Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Myths of Murray Rothbard (Part 4)

To conclude the discussion on Smith’s alleged plagiarism of the division of labour (suitably answered in earlier comments) I shall turn to Murray Rothbard’s own myths. He convinced himself that he had found a ‘smoking gun’ in Smith’s version of the division of labour and his quarrel with Adam Ferguson.

Closer analysis shows Rothbard quiet wrong in his borrowed interpretation from Professor Hamowy’s 'Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, and the Division of Labour', (Economica, August 1968, p. 253):

Professor Hamowy has shown that Smith did not break with his old friend, as had previously been thought, because of Ferguson's use of the concept of the division of labour in his Essay on the History of Civil Society in 1767. In view of all the writers who had employed the concept earlier, this behaviour would have been ludicrous, even for Adam Smith. Hamowy conjectures that the break came in the early 1 780s, because of Ferguson's discussion at their club of what would later be published as part of his Principles of Moral and Political Science in 1792….

Thus Adam Smith broke up a long-standing friendship by unjustly accus­ing Adam Ferguson of plagiarizing an example which, in truth, both men had taken without acknowledgement from the French Encyclopédie

Admitting that such behaviour would have been ‘ludicrous’ on Smith’s part should have been followed by caution in copying these attributions from Professor Hamowys. I agree that their dispute was not over the principle of the division of labour, because of well-known common knowledge of their prior publication in more ancient writings, as Smith acknowledges in his reference to the pin manufactory example (“Wealth of Nations”, p. 14-15).

But what was it then? Ferguson in his History of Civic Society (1767) introduced the relatively new proposition of the division of labour causing what we now call ‘alienation’, a theme taken up by Smith in Book V of ‘Wealth of Nations’ (1776). If there was to be a quarrel over precedence it was more likely to be the subject of alienation and not the principle of the division of labour. Ferguson’s references to alienation pre-date ‘Wealth of Nations’, but they do not pre-date his ‘Lectures in Jurisprudence’ delivered between 1750 and 1764 (and published in an accessible edition by Liberty Fund in1982).

The fact that Smith's lecturers were not published until the end of the 19th century does not disqualify a quarrel over precedence in alienation because several hundred persons heard his lectures, he spoke about his ideas regularly in his clubs and ‘social hours’, and Ferguson mixed in the same circles. The ‘lost’ lectures misled Karl Marx into attributing to Ferguson precedence in ‘alienation’ theory, and describing him as the ‘teacher’ of Adam Smith and also Smith as his ‘pupil’ (Marx, K. 1867. Capital, p. 123, n.1; p. 354; pp. 361-2). But Smith had lectured on alientation many years before Ferguson’s 1767 History of Civil Society (Lectures, LJ[B]: 329, p. 539).

But was it really a quarrel, as Professor Hamowys claims and Rothbard endorses, about the contents of a book Ferguson was to publish in 1792 (Smith died in 1790) , or was it about something else? In the original report of the alleged charges by Smith he is alleged to have accused Ferguson:

of having borrowed some of his inventions without owning them. This Ferguson denied, but owned he had derived many notions from a French author, and that Smith had been there before him’ (Carlyle, A. 1860, 2nd ed. Autobiography of Alexander Carlyle).

It was not just a ‘French source’, but a ‘French Author’, and the best candidate for the author is Baron Montesquieu and his book, ‘Spirit of the Law’ (1748), whose concepts and ideas featured strongly in Smith’s lectures at Glasgow University, which he acknowledged six times (though not a further 20 times). Speech does not lend itself to author citations and, anyway, Smith never edited the students’ notes for accuracy, and his own manuscript for Jurisprudence was burned on his instructions a short while before he died. His lectures were taken down by students and widely circulated – two copies of which were discovered over 100 years later.

Ferguson’s History of Civil Society appeared in 1767 and in its first edition made no acknowledgement of Montesquieu’s work as the source, and Smith would have recognised this deficiency. Indeed, Ferguson published the following bizarre apology in the second 1773 edition:

In his [Montesquieu’s] writings will be found, not only the original of what I am now, for the sake of order, to copy from him, but likewise probably the source of many observations, which in different places, I may, under the belief of invention, have repeated without quoting the author.’

This leaves the final and, if I may opine, gratuitous, false criticism of Smith on trivial arithmetical details (which Rothbard also manages to get wrong!) of his famous pin manufactory example in ‘Wealth of Nations’:

There is strong evidence that the 'French source' for both writers was the article on Epingles (pins) in the Encyclopédie (1755), since that article mentions 18 distinct operations in making a pin, the same number repeated by Smith in the Wealth of Nations, although in English pin factories 25 was the more common number of opera­tions.’

What are we to make of this ‘evidence’? Is Rothbard arguing that the alleged discrepancy between 18 (Encyclopédie) and 25 (England) shows he had caught out Smith in a borrowed example? A closer reading of the passage in ‘Wealth of Nations’ suggests otherwise.

First of all the ‘18’ operations are reported to have been ‘very often taken notice of’ (p.14), i.e., sufficiently familiar to be common knowledge by 1776 (21 years after the Encyclopédie article in 1755). Then Smith goes on to describe a ‘small pin manufactory, which he states emphatically: ‘I have seen’ (p.15) and Rothbard questions the veracity of this statement and adds by implication to his charges that Smith was also a liar. Smith’s actual statement says that he saw:

a small manufactory of this kind where ten men only were employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations. But though they were very poor, and therefore but indifferently accommodated with the necessary machinery, they could when they exerted themselves, make among them about twelve pounds of pins in a day. There are in a pound upwards of four thousand pins of a middling size. Those ten persons, therefore, could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day. Each person, therefore, making a tenth part of forty-eight thousand pins, might be considered as making four thousand eight hundred pins a day. But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in day; that is, certainly not the two hundred and fortieth, perhaps not four thousand eight hundred part of what they are at present capable of performing, in consequences of a proper division and combination of their different operations” (WN I.i.3. p. 15).

The pin manufactory he describes in detail does not include anything about how many operations are involved, other than that the ten men included among them ‘some of them [who] consequently performed two or three distinct operations.’ The ‘18’ operations cited by Rothbard as ‘evidence’ comes from earlier sentence in the paragraph.

So what is Rothbard’s ‘evidence’ for his gratuitous and false implication that there was something untoward in Smith’s account of what he saw? Rothbard’s assertion is that ‘the same number [18] is repeated by Smith in the 'Wealth of Nations’ and shows he has caught himself Smith out, because ‘in English pin factories 25 was the more common number of opera­tions’. Unfortunately, Rothbard didn’t catch anybody but himself out in his (careless) misreading of Adam Smith, and, er, by the way, I note that Rothbard gave no citation for this statement about ‘25’ operations been more common in England (Smith incidentally lived in Scotland).

It is clear that Rothbard did not read this Chapter in “Wealth of Nations” with enough care (though he describes it has the book’s most ‘famous’ paragraph!) whilst in pursuit of his intemperate objective of accusing Smith of falsehoods. His normal standards of scholarly accuracy had slipped severely on this occasion.

I shall call these pieces, when I collect them together, “The Myths of Murray Rothbard: a reply to the Myths of Adam Smith’”. I wonder if the Ludwig Mises Institute will publish them?


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