Thursday, March 02, 2006

Smith Was Not an 'Evangelist'

Last evening I attended a packed lecture given by Professor Sir Neil MacCormick at the David Hume Institute, Edinburgh on the European Union and David Hume’s essay on the ‘idea of a perfect Commonwealth’. It was a brilliant and stimulating performance for both its content and style that one expects from academics distinguished in their field. At the dinner afterwards he conducted a powerful tutorial for over an hour, discussing comments from the guests, themselves, excluding of course myself, distinguished in their fields.

Two points I noted particularly.

David Hume’s Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth (1752) is his conception of the ideal system of government. In the plan he divides the country into 100 counties, and each county into 100 parishes. People in each parish elect a representative for their county. These representatives then elect ‘magistrates’ (the executive officers) and senators from their county to be the executive power of the whole commonwealth in the capital. The senators elect the executive (magistrates) for specific tasks, such as councils of religion and learning, of trade, and of laws. Voting is democratic. Military service is voluntary and county magistrates try all crimes, aided by juries. Hume main concern is with party political factions and demagogues (Adam Smith’s ‘men of system’?).

In contrast, Smith, his close colleague and friend, did not produce ‘plans’ for the future and had no expectations about any particular policies, including ‘free trade’, being adopted in full by actual governments. Nor did he produce ‘perfect’ models of the economy (itself an elementary error by modern neo-classical economists looking at ‘Wealth of Nations’ in terms of a modern textbook). Even jurisprudence dealt with the evolution of justice (linked to property both material and in the person) as it had been experienced and existed in Britain.

On Moral Philosophy he also examined how mediated moral conduct fell far short of how religious theorists claimed it ‘ought to be’ under mandate from a Divine God, and always took account of the existence of ‘vile’ people.

Smith’s political economy is about the deviations of real economies from Natural Liberty and not about a recipe for instituting Natural Liberty. It was Smith’s view that Natural Liberty either emerged from the unplanned behaviours of people over long periods of time (like language and morals did) or is was subject to interference from actual human behaviours and remained that way. The Philosopher’s task was to observe the extent and the history of the deviations, and to propose policies to mitigate them, where possible, but otherwise not to expect any fundamental changes to occur rapidly, occur gradually or to occur at all. Smith was not an ‘evangelist’, nor in that sense a ‘High Priest’!


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