Sunday, May 03, 2015


Today’s Sunday Scotsman (3 May) publishes a new poem by CHRISTINE DE LUCA, the Edinburgh Makar, who was appointed in 2014 to the City’s prestigious poetry post’.
Poet imagines new work by Smith’s Invisible Hand”
The excesses of the free market would shock Adam Smith if he were alive today, claims the Edinburgh Makar in a new poem:
“Christine De Luca, in her verse, The Invisible Hand, suggests that the 18th century economist, whose Wealth Of Nations defined classical economics, would have felt compelled to write a new treatise redefining capitalism for the global era.
The poem was prompted by Smith’s statue in the Royal Mile, which was unveiled in 2008 and paid for by private subscription organised by the Adam Smith Institute, a leading policy think tank.
The 10ft bronze statue, by sculptor Alexander Stoddart, a stone’s throw from St Giles’ Cathedral, shows Kirkcaldy-born Smith with his right hand partly covered by his academic gown. This pays homage to Smith’s theory of “the invisible hand” of the free market, a central tenet of his work, written in 1776.
De Luca’s first poem as Edinburgh Makar, The Morning ­After, about Scots waking up the day after the independence referendum needing to find a way of living together no ­matter how they voted, won widespread acclaim.
Of her latest work, she said: “I was really pleased to see a statue to Adam Smith appear. I knew very little about him other than that he was a giant in economics, indeed, the father of economics.
“I don’t claim to know much about economics, but Smith believed the measure of a nation’s wealth was not how much there was but how you use it for the good of all.
“It seems to me that capitalism has got out of kilter. Greed and lack of regulation allow some people to get extremely wealthy, draining away from the rest of us. I think Smith would be shocked at these excesses of capitalism and would not think that was what he meant in his writings.
“He had a big analytical brain and if he was sitting down today with a blank sheet of paper I think he’d be writing a new treatise looking at all the functions of government and central banks saying these need to be regulated for the good of all.”
Dr Eamonn Butler, director of the Adam Smith Institute, said of the poem: “It’s a nice, sympathetic portrait of Adam Smith, but the economics aren’t quite right. Globalisation is nothing new – Smith himself in 1776 pointed out that even the ‘rough woollen coat’ of a ‘day-labourer’ involved the labour of thousands of people, across many continents. And are we missing the Invisible Hand by which our self-interested market transactions actually produce mutual benefit? A little, but only because markets are being distorted by politicians who mistakenly think they can do better. But the best laid schemes o’ rodents and ­rulers gang aft agley.”

The Makar’s New Poem:

“To a monument: The Invisible Hand
You must have had a natty tailor – that coat:
cuffed, collared and buttoned to perfection.
Your draped cloak softens it, protects from winds
of close and wynd. Those buckles must have cost
a bob or two as well, and your full wig.
Where you stand you can
almost see Kirkcaldy: cornerstone of character where
you learned the basics, built on them brilliantly;
where you saw men paid in nails, their work
a cannie commodity for barter.
That gaze hides much:
a soft heart, perhaps a nervous disposition.
More than likely you soldiered on with just
your widowed mother: there seems a touch
of melancholy in your stance.
But you were wedded
to debate, enlightenment; thrust your learning
through the engine of your diverse faculties, built
sound new theories – PolEcon we called it in the 60s.
You reasoned that hoards of gold, alone,
are no true measure 
of a nation’s wealth; that Productivity and GDP
can measure Systems. Your Wealth Of Nations, that weighty bible of free market Capitalism, set out the links: competition, self-interest, prosperity.
But you were also grounded 
in Philosophy; wrote of Beauty, Order, Harmony; 
of Good and Evil; knew the underpinnings of morality, of faith. Your writing was plinthed on the invisible hand,
the hand that seeks the greatest good for all.
That plinth has gone now.
Would you be shocked? Would you be writing
a new treatise, re-defining Capitalism for this
Global era? You look east, well above our heads;
your vision still clear as a bell”.
Christine De Luca
I was moved to re-produce this piece from The Scotsman (copyright reserved) because of its content in respect fo Adam Smith where his statue stands opposite the original building which in Smith’s day was the Customs House in which he was a Commisioner of Customs and the Salt Duty, and (now the City’s governing Chambers) 
I can see where Christine is coming from as a graduate of Edinburgh University in the late 1960s, when they still taught “PolEcon” but were in the midst of transposing the traditional syllabi into America’s plain ”Economics 101”, teaching the moderne “invisible hand” and all that and linked by a singular metaphor (used by Smith twice for a different purpose, that was hardly mentioned in print from his death in 1790 through all the way to 1875), and then more of less ignored until the Cold War.
By the 1960s, following Samuelson’s “Economics: an analytical introduction’ (1948), Smith’s lonely “invisible hand” metaphor was transposed into his most central and important idea, until today you can hardly read anything about Adam Smith’s nearly one million published words that does not mainline on the supposed “theory” that economies are run, managed and, as often, screw-up because of an imaginary “invisible hand”, that is either saving or destroying the economy depending on which epigones you follow. His use of the metaphor had a much more restricted role to that implied today.
Smith’s last decade was characterised by relative affluence with his pension from his service to the Duke of Buccleugh plus his annual salary as a Commissioner. But Smith lived frugally and gave away most of his income to penurious relatives and on buying books for his extensive library. He also socialised a lot in various drinking clubs in Edinbugh, particularly at the “Oyster Club’ (a.k.a. ‘Adam Smith’s Club’) near the Grassmarket”.
Smith knew nothing of “capitalism” (a word invented in the 1870s) and he never mentioned “laissez-faire”. Nor did he ever link the “invisible hand” to a role seeking “the greatest good for all”.  
Christine’s poem is excellent for all that. She is to be praised for her poetic work and for the discussions she may provoke, especially for casting her creative scan over some of Smith’s ideas from his “Theory of Moral Sentiments” (1759) and "Wealth of Nations"  (1776). In this latter work he set out the case for serious criticism of international state-sponsored empire-building by powerful militarily protected trade-exploitation of other economies, usually accompanied in the 17th and 18th centuries by large-scale warfare by superior arms and the ambitions of feudal hierarchies in Europe and then World Wars as the empires collapsed.
Smith’s political economy can be summarised, non-ideologically, as “markets were possible, the state where necessary”. Much else written about Adam Smith are fantasies wedded to modern politics.


Blogger Unknown said...

I am puzzled by the description of The Theory of Moral Sentiments as a "criticism of international state-sponsored empire-building." I have in hand the 7th edition (London; Strahan, 1792), which is subtitled "An ESSAY towards an Analysis of the Principles by which Men naturally judge concerning the Conduct and Character, first of their Neighbors, and afterwards of themselves". The content, as the subtitle suggests, is psychological and moral, and contains nothing about international affairs.
Are you thinking of the right book??

10:19 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

You are of course right. My remarks properly belong to Wealth Of Nations and its many references to the Americas and European conduct. I wrote the post while working on another project, currently running behind its completion date.
While TMS is as you point out about moral conduct, I fitted Smith's final paragraph in IV.1.11, pp.185-87 that I had been reading (the para after his "invisible hand" reference (par 10) at the time on 'love of system'.
I have corrected my error.
Many thanks for drawing my attention to it.
Gavin Kennedy

5:51 am  

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