Friday, September 02, 2005

Adam Smith is Innocent (so was Captain Cook)

“When the Moral Levee Breaks” by Lee Harris, TechCentralStation,
Washington DC 1 September 1005

Lee Harris writes an interesting article and I don’t want to spoil his pitch, but he is quite wrong in parts in regard to Adam Smith and Captain James Cook.

Captain Cook went several times to the Pacific islands and his attitude to islanders’ thefts was not entirely relaxed. He was exasperated by their abilities to steal, and took measures to prevent it, often blaming laxness among his crews. He also flogged islanders severely when caught. In fact it was theft by an Hawaiian that provoked the incident in which he was killed a Kealakekua Bay (See my: The Death of Captain Cook, Duckworth, London, 1975).

Lee Harris writes:

“Adam Smith, who wrote The Wealth of Nations before Cook's voyages, made an immense to-do about the natural human "tendency to truck, barter, and exchange one good for another." But Smith unfortunately did not address the question of humankind's even more natural tendency to pilfer, rip off, and steal other people's stuff. After all, in the Scotland of his time, people behaved themselves: the Calvinist clergy made sure of that.

Yet Smith's failure to take humankind's primordial instinct for theft was not unique; on the contrary, all political theorists of the modern era, from Rand to Rawls to Nozick have implicitly assumed that we are living in a world in which acts of theft are simply unthinkable -- an unspeakable No No that protects our civilization in the same way that the levees around New Orleans were once considered to have protected its population from inundation.”

Numerous points:

Adam Smith did “address the question of humankind's even more natural tendency to pilfer, rip off, and steal other people's stuff.” He lectured at the University of Glasgow, 1754-1763, on, among other things, Jurisprudence, in the course of which he had a lot to say about ‘theft’, linking it to his Four Stage theory of social evolution from the Gatherer-Hunters, though to Shepherding and Agriculture, and on to the Age of Commerce.

He went into detailed explanations of the behaviours of savages and barbarians and civilized people in respect of their attitudes to property. Where property is defined, theft is a minority behaviour punishable, in the 18th century by death, as in shepherding societies (the Tartars and the Saudis), in the latter often instantly, without the benefit of trials.

In savage societies – gatherers and hunters, such as found in North America and the Pacific Islands - Smith said that ‘theft is not much regarded’ because there were no definitions of property and hence no concept of theft - but only if the person did not have the item in his hands. Physically forcing it off them was punishable, severely. It corresponds to the theory of Justice called 'occupation'. (A. Smith, “Jurisprudence”, 1762, p.16, published by Liberty Fund, 1982). Smith was well aware of human proclivities in this area. Even in Calvinist Scotland there was a constant parade of miscreants brought before the courts for theft. Whatever the failings of Rand, Rawls, and in these matters, Nozik, it is wrong to join Smith to them.

Alongside these proclivities, among the most savage of peoples, Smith’s dictum of the ‘propensity to truck, barter and trade’ was also practiced. Indeed, Cook’s journals, and those of Captain Bligh, one of his junior ‘warrant’ officers at Kealakekua Bay, show much evidence of the trading posts they set up to trade with the same ‘thieving’ Tahitians and Hawaiians, which were exceptionally successful on all occasions, showing that the ‘savages’ knew all about trade before they met the Europeans and considered it compatible with their habits of 'thieving'.

Lee may consult my above book, and my books on Captain Bligh (“Captain Bligh, the Man and his Mutinies”, 1988, Duckworth) and Adam Smith (“Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy”, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) to correct his wrong impressions.

Incidentally, Adam Smith had copies of Cook’s voyages in his library and correponded with Sir Joseph Banks, Cook's, and later Bligh's, friend and sponsor.


Post a Comment

<< Home