Thursday, June 15, 2006

Rounds 3 and 4: Rothbard versus Smith's Reputation

Two further postings of mine on the Blog. If you can take any more, read below:


I hope I am not included among those as ‘coming out of the woodwork’ to ‘bash Murray Rothbard’. I have no axe to grind against a person I did not know. In reading his critique of Adam Smith and I found gaping holes in his argument, at least on a subject I know something about. As to his standing generally, I have no view whatsoever.

I offered criticism on two items: his attack on Smith on the division of labour, where elementary textual errors are found, which I have detailed twice; and on the alleged superior merits of Cantillon, in which I find both Smith’s and Cantillon’s presentation of market and labour value relationships are identical, yet Smith is blamed for Marx and the horrors of communism, and the delay in establishing marginal analysis to the 1870s, while Cantillon’s complicity – if such an absurd charge could be made against Smith for what many talented people did or did not do in the 19th century, long after he was dead. Having pointed this out twice, like the division of labour, I have received no comments from Rothbard’s defenders.

“For one thing, there is an important difference between being dishonest (a conscious falsity) and simply being unusually impatient or biased in one's reading, although I am not prepared to accept the latter as a pervasive characteristic of Rothbard's scholarship either”.

I completely agree. Though when someone is as abrasive in scholarly exchanges as Rothbard appears to have been, scholarly carelessness is bound to become an issue. Scholars in their ‘cooler hours’ should, well, cool it, and check their references and, as Smith expressed it, ‘by lowering his passion to that pitch, in which the spectators are capable of going along with him’ and should endeavour to ‘flatten .. the sharpness of its natural tone, in order to reduce it to harmony and concord with the emotions of those who are about him’ (Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, I.i.4.7, p 22).

I agree my two points questioning the accuracy of two of Murray Rothbard’s ‘myths about Adam Smith’ (in a book, not a web posting, where a certain degree of informality is inevitable and accepted) cannot judge the overall quality of his oeuvre. I have written a detailed critique of his other points in a book I am currently writing on Adam Smith, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2007.

However, I believe there is much more to the 17th-18th century problem focus on what is known today as the ‘labour theory of value’ and Smith’s ‘contribution’ 19th-20th century confusion.

That some posters are adamant that value is ‘obviously’ to do with what something is worth to a consumer, can hardly be a serious critique of an author who did not have the benefit of 200 years additional work by many bright minds. When Smith wrote his ‘juvenile’ (graduate?) essay on Astronomy he did not use Rothbard’s language and tone to mock Plato, Eudoxus, Ptolemy, Descartes, and others, who were stuck in the conventional ‘certainties’ of the Sun revolving round the Earth (‘obviously the Earth went round the Sun!’). Scholars treat their distant predecessors, errors and all, with respect, not derision and tabloid headlines.

Ask yourself: how much did you know about the theory of value on day 1 of Economics 101, which some posters assert with such confidence, almost sneering at Smith because he knew only what everybody around him knew? Suppose you had to write an essay on it without access to a modern textbook, a library full of journal articles and a your tutor’s guidance?

Smith, and his contemporaries, had John Locke, Hutcheson (and Cantillon?), etc., when he delivered his lectures at Glasgow, 1752-64. He hadn’t yet met Turgot and the French Physiocrats. Ricardo had Smith and a few others. Remember, Smith gave lectures on political economy, using the materials he wrote, much of which appeared unchanged in Wealth of Nations in 1776, between 12 and 24 years later.

Judge him as predecessor, not as some kind of rival for the respect to which you are entitled for what you contribute to economics today.


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