Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Constant Dilemma: Left, Right or Smithian

“A bit of the old Adam” by William Rees-Mogg, TheTimes 3/10/05:

“The terms “left”, “centre” and “right” to describe political alignment came in only with the French Revolution, and are said to be derived from the seating arrangements of the French National Assembly in 1789. The Oxford English Dictionary explains that the nobles took the position of honour on the President’s right, and the Third Estate, representing the people, took the position on the left.

Oddly enough, there is a lone quotation from Shakespeare that suggests that “right” may already have had its political meaning two centuries earlier. In Act 11, scene 1 of Coriolanus, the patrician senator, Menenius Agrippa, is teasing the Tribune of the People. He refers to himself and his friends as “us o’th’ right-hand file”. Every ten years or so I have written an article asking whether anyone can explain “The right-hand file” in terms other than the “left-right” divide in politics.”


Good point, and thoughtful too. The “left-right divide” may well be something to so symbolically with the “right”, the most favoured ‘sitting on the right hand side of God’ and the “left” the proper place for the others, lesser people altogether.

Rees-Mogg goes on:

“The Wealth of Nations is a subtle and well-considered book, nothing like the crude laissez-faire tract it is imagined to be by bishops and other people who have never read it. Yet it is not only the foundation of classical liberal economics, but of modern conservatism. So far as I know, Adam Smith has not yet been mentioned by name in the current Conservative leadership contest, but David Davis has introduced an argument that is clearly derived from Smith’s thought.

Mr Davis argues that free-market systems can deliver better social services than state bureaucracies. Free-market systems are more productive and respond better to the needs of customers. Whether one is dealing with hospitals or schools, an element of choice creates competitive pressures that can be expected to improve outcomes. Market systems do not provide less welfare than state socialist systems, but more and better welfare at lower cost, and therefore at lower taxes. I think this argument is correct, but in modern terms it is unquestionably regarded as right-wing. Why was it left-wing in the 18th century and why has it become right-wing now?

It is not just Adam Smith or economic theory that have moved from left to right. Apart from Gordon Brown, most of us who have been influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment are now perceived as holding right-of-centre views on liberty itself. Even the American Declaration of Independence is now quoted far more often by conservatives than by socialists.”


This follows an interesting passage on Adam Smith and Samuel Johnson not “taking to each other”, though Johnson told Boswell that he have ‘hugged Smith’ if he had known he did not like blank verse, so their breach was not too serious. We should also note that this statement by Rees-Mogg is a big improvement on when he last addressed the subject of Adam Smith (see Archives: April: "A Distortion of Smith's Doctrine of Freedom") and I had occasion to comment.

I will not comment of the internal affairs of the Tory party here but will on why there has been a shift in the spectrum of the right-left divide, though such discussions get really confusing when applied carelessly. During the collapse of the Communist Party in Soviet Russia, I was always uneasy with the designation of the reformers (Gorbechev, etc.,) as the ‘rightwing conservatives forces’ and the old guard Communists as the ‘leftwing forces’, when I would have regarded the old guard as the conservative reactionary forces.

However, I think the explanation is that the spectrum as a whole has shifted since the 18th century. Smith no doubt was regarded as of a Whigg-ish disposition opposed to rightwing reactionaries who believed in the fictions of the divine right of monarchs. To be in favour of Natural Liberty and constitutional monarchy was certainly not conservative or ‘rightwing’. But then followed the appalling Terror of the French Revolution from 1793, mirrored in an outburst of almost panic-stricken reaction in the British Establishment which instituted a great deal of oppression and judicial revenge on anybody who appeared to be in the slightest degree seditious.

Adam Smith died in 1790 but prominent supporters, such as Dugald Stewart, his first biographer, were ‘interviewed’ by representatives of the judiciary to explore the extent to which Smith, and his works, were likely to cause unrest among the common poor and add to public agitation. From Stewart’s account it was a testing time for him and his family (see “Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy” and how it almost stalled Stewart’s eulogy to Smith in the midst two meetings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, in 1793, and how it caused him to modify his eulogy to mollify those intent on finding something seditious in “Wealth of Nations”).

Several prominent friends of Smith’s recanted, effectively, and relations with Edmund Burke cooled somewhat. See too William Playfair's edition annotated edition of the "Wealth of Nations", 1806.

In the intervening years, the ‘left’, since it became socialist or communist, became enamoured with the power of the State and its governments which sacrificed Natural Liberty (free markets within the law) in favour of State ownership, national planning and antagonism to the private sector, i.e., not the Smithian agenda. The baton was picked up by the rightwing Tories, though not implemented in any recognisable Smithian manner (e.g., substituting public with private monopolies regulated by the state instead of competition). The Blair government took over this agenda, driving the Tories in defeat to adopt more extreme market stances, which are not Smithian (the myth of laissez faire, etc.,).

The ‘right of centre’ views held by William Rees-Mogg are not ‘rightwing’ counter-poised to ‘leftwing’ New Labour; they overlap as both shade into of a general rightward shift of UK politics. Distinguishing among the ‘rightward’ trends to find the radical Natural Libertarian Smithian strains is hopeless. A rump of Marxist and socialist refugees, who lost an ideology with the fall of Soviet Communism and now seek a route to revival via masquerading as ‘environmentalism’, represents the convalescing ‘left’.

What Blair/Brown, or Rees-Mogg and the contending leaders of the Conservative Party, make of their duopoly of the ‘right’ part of the spectrum is yet to be seen. Brown at least begins with his recent grasp of the Smithian mantle and Blair is advised to choose the ‘Third (Smithian) Way’. How close either of them will be to the radical Adam Smith is not clear yet.


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