Tuesday, April 19, 2005

No Madeline...

Madeline Shoemaker, a Freshman (first year BA Politics student) at The University of North Carolina, and editor of “The New Voice”, a conservative students’ paper on campus (www.thenewvoice.net), has had a piece she wrote published in The Lincoln Tribune (www.lincolntribune.com) in which she says:

“Conservative thinking also embraces the preservation of life, the elimination of tax and spend government, a free market and free competition society, and the ‘laissez-faire’ concept introduced by Adam Smith”

Now, I do not expect first year students, or even all undergraduates, to be aware that laissez faire (no need for quotation marks or hyphen) was not “introduced by Adam Smith’, in fact he never used the words at all in “Wealth of Nations”, nor in his published correspondence. Why should Madeline know this when her professors probably do not know it either, because in US academe the laissez faire/Adam Smith myth has been taught in every campus for near on a hundred years?

She is blameless; her teachers are not. However, the association of Adam Smith with the (untenable view) that capitalist firms should be left alone on the grounds that whatever they do has benign consequences on society does no favours for the valid case for limiting the instances in which the State interferes in their actions. Adam Smith was never in a position to give a view on what restrictions a future democratic society might wish to place on individual capitalist corporations because he was dead long before capitalism developed in the UK and in the USA in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Smith’s main concern in his polemic against mercantile policies in “Wealth of Nations” was to argue against ‘merchants and manufacturers’ being left alone to form monopolies, was against the state legislating to prevent tradesmen from practising their trades unless they had the permission of local Guilds (monopolists of labour), and was against the Act of Settlement that prevented labourers moving from where they lived to other places in search of work.

To transpose these sensible policies into a general carte blanche for employers a century later to employ women and children in coal mines and mills with appalling accident rates, until the first feeble Factory Inspectors began their work in the 1850s (and still necessary work today), allowing them cover to oppose intervention to stop firms polluting their neighbourhoods and those ‘downstream’, and do this all under the banner of laissez faire gives crude ‘conservatism’ a bad name and hands the moral ground over the those whose plans for intervention ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ and in consequence destroy wealth and limit growth. If the ‘anti-globalists’ triumph, the poorest in the Third World will really pay the price, and the richer world’s demonstrators will suffer comparative trifles.

Conservatism should go back to what Adam Smith actually wrote and realise he clung tenaciously to the moral ground, if only to shame legislators into adopting humanistic policies for political economy. Adopting the authentic polices of Adam Smith would dismantle modern mercantile interventions, which have created a global system that has little to do with free trade, and by doing so jeopardises Smithian prospects for free trade, competition and anti-monopoly laws.


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