They “describe in a more striking and interesting manner” their objects, as taught by Adam Smith in his “Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres” (1762), which is also compliant with the definition of the role of metaphors in the Oxford English Dictionary (1983).
 In Moral Sentiments (1769), Adam Smith was talking about how “unfeeling landlords” were mutually dependent on the “thousands whom they employ”, despite treating them abominably by modern standards, because if the poor employees and their families in and about their households and fields, were not fed, they could not work at all.  In turn, the same thousands had to work to be fed. It was not the “invisible hand’ that forced the landlords to be concerned about their employees by feeding them.  It was the plain fact that they had no choice.  It was not their “concern” for the welfare of the “unfortunates”, a laughable idea; it was the absolute necessity of feeding them.  Their “greatness” and the comparative luxury of their “palaces” depended entirely on the labour of those employed and fed about their properties. 
To say “the old refrain” to “treat others as you’d like to be treated yourself” manifested their “humanitarianism” and was a “world first for Scotland” is a gross exaggeration.  Adam Smith was above all else, a moral philosopher with his feet firmly planted on the ground, not given  to“wholly” notions planted in the clouds.


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