Wednesday, September 21, 2005

LibDem Spokesman Refers to Adam Smith

Oliver King, political editor of The Guardian, 20 September 2005, interviews Vincent Cable of the Liberal Democratic Party. He opens with:

'If the Liberal Democrats were a different kind of party, Vincent Cable would be the man who told his colleagues to turn the music down and go to bed. A self-styled "enforcer", he has to impose financial discipline, reign in uncosted spending pledges and give the party much-needed economic credibility. That doesn't always make him the most popular Liberal Democrat, but his is a role that could be crucial to the future success of the party. A look at the opinion polls suggests more people would vote for the Liberals if they trusted them on taxation. Hence Mr Cable's belief in "fairer not higher" taxation'

At the end of the interview he asks:

OK: You're often perceived as being on the right of the party, if that's a fair term. On a personal level, who is your political hero?

VC: Let me step back a bit. I'm not on the right. I've just written a pamphlet for Demos where I've tried to debunk the whole concept of left and right polarity. It clearly exists on a limited scale as a principle in politics, in terms of identity, immigration and Europe. But I don't think it helps to be put in a box of being right, left or centre. In terms of a personal hero, I don't have one individual, but there are people in the liberal tradition who I've studied who I've found inspiration from intellectually and in other ways. I'm an economist and Adam Smith was someone who came up with a lot of the ideas we have today, not just markets but capitalism with a moral purpose, essential public goods that came from Adam Smith, not just free trade. If you look through the nineteenth century, figures like Gladstone and Lloyd George and social democrats like Roy Jenkins, they've all played a role in building how I look at the world.”


It is becoming fashionable (which, at least, is a step in the right direction) for UK politicians to refer to Adam Smith in terms of his decency, his humanitarian approach, his moral sentiments and his sympathy for the underdog. This is in contrast with the more usual rabid and extreme presentation of Adam Smith as a ‘social-Darwinist’ (actually a libel on Charles Darwin), of so-called laissez faire dogmas, unsentimental adherence to libertarian free markets and, of course, an orphan child of that misused metaphor, the invisible hand.

Jacob Viner, that great Smithian scholar of the first half of the 20th century, remarked in regard of the “Wealth of Nations”:

“Traces of every conceivable sort of doctrine are to be found in that most catholic book, and an economist must have peculiar theories indeed who cannot quote from the Wealth of Nations to support his special purposes.”

(Jacob Viner, ‘Laissez Faire’ in Adam Smith, 1776-1926: lectures to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the publication of the Wealth of Nations, Augustus M. Kelly, 1989 [1928: University of Chicago], page 126).

And this is the problem with the recent fashion of quoting Adam Smith in political debate (as Roy Hattersley does in one of today’s Blogs). Each side quotes what suits them and neither side show any inclination to take Smith’s views in their whole – usable quotes along with the unusable quotes, or better still by demonstrating knowledge and familiarity with his entire Works – to present a complete picture of Smith’s views rather than the partial one with which they agree.


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