Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Authentic Adam Smith

An anonymous correspondent wrote to Lost Legacy yesterday a comment on a post of mine on the Blog on 17 October 2007.  Reading the post before passing it as ‘moderated’ (introduced after I was informed that Lost Legacy had been invaded by a couple of thousand pornographic adverts in 2009) it struct that today’s readers would appreciate the original post (minus the now deleted pornography!).
The Authentic Adam Smith at the Tuesday Club”
"Last evening I attended a monthly dinner club meeting of the appropriately named ‘Tuesday Club’, the format of which was as ‘speaker’, I spoke for 20 minutes on what was billed by the chairman, Michael Fryer, an historian of credible reputation, as ‘Adam Smith in the 21st Century’.
The unusual format, which worked perfectly well, was for the speaker, during the serving of the first course (‘salmon fish cake with rocket leaves, lemon and paprika mayonnaise), to speak to a theme, and then those present are invited in turn to speak and pose their questions, also during the serving and eating of the rest of the dinner: main course (breast of pheasant with apple and rhubarb stuffing, colcannon potato, sweet (white caramel apple pie upside-down cake with vanilla ice cream)and coffee (and dark chocolate truffle), assisted by generous amounts of red or white wine (and a champagne starter). I stuck to orange juice as I do not partake of alcohol. Initially, I didn’t stick closely to the chairman’s chosen theme, but the questions led me that way.
The members of the Tuesday Club (running its monthly meetings for ten years) are interested in and are contributors to intellectual discourse from many walks of life (academics, professionals, business managers, politicians, authors, journalists, plus, last night, a young PR professional – is that a spin doctor?). The manners of their discourse were impeccable – nobody raised their voice; nobody was emotionally distraught, and nobody did other than listen politely, and the chairman, Michael Fry, conducted the affair with a calm dignity and impressive light touch.
It was fascinating to find a small coven of civilised human discourse in Edinburgh, which I felt as an echo of what was the norm in the Scottish Enlightenment, when Adam Smith attended his many club from the informal Oyster Club, where he, Adam Ferguson and the others adjourned after dinner to a side room for claret, beer, and conversation, while the other diners turned to singing and dancing with lady servers, allegedly of a willing disposition, to the more sedate and bewigged meetings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh to listen and comment to serious papers on science (natural and literary) in that age of great hope and anticipation. The long dining room table of the Stack Polly Restaurant, Grindlay Street, added to the historic atmosphere perfectly.
The Tuesday Club is right-of-centre politically. There were conservatives, libertarians and classical liberals present among the 20 diners (one attendee had given a lift to Murray Rothbard!). In my remarks I concentrated first on the authentic Adam Smith, a subject touched on many times here Lost Legacy.
His backward looking perspective to the revival of commerce from the 15th century, his analysis of the evolution of the propensity to ‘truck, barter, and exchange’, the cradle-to-grave urge to self-betterment, the division of labour, the foundations and extent of markets and the ‘slow and gradual’ growth towards opulence. His Moral Sentiments was about the harmony-producing sympathy of each to others in society, and Wealth Of Nations was a critique of mercantile political economy, and not a text book on economics.
In the long sweep of history, the key number was not the ‘average per capita income’ (Gregory Clark), which remained low and unchanged for millennia, but from the gross income of society (GDP), large enough proportions of which were extracted as surplus over average subsistence by the powerful, from which they built the stone civilisations that came and went cyclically for 10,000 years. Sadly, beyond sentiment, the history of the poor was not decisive. When all are poor, they all remain poor for always. Meanwhile, as a minority grew richer, knowledge accumulated, technology and innovation slowly spread, and capital formed.
The mid-18th century was the time where this underlying trend was visible and understood; meanwhile the rest of humanity across the world (Africa, Australia, the Americas) remained in Smith's Age of Hunting, equal but poor; even the powerful in these societies had fewer artifacts than an employed common labourer in 18th century Scotland.
Britain, a thousand years after the fall of 5th century Rome, re-reached Smith's Age of Commerce, along with other Western European societies, but all of them fell victim to the notions of mercantile fallacies (jealousy of trade, protectionism, wars for trivial ends, colonies and institutional monopolies) all of which distorted natural economic growth and delayed the spread and deepening of commercial societies, which in due course would raise the opulence of the employed poor and draw into commerce the unemployed destitute and abject poor of which those societies abounded.
