Sunday, February 12, 2006

Smith was not a Deist 2

In response to a comment from James K. Galbraith to my article today (below) on his views on Smith as a Deist:

I have expressed already my policy is not to make unwarranted criticism of anybody’s assessments of Adam Smith’s writings. Lost Legacy usually criticizes ideas and tries to avoid criticizing individuals, especially where their records show them to be of some standing in the profession. That I returned to James K. Galbraith (November, December, February) is not because things are ‘quiet’ on Adam Smith (they are in fact fairly busy each week, as this Blog’s contents show) but because James publishes in Mother Jones and shows little sign of responding to my points, except to repeat the views which I consider to be in error. These are not major failing or reasons to fall out on a personal level.

That a ‘great many authorities think’ Smith was a Deist does not justify mere repetition that he was Deist. When scholars are shown contrary evidence they should consider it, and if it seems reliable, when checking the sources, they should at least qualify their assertions. How much Thornstein Veblen knew about the conditions in Scotland during the Enlightenment is not clear, except his ignoring the religious climate suggests if he did know anything he ignored it.

I make no claims for my forthcoming book (I would be surprised indeed, if anybody was to call it ‘great’) and this was not the purpose of my mentioning it here. I recognize that I have not marshalled and presented here all of the evidence for Smith not being a Deist, except a few tell-tale pointers that suggest he was not, and which readers may follow up for themselves.

I added material about Smith's friend James Hutton, just to indicate I was not making my claims up – they have been made by others, including ‘authorities’. The point about my book, due in 2007, was more to excuse my not going into detail to back-up my case (in the usual scholarly manner) because this is contained in something I am writing for another purpose. No suggestion is implied that I expect James, or anybody else, to have read a book not yet published, nor to read it afterwards; my concern is that he may not have read widely enough on what is already in the public domain – Smith’s works, journal articles about them – but relies entirely on those authorities, admittedly the majority, who assert ‘Smith was Deist’, to add his own substantial credibility among economists to what is, in my humble view, an error.

I recently quoted the admirable work of Jerry Evensky, who makes a firm scholarly case for Smith being a deist (Evensky, J. 2005. Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophy, Cambridge University Press). I don’t agree with Evensky on Smith’s Deism but admire his work; I don’t agree with James Galbraith on Deism but acknowledge and admire his work. Ideas are not to be taken personally in the republic of letters.

Smith’s mention of a preference for security (or any other reason or emotion) of one’s own capital stock, which is perfectly understandable and was practised in 18th century Britaion, especially among the small to middling merchants and manufacturers, and, of course, smaller farmers, having the unintended consequence such that it benefited society was certainly based on the fact that overseas opportunities existed, and were mainly exercised by richer merchants, the Royal Charter Trading companies (e.g., the East India Company) and not often among local merchants and journeymen. Of the great joint-stock chartered monopolies, Smith was most critical, not just of their corruption and vileness as ‘governments’, but also of their negative effects on local and national growth in Britain. They also cost expensive wars to maintain them.

Wealth of Nations is precisely about the conditions that ‘cause’ local/national wealth to grow faster and others that cause it to grow slower. Among the other causes that inhibit local/national wealth creation, he included monopolies, apprenticeship and settlement acts, tariffs and bounties of all kinds, and events like wars over frivolous issues. He accepted for reasons of state that some negatively-helpful growth deterrents, like the Navigation Acts, were necessary, even at some cost in growth terms, though he did not favour a policy of Empire merely to provide a market for monopolised distant sale (more worthy of ‘a government influenced by shopkeepers’ was how he expressed it).

I thank James for drawing my attention to a misattribution of a quotation to him instead of Veblen, for which I unreservedly withdraw it and, of course, apologise. It is, however, still incorrect, whoever said it.

Smith did not believe in the inevitability of progress; retrogression was possible within his evolutionary model. Nothing was pre-ordained to happen. It was also central to his assessment of human society, shown in his treatment of European society as barbaric for 1,000 years after the fall of Roman civilisation, until the commercial age began to revive gradually from the 16th and 17th centuries.


Blogger Zachary Maybe said...

I hope the notion of Mr. Smith the Diest is not a launch pad from which to surmise that Smith's invisible hand Aanalogy is in any way shape or form connected to modern superstitions that have congealed around the invisible hand theory which has been falsely connected with Mr. Smith.

The notion that Smith, through subtextual currents, was hinting at intelligent design in his writing stretches credulity and only deepens--correct me if I'm wrong--modern misapprehension of 1. Mr. Smith; 2. the ragmatical mass-intellectual debacle we so fondly refer to as the Great Invisible Hand Analogy/Theory Confusion; and, 3. the nature of Deism itself.

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