Sunday, October 02, 2005

Let Debate Begin

In line with my hopes yesterday that the new Adam Smith College (a merger of two local technical colleges) presaged a renewed interest in the works of Adam Smith, its students (or rather 30 of them, out of 20,000) have voted (unanimously!) to name the Students’ Association (an official, but independent, organisation formed in all colleges and universities to represent the interests of students, nominally to run college funded welfare, food and accommodation services, etc.,), as the “Jennie Lee Students Association”, named after a local early 20th century socialist MP, high up in the pantheon of the Labour Party, and not, as is normal, after the name of the college or university.

A student activist, Paul Muirhead, gave what can only be described as a most extraordinary explanation for this decision, at least according to Tom Brown (Sunday Times) and Murdo Macleod (Scotland on Sunday):

“We didn’t feel that Adam Smith represented the values a student association should stand for.

He is associated with socio-economic policies that work against the people, that were synonymous

with Thatcherite and Reaganite governments.

Jennie Lee would be an excellent role model for the students because of the courage and conviction

she showed in achieving the aims she believed passionately in.

This isn’t an attack upon Adam Smith as a person, but upon what his name has come to represent.

Adam Smith’s name is linked to exploitation and greed.”

Now before I tackle some of the strange ideas in Paul Muirhead’s explanation, I should make clear that what a Students’ Association calls itself is the absolute right of its members to decide. I believe that to be a proper and general principle in the governance of a college. Of course, choosing the names of particular people opens up prospects of continual controversy among their members. People who are not sympathetic to Jennie Lee (on political not personal grounds; she was throughout her political career a well-loved person), because they hold to different non- and anti-socialist politics, could strive to change the name to somebody else’s, and, if successful, cause a counter-reaction to change it back, and so on ad infinitum.

But that is the usual stuff of student gesture politics and those who have spent many years on the campus will treat these little contra-tempts on the fringes of student life with all the stoic equanimity they can muster.

Mr Muirhead’s assessment of Adam Smith is so wrong it is hard to believe anybody could come to those conclusions other than via second-, third- or higher-hand assertions from somebody who never read either of Adam Smith’s two books, ‘Moral Sentiments” or “Wealth of Nations”. It is absolutely obvious that Mr Muirhead has not yet read them too.

Interestingly, Mr Muirhead and his 29 colleagues do not base their case against Adam Smith on what he wrote, or said in his lectures, either in Edinburgh (1749-51) or Glasgow (1751-64), or his correspondence, or his advice to Government Ministers while he was alive (1723-90), which are the only things he is answerable for, but they take their stance on what Adam Smith’s name has ‘come to represent’ over 200 years later! For serious students this is an extraordinary stance to take and we can only hope that with maturity they will realise how uncomfortable their posture appears.

Adam Smith never advocated, excused or endorsed greed in any form. Throughout his works he held contemptuous the ‘vile’ behaviour of the ‘rulers of mankind’, the propensity of ‘merchants and manufacturers’ to monopoly and to conspiracies ‘against the interests of consumers’, he described a government of such people the ‘worst’ that could happen, and, if he had a fault, it was his pessimism that these would not be changed quickly (a view endorsed by experience; but that is hardly the fault of Smith’s; after all Jennie (later Baroness) Lee was a minister in the Wilson government that exhibited some of the features criticised by Adam Smith).

The main charge against Adam Smith appears to be that “He is associated with socio-economic policies that work against the people, that were synonymous with Thatcherite and Reaganite governments.” That Prime Minister Thatcher and President Reagan’s administrations masy have liked rhetorically to associate Adam Smith with their policies, may be popularly believed. However, it would make an interesting term essay for Mr Muirhead and his 29 colleagues to write 2,000 words each identifying both which policies they pursued in the 1980s that can be credited to Adam Smith’s Works, and, even more interestingly, which they pursued that were contrary to his Works. A clue for the latter would include protectionist agricultural regimes and legal actions to weaken trade unions.

Readers of Lost legacy will know what is thought of the people who purloined Smith’s legacy in the 19th and 20th centuries and distorted it for uses which were contrary to his intentions, the words he used and what he meant. But, again, that is no excuse to damn a person for speaking truths, ‘twisted by knaves as a trap for fools’, even if it happened long before we, and the students, were born.

Educated people are expected to rise above the tabloids to that of informed assessments of people and their ideas. Students, who are in mid-course, are especially vulnerable to picking up ideas and notions without checking the original sources (as their tutors should remind them).

By naming the college in Adam Smith’s name they are honouring a world-renowned figure in the history of ideas and a leader of the European Enlightenment (perhaps Mr Muirhead should contemplate what Adam Smith and others, like David Hume, were fighting against in their advocacy of Enlightenment, a wholly radical struggle against the forces of reactionary darkness which Mr Muirhead now, thankfully, is not subjected to, er, thanks to people like Adam Smith, whom he believes does not represent the 'values' of his students; a most shocking charge born of, apologies but I can only describe it as ignorance).

This is an opportunity for Smithian-minded people to engage in the modern debate to restore his legacy.

PS: Murdo MacLeod's (Scotland on Sunday) piece carries a small summary of Adam Smith's life. It includes the following:

"In his seminal work, The Wealth of Nations, he studied the "invisible hand of the market" and the book later became ther foundation of free-market economics".

Smith never studied the "invisible hand of the market". The metaphor referred to the unintended consequences of human motivation and did not refer to markets, of which he wrote much, explained how they worked and why there was nothing mysterious about them. No wonder young students are easily misled.


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