Chomsky on Smith's "Vile Rulers of Mankind"
Mike Norman writes ‘Mike Norman Economics”, October 26, HERE
“Noam Chomsky does Adam Smith” "Who Owns the World?"
“Actually, a good answer to this was given years ago by Adam Smith, someone we’re supposed to worship but not read. He was—a little subversive when you read him sometimes. He was referring to the most powerful country in the world in his day and, of course, the country that interested him, namely, England. And he pointed out that in England the principal architects of policy are those who own the country: the merchants and manufacturers in his day. And he said they make sure to design policy so that their own interests are most peculiarly attended to. Their interests are served by policy, however grievous the impact on others, including the people of England.
But he was an old-fashioned conservative with moral principles, so he added the victims of England, the victims of the—what he called the "savage injustice of the Europeans," particularly in India. Well, he had no illusions about the owners, so, to quote him again, "All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind." It was true then; it’s true now.”
I have commented on Noam Chomsky’s loose language before on Lost Legacy.
Chomsky writes: “in England the principal architects of policy are those who own the country: the merchants and manufacturers in his day.” This would have been news to the landlords who owned the land of England in Adam Smith’s day in the 18th century and until well into the 19th century. They formed the largest proportion of the legislature in London, and effectively run civil government in the large countryside, and they formed the officer class in the army and the upper ranks in the Royal Navy. Many of the families and members of the upper classes who decided most things were intermingled with landed interests and many of the returning new rich (often from India or the North American British colonies) aspired mostly to retire wealthy to estates in the countryside, not to become “merchants and manufacturers”, still the subject of ruling class snobbery.
The industrial Revolution, so called, was a drawn out affair, more like a hundred years transformation than a short event, Smith never commented on it. Smith’s politics are unknown, despite years of effort to unravel them, but he leaned more to the Whig side of the political divide rather than the Tory side. His family were firmly moderate as Calvinists rather than hard-line zealots, and there is evidence that he became less religious, even skeptical about “revealed religion”, as he grew older, as seen in his revisions to later editions of his Moral Sentiments after his religious mother died in 1784, and in his Wealth Of Nations in his strong critique of the established churches of the State in Book V.
Smith’s numerous and strong criticism of “merchants and manufacturers” in Wealth Of Nations and his even stronger criticism of European behaviours towards indigenous peoples found the America, India and through the slave traders in Africa, does not testify to his being a “an old-fashioned conservative with moral principles”, so much as to his being a moderate Whig with moral principles. Smith’s reference to “the vile maxim of the masters of mankind” is from a longer paragraph, from which I quote, because Chomsky’s quotation is cut to force his wrong conclusion about which social class Smith refers. Chomsky’s truncated version obscures Smith’s politics to give credence to Chomsky’s politics and his assertions:
“The capricious ambition of kings and ministers has not, during the present and the preceding century, been more fatal to the repose of Europe, than the impertinent jealousy of merchants and manufacturers. The violence and injustice of the rulers of mankind is an ancient evil, for which, I am afraid, the nature of human affairs can scarce admit of a remedy. But the mean rapacity, the monopolizing spirit of merchants and manufacturers, who neither are, nor ought to be the rulers of mankind, though it cannot perhaps be corrected, may very easily be prevented from disturbing the tranquillity of any body but themselves” (WN IV.iii.c: 493).
It can be seen that while Chomsky gives the impression that Smith is talking about the “owners”, who were, he claims, the “merchants and manufacturers. In fact, Smith refers to the “ancient evil” of “kings and their ministers”, and the rulers of the landed interests who owned most of the wealth of the countries that made up Europe since the 4th century by their “violence and injustice”, as borders changed and rulers’ dynasties passed changed. The correct reference to who Smith meant in this passage is revealed when all of the passage is included and not just the truncation tried by Chomsky.
To be an “ancient evil”, Smith must have referred to the long history of Europe over millennia and not just to the 17th and 18th centuries. Also he denied that “merchants and manufacturers” should be the “rulers of mankind”, so for him to assert they were “the rulers of mankind” would be to assert a counter-factual. Hence Smith didn’t.
He suggested that the power and influence of "merchants and manufacturers" may "very easily be "prevented", which does not suggest that he considered them to be an entrenched ruling class in his life time. What thyey became was beyond Smith's knowledge - he died in 1790.
As far as Adam Smith in the 18th century was concerned, the “merchants and manufacturers” were not the answer to the question of “Who Owns the World”.
[Also, Mike Norman may care to note that in Smith’s lifetime, there was a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, consisting of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland; England was a part of that new country (since 1707), not a separate entity. Smith was interested in the welfare of Scotland, where he lived most of his life, England and the rest of Great Britain, He was not only interested in “England”, which he occasionally visited.]