Friday, June 02, 2006

Questions about Adam Smith 1

I am often asked questions about Adam Smith by readers who email me at:
gavin [AT] adamsmithslostlegacy[DOT]com and I endeavour to answer as fully as my time and knowledge allow. It seemed to me that others may be interested in some of these queries and my answers ,and I shall post those deserving a wider audience in future.

Today’s contribution covers two questions about aspects of Smith’s life and work.

1 “Do you know of any evidence that Adam Smith and James Watt had ever met each other?”

They most certainly did meet each other. Watt was unable to work as a self-taught mechanic in Glasgow by order of the Guilds that ran the Town (they insisted on the 7-year apprenticeship statutes from Elizabeth’s time), and Watt was given space at Glasgow University, which was outside the Town boundaries to become the University’s instrument mechanic where he began, as a side interest his practical work on engines). Among the professors at Glasgow there was Adam Smith and they had many opportunities to meet on official and informal business. Watt attended meetings of Professor Simson’s symposia on mathematics, as did Smith.

There is no extant correspondence between them but as they both knew common acquaintances, one of which was Joseph Black (I have a book of Black’s correspondence with Watt; it contains mainly scientific matters), their proximity and common interests, and Watt’s experience with the Trade Corporations in Glasgow, which Smith severely criticises in Wealth Of Nations and the Lectures, so we can assume they were on reasonably intimate terms. Smith also knew Dr John Roebuck who founded the Carron Company to manufacture iron products, with whom Watt had business interests. Smith and Roebuck corresponded over the years (see Correspondence of Adam Smith, Liberty Fund edition, Indianapolis, Indiana; try Amazon).

2 “Do you know of any report that Smith personally suffered from any violence in the town or country?”

Smith does not record any personal case of him being assaulted, though, by anecdote only, he was ‘disagreeable’ after imbibing wine; ‘very ‘warm’ in his temper; called Dr Johnston a ‘son of a bitch’; and reportedly came ‘near to blows’ with Professor Anderson at faculty meetings. There is also the anecdote that he was temporarily ‘stolen by gypsies’ for half-an hour or so when he was 3-years old (see Ian Ross, Life of Adam Smith, 1995, Oxford University Press, Oxford).

He was certainly affected by the 1745-6 Jacobite rebellion. His father had been a senior functionary in the English parliament’s efforts to convince the Scottish Parliament to unify with England in 1705-07 and he worked for Lord Loudoun as his personal secretary and was a steward for the 2nd Duke of Argyll afterwards. These relationships proved helpful to young Smith in his early career. His father died a few months before Smith was born in 1723, but his reputation as a Hanoverian, anti-Jacobite helped him into Glasgow University as a student (1737) and into Oxford University as a Snell Exhibitioner in 1740-46, and later into his first Chair in Glasgow in 1751 (the Duke of Argyll had the patronage to agree or disagree to these appointments).

At Oxford the University in general, and Balliol College in particular, were imbued with Jacobite fervour when Smith attended and by all accounts the Jacobite faculty and students gave the Scotch students from Glasgow, a notoriously anti-Jacobite University, a difficult time, contributing to Smith leaving early before his Exhibition was completed. He never went back. His mother’s house in Kirkcaldy was close to the route of the Highland rebels (‘four or 5 Thousand naked and unarmed Highlanders’ in Smith’s judgement) and the government armies chasing them. No doubt he was very worried for her safety, though she had many relatives nearby, most with professional military experience.

Smith saw the barbarian invasion of Rome replicated in the armed rebellions of the Highlands (1715 and 1745). He believed the ‘first duty’ of government was the defence of the population against the invasion of neighbours – though he believed trade was the best defence of peace. He was critical of wars by European princes over trivial issues and while ‘defence is preferred to opulence’, war was always destructive of wealth.

In this last context, I have been struck by the constant use of the words ‘reduction of poverty’ as if this is a main goal of policy; I would, following Smith, prefer to see the ‘creation of wealth’ as the main objective. Wealth is the production and distribution of the ‘maintenance, conveniences and superfluities of life’ from Turgot’, or ‘all the necessaries and conveniences of life’ from Smith.

The production of real wealth, the value of what is produced annually, is the only lasting antidote to poverty. It is what people do for themselves on a constant basis that eliminates poverty and any programme that aims to ‘reduce poverty’ by giving money or bags of flour (outside of catastrophes during which humanity demands no skimping in generosity) is ultimately, even quickly, futile in achieving its aim.


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