Friday, July 29, 2005

Bentham and Smith

In JoongAng Daily, Korea: “Society's watchmen should be watched” by Lee Sang-il

In this interesting piece on the cctv society, Le Sang-il takes up the case of the need to watch the watchers. He does not challenge the value of cctv cameras catching suspects associated with terrorist acts, but raises the usual qualms that a tyrannical government might use them for nefarious purposes.

Most democrats would share those concerns to some degree. However, democrats living in democratic societies would soon recognize the difference between democracy and its alternatives and we have a very long way to go before liberty is threatened in the UK.

Lee Sang-il writes:

‘Just as Adam Smith had discovered the "invisible hand" of the free market, Mr. Bentham designed the "invisible eye."’

If Lee Sang-il reads what Adam Smith actually wrote, he would find that on the only three occasions that he used the invisible hand metaphor, he was not referring to markets at all, free or otherwise. That is a myth created by modern economists misapplying the metaphor in a way Smith had not intended. Given that Smith was actually writing about the ‘unintentional consequences’ of human motivations, not directly about markets (Smith’s first reference was to pagan superstition; his second was to the greed of Feudal Lords; and the third was to the preference of ‘merchants and manufacturers’ for preferring local over foreign trade), perhaps he has become a victim of his own metaphor.

Incidentally, the originator of the assertion of the ‘happiness of the greatest number’ was not Jeremy Bentham (he certainly popularised it), but Professor Francis Hutcheson who was Adam Smith’s mentor at the University of Glasgow (1737-40) and a distinguished philosopher in his own right.


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