A Debate on Adam Smith: “left” or “right”?
In the comments section of an earlier post: "Nick Gruen on New Thinking on Current Problems", some interesting ideas are exchanged and I think they may interest a wider readership. I reproduce the original exchange, followed by my longer comments. Feel free to join it but please remember it is an 'after-dinner' debate among reasonably convivial diners…
Nicholas Gruen said...
Thanks for this Gavin, I thought for a while there, as I started reading your piece that you were going to take me to task for saying Adam Smith was this or that - in this case 'left wing'. Of course one requires the reader to use their interpretive intelligence when hearing or reading one's words, and I was relieved to see that you took the comment in the spirit it was offered. The other thing - which is an interesting thing I think - is that I was using Smith in the context of nevertheless being interested in conveying my thoughts on contemporary issues. Of course I don't want to misrepresent Smith, and I don't want to present some cardboard cutout of him - because then there'd be no real point in using him to deepen my argument or elaboration. But if one is using him to illustrate the present, the present is where one's focus is, so it's inevitable that one will not do justice to Smith. Anyway, thanks for not pulling me up on my saying he was 'left wing'. This was just after I'd said in the interview that the terms 'left' and 'right' can still make sense as labels for the focus of one's sympathies, fears and hopes, even if we should subject all proposals for making the world a better place to analytical rather than ideological scrutiny.
I just cannot understand how anyone could put Adam Smith into the Left/Right paradigm, especially by the definition of Left/Right as established by the Left. … Smith was as dismissive of "public spirited" endeavours and Utopian fantasy as he was of the corrupt mercantile system. Unfortunately (or fortunately for Smith depending on your perspective) Smith was a century and a half removed from Leftist social engineering experiments on any consequential or remark worthy scale. … Smith seemed not only skeptical, but down right dismissive of any attempts at large scale social or economic engineering.
Gavin Kennedy said...
Nicholas, I didn't open a discussion on Adam Smith ' Left or Right'? as that was not my purpose in posting your interview on the SMH. These distinctions became identified at the end of Smith's life. He would not have known of them, any more than he knew the word "capitalism". I am not out to convert the world!
Philustus Thanks. Your reference is to his piece on 'A man of system' in Part IV of Moral Sentiments - the invisible hand chapter, and his scepticism of utopia is in Wealth Of Nations. I agree with your general points.
Nicholas Gruen said...
Yes … in all these things it depends on how one is using words. Despite our endless dismissals the idea of left and right continue to live on in our imaginations today - even in our denials of their relevance. I think we could all agree that they went through a period of reasonable clarity for a period, though of course bifurcating the world of political ideology into two poles does violence to pretty much everyone. It's also true that the terms arrived after Smith's writing. (Perhaps technically they existed in 1790, I guess they did by 1789, but they'd not become the juggernauts that they became later.) But it seems to me that my definition of the residue of 'left and right' is a reasonable one - suggesting that it's one of sympathies and anxieties. By that definition Smith was left wing - he sympathised with the weak and poor more than the strong and wealthy and he felt that society could be made more free without falling apart. Both of these ideas are 'left' in the sense I'm using the term. Likewise, though the best education I ever got was in history and so I abhor silly anachronism, it is reasonable to suggest that such common sympathies have some correspondence through time. So while the term 'left wing' didn't exist, it isn't outlandish to describe Gerard Winstanley or the diggers in the English Civil War as 'left wing' in some sense. But if one uses left to mean 'tolerant of large scale social engineering' then I agree, Smith wasn't left. Then again, I can't see him voting for a guy like Paul Ryan! But then that's just (provocative) speculation!
These are fairly representative of what I would call “after dinner” chats, or, if you prefer, erudite seminars in the scholastic world. Nothing wrong intrinsically with such venues, though they can become tiresome.
I agree with Philustus to this extent “Smith was dismissive of "public spirited" endeavours and Utopian fantasy” and he chastised the “Man of System. However, it is safer to put this in context to avoid too much reading into it evidence for Smith being ‘Left” or ‘Right in modern terms. Here are the lines preceding the “man of system”:
“The man whose public spirit is prompted altogether by humanity and benevolence, will respect the established powers and privileges even of individuals, and still more those of the great orders and societies, into which the state is divided. Though he should consider some of them as in some measure abusive, he will content himself with moderating, what he often cannot annihilate without great violence. When he cannot conquer the rooted prejudices of the people by reason and persuasion, he will not attempt to subdue them by force; but will religiously observe what, by Cicero, is justly called the divine maxim of Plato,7 never to use violence to his country no more than to his parents. He will accommodate, as well as he can, his public arrangements to the confirmed habits and prejudices of the people; and will remedy as well as he can, the inconveniencies which may flow from the want of those regulations which the people are averse to submit to. When he cannot establish the right, he will not disdain to ameliorate the wrong; but like Solon, when he cannot establish the best system of laws, he will endeavour to establish the best that the people can bear.