This thought haunted and sometimes agitated Adam Smith.
Wealth Of Nations addressed these problems; it is not about laissez-faire; 19th-century corporate capitalism; or minimal ‘night watchman’ state activities. Its paradigm is not the ‘invisible hand’ metaphor; it is about letting markets work, within the law, and using funding from taxation, beyond the need for defence (which costs less than fighting unnecessary wars or suffering invasion), and justice (the main pillar of society), for the necessary role of public works and projects to facilitate commerce, including for the education of all children.
During the dinner a most active set of contributions and questions flowed as impressively as the dinner and drink was served with smooth efficiency by the restaurant’s staff. Subjects raised included the role of property, Adam Smith’s politics, his religious affiliation, the labour theory of value, the East India Company, formation of prices, the invisible hand, what Smith might have thought about the current Prime Minister (also from Kirkcaldy), Smith’s attitude to the Guilds, ‘Das Adam Smith Problem’, Eamonn Butler’s recent primer on Adam Smith (an ‘excellent read’), why the rich should pay more tax than the poor, flat tax, the role of self interest, Smith’s ‘different’ account of the division of labour in Books I and V, and his version of laissez faire.
Now I defy anybody to say that they have participated in such a well-informed audience with such a range of subjects related to Adam Smith at a dinner in a restaurant. The time passed swiftly and there was not a moment where the audience flagged in their enthusiasm to keep probing into, what most admitted was completely new territory regarding Adam Smith and his authentic views.
I realised why the Tuesday Club has lasted eleven years and why it is still going strong. I also saw why right-of-centre political philosophy and ideas remain lively and thriving in Edinburgh, but remain perplexed as to why the right-of-centre parties seem to be so marginalised in Scottish political life.”
The Tuesday Club still meets in Edinburgh (now at the Hotel Du Vin, Bistro Street) and I occasionally attend (consistent with my physical mobility).   Its main attention centres on the governance of Scotland and the constitutional question framed for the upcoming Referendum on Scottish Independence in 2014.  The varying attendees divide about 50-50 on that issue – I shall vote ‘YES’.  However, a clear majority favour further devolution.
Apart from those who attended the Oyster Club we do not know what they discussed but we do know from attendees (members of the Scottish Enlightenment) that their discussions were conducted in a civil atmosphere, with nobody dominating their conversations. 
Locally it was also known as ‘Adam Smith’s Club’.  His contributions to the Oyster Club by all accounts are at odds with the popular anecdotal assertions of Smith’s indecisive contributions and his alleged unworldly attention spans. 
These anecdotes seem to have originated from such social poseurs as Alexander Carlyle who preferred to socialise in the polite company of deferential ladies of the Houses he visited and who criticized Smith’s lack of social graces in the company of society folk.
Smith advised his readers in Moral Sentiments to discuss philosophical topics only with “other philosophers” who could be trusted not to broadcast to outsiders their views as they formed.  In the company of other members of the Scottish Enlightenment, Smith was more frank than he was in mixed company – he had seen what befell those who spoke out about religious superstition and had felt the rancour of censorial tutors at Balliol College when found reading David Hume’s Treatise (perhaps informed upon by an unfriendly fellow student?).
The Oyster Club met near Smith’s Panmure House from 1778-90 and many who attended the Club also attended his Sunday suppers at Panmure House. These regular conversations ‘between friends’ fueled their individual groundbreaking scientific speculations that we know now as the Scottish Enlightenment. 
James Hutton discussed with William Robertson and Adam Smith his forthcoming public announcement to the Royal Society of Edinburgh of his ground breaking conclusion from his geological field-work that the Earth was much older than the Biblical creation myth (only 6004 years old according to Bishop Ussher).  Hutton felt confident enough to announce to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1785 that the Earth was far older, writing his memorable sentence of the origin of the Earth ‘there was no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’.
Hutton was assisted in his deliberations from such ‘safe’ conversations in the Club.  That is how science progresses and why its faster in situations where friendly conversations proceed without the petty jealousies and repressive censure from dominant social ideologies.
So thanks to ‘anonymous’ for reading a 2007 post and commenting upon it. 


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