Saturday, January 07, 2006

From the Department of Not Very Important, but Indicative of Something

Poor old Adam Smith. Now comes a quip in The Evening News (sister paper of the Scotsman), daily newspaper of his native city Edinburgh, that shreds his dignity by assertion and without a evidence, other than by tenuous association along the lines of: ‘Wealth of Nations’ is about wealth, ‘therefore’ it must be true that Smith favoured the wealthy over the poor’!

His legacy of works on philosophy, history, jurisprudence, governance of a civilised country and political economy is often distorted by people who should know better. We may treat these outbursts of injustice to his reputation with equanimity (or we may try to), but a total inversion of his attitudes, a calumny of immense proportions and an outrage of mistaken attribution, is so wrong that it chokes our normal sense of compassion towards those so ignorant of what they assert that they know not what they are doing.

Should we let it pass and move on or should we stand and assert: ‘No! It shall not pass”?
I choose the latter.

I refer to a Mr Paul Johnston, a crime novelist, who writes a piece (“Rebus' perfect crime scenery”) about Edinburgh as a background to the writing of crime novels in general and the work of the most successful crime writer in Scotland, Ian Rankin (the creator of the intriguing and worthwhile “Detective Inspector Rebus”) in particular.

“Johnston”, it reports in the little biography at the foot of the column, “was born in Edinburgh in 1957 into a literary family - his father Ronald was also a successful thriller writer. He attended Fettes, then studied ancient and modern Greek at Oxford University.”

By all accounts, Paul Johnston had an outstanding education. Fettes is the top Scottish private school, and is located in Edinburgh. He attended Oxford University (it does not say which college) and studied ancient and modern Greek. This is similar to what Adam Smith undertook at Balliol College from 1740-46 for his MA degree (in Smith’s case, his ‘course’ included Latin).

I hope Johnston’s time there was less unpleasant than it was for Adam Smith, whose experiences of the ‘anti-Scotch’ feelings of students and professors prompted his enduring prejudice against Oxford. Some intimation of Smith’s residual feelings, thirty years on, can be read in “Wealth of Nations”: “In the university of Oxford, the greater part of the publick professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching.” (WN V.i.f.8: p. 761)

Johnston “lived in Greece between 1987 and 1995, when he returned to the city to study for his second Master's degree. He became a full-time writer in 1998 and now divides his time between Britain and Greece.” Whatever Mr Johnston did in the intervening years it did not include reading any of Adam Smith’s works, other than, perhaps, their titles.

Johnston writes:

MURDER, political corruption, the drug trade, prostitution - these are the everyday problems faced by Edinburgh citizens. Or rather, they're the problems faced by Detective Inspector John Rebus in Ian Rankin's best-selling series of novels and short stories.”

Johnston continues:

It would be fair to say that Rankin has less time for the rich than he does for the poor. Although Adam Smith might not have approved, David Hume probably would have.”

Oh, Dear! On what basis does Paul Johnston assert that Adam Smith would have more time for the rich than the poor?

It could not have come from reading “Moral Sentiments”. As a successful novelist, Mr Johnston has the necessary reader’s antennae to note the mocking tone with which Smith describes human behaviour in respect of the origin of ranks in society (TMS I.iii.2); as a philosopher, Smith saw his duty as observation and analysis, and he held up a mirror to induce awareness of the foibles of rich for their vanity and the poor for their deference. The latter is seen today in the popular obsession with the frivolities of ‘celebrities’.

Or Johnston could read a mildly sarcastic essay on the misplaced passions of the rich for possessions and those poor men’s sons upon ‘whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition’ (TMS IV). He calls the ‘pleasures of wealth and greatness’ a ‘deception’, which has the sole benefit of keeping “in continual motion the industry of mankind” (TMS IV.I.9-10).

Smith offers a literary theory of rich and poor (he was always interested in plays, poetry and literature), which aligns itself well with the actions of Rankin’s Rebus character in respect of the crimes of people from landed families and ‘old money’ (TMS VI.ii.19-22) and the insterests of the police in them. Er, that’s what the police do – they investigate criminals and novelists write stories about their investigations.

In “Wealth of Nations” Smith provides the fruits of his historical observations and analysis. His exposure to readers of the roles of rich and poor from the earliest times onwards places the ‘oppression’ of the poor in the context of the emergence of property from the hunter to the farming stages of society and then onwards towards the fourth stage, that of commerce in mid-18th –century Scotland. He is unsentimental, but his sympathies show through (WN V.i.b), as in his discussion of the imbalance between laws against labourers ‘combining’ (strikes) to raise or resist a cut in wages and their absence against employers combining (WNI.viii) to resist rises and reduce, wages.

Chapter VII, ‘Of the Wages of labour’ makes a very clear account of his sentiments and two short extracts show his leanings between the two orders:

Is this improvement in the circumstances of the lower ranks of the people to be regarded as an advantage or as an inconveniency of the society? The answer seems at first sight abundantly plain. Servants, labourers and the work men of different kinds, make up the far greater part of every great political society. But what improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconveniency to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the greater part of its members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, cloath and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves well fed, cloathed and lodged. (WN I.viii.36: p. 96)


“…it is in the progressive state, while the society is advancing to the further acquisition, rather than when it has acquired it full complement of riches, that the condition of the labouring poor, of the great body of the people, seems to be happiest and the most comfortable. It is hard in the stationary, and miserable in the declining state. The progressive state is in reality the chearful and the hearty state to all the different orders of society. The stationary is dull, the declining is melancholy.”

Johnston complains about ‘benighted critics’ who deny ‘literary credibility’ to crime authors. On this we can agree. I think Rankin’s Rebus books are great. I have not read Johnston’s yet, so I cannot comment, not having read them.

Perhaps Paul Johnston should extend the same critical courtesy to Adam Smith.


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