The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess–board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess–board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess–board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder” (TMS VI.ii.2.16: 233-4).
I take these as wise words, warning against “Left” and “Right” proposers of radical changes to the existing (and evolving) societies. Nicholas suggests that it is reasonable to describe Gerard Winstanley as “left in some sense” which surely does no fit well with Winstanley’s role of favouring major, radical, and likely to be highly contested changes, in the midst of a bloody armed contests in the English Civil War. Fortunately the army voted against the “diggers”, otherwise the existing disruption would have certainly gone on even more miserably and possibly more bloody. Did this make Winstanley “Leftish”? Cue another after-dinner debate, possibly linked to the mythology of the “diggers” in Australian history with voices raised, even at sedate seminars in local universities.
On the other hand, I read Nick’s interview and had an idea of what he meant by applying more modern terms of “left” and “Right” to Adam Smith. It isn’t a big deal or a ‘big issue”. Within the terms of the interview and the likely knowledge of the readers, I took it as the expression of a plausible view, though I do not share it in detail. I certainly did not think it was worth contesting it knowing what I do of Nick’s understanding of Adam Smith philosophy.
There is much wrong with polarizing the world into “left” and “right”, including seeing them as self-contained and uncontaminated ideas. Any acquaintance with “left” and ‘right” thinkers, using the term loosely, would confuse anybody seeking clear water between them. Adding a vertical dimension marked enforced radical utopian and enforced accepted social order to the horizontal, would place people on the “left”–“right” axis in all four quadrants.
Smith above all was what we call a “pragmatist” – it was what worked than counted for him, not the purity of motives or theories. General radical change usually didn’t work; and European experience of warfare was too recent and too personal for Smith to miss the often hidden consequences of violent rule. “Rapine” was just a word, but its realities from Pre-Roman times through to the seven years war, and the Jacobite rebellion and its punitive local aftermath, were almost personal for him (they passed through Kirkcaldy in 1745). Despite his firm political opposition to the Jacobites (dismissed as “4 or 5 thousand naked unarmed Highlanders took possession of the improved parts of” Scotland and “alarmed the whole nation” (Lectures in Jurisprudence”, 540), he made conciliatory gestures in, e.g., writing a forward to a Jacobite poet’s volume in exile.
For Australians, perhaps, bloody wars and their aftermath happened in other countries. Only Britain invaded (1788) Australia in all the millennia of its history and the disruptions of civil war and dictatorships are, so far, unknown. So (left?/socialism) and (right?/fascism) are sanitized abstractions from after-dinner debates.
The concerns of Philistus about “Leftist social engineering experiments” is also a trifle over the top. But that is the problem; use words like “Left” and “Right” and they are vulnerable to immediate extentions of meaning. Are and have Eugenics been advocated by Left or Right doctrines? Yes, both! This is how debates become messy.
Adam Smith did not vote under the existing franchise in Scotland. And, like his sex life too, his politics are unknown and unknowable now. He is claimed by today’s “Right” and “Left”. I read a paper last year arguing that Smith favoured redistribution of income from rich to poor, quoting from WON and LOJ. A closer reading did not support this claim. The paper had confused “perfect” and “imperfect” rights. See, it is so easy to make avoidable mistakes when assigning 20th-century ideas to an 18th-century philosopher. (Incidentally, Nick events in 1789-90 were hardly likely to have affected Smith’s prior writings, and also, Smith was clearly dying by then and full focused on the preparing the 6th and final editions of TMS and WON, both published just before he died in mid-1790). I have attended heated debates on whether the historical Jesus was a Protestant or a Catholic!
Smith wrote broadly and now well known sympathetic passages to the conditions of labourers and their families, especially those without work at all. He argued strongly that the best remedy for the poor was employment. The alternative to paid employment, even at or below subsistence, was Smith’s remedy, hence his passion for growth-inducing spending (his contempt for “prodigals” and praise for “frugality”) emerging for his somewhat confusing distinction between “productive” and “unproductive” labour. Growth, the division of labour in longer supply lines, led towards opulence, the best chance the poor had of reaching and passing beyond mere subsistence.
Did this make him “caring left” or “unfeeling right”?
[I think its time for coffee and the After Eights” – “decaff, anyone?"].