Thursday, July 13, 2006

Calm Down: Adam Smith was not a Socialist

People over at the Adam Smith Institute are slowly working themselves into a bit of a tizzy because Gordon Brown and others (the latest is Professor Ian MacLean, though I cannot comment on his new book because the one I pre-ordered has not yet arrived) have claimed that Adam Smith was sort of a proto-socialist, even a socialist, or specifically a supporter of New Labour.

Now the evidence for this view, or fear, that I have seen so far is somewhat flimsy. It certainly is not well founded in what Smith wrote in respect of his social-evolutionary model of commercial society.

True, you can find quotations here and there which show he had (justifiable) sympathy for the plight of the common labourer and his family, and it is possible to work these quotations up into something akin to the sympathy that Labour politicians claim to feel for the poorer members of modern society today. But that is a long, long way from finding in Smith’s corpus a coherent or parallel model of what passes for socialism, steps towards socialism, or socialist planning, or anything remotely like it.

I am not sure that any of this language applies to Smith, unless you take an extreme view of ideas and see the slightest budge from pure libertarianism as an imminent collapse into collectivisation, state control of markets and such like. Authoritarian measures by governments (identity cards, detention for prolonged periods of 28 or 90 days, trials without juries, and electoral expenses by ‘fiddles’/blurring of rules, etc.,) are not monopolised by the so-called left – they are shared by all strains of the political spectrum, and must be watched suspiciously accordingly.

From what I can see, Brown is simply tweaking the beards of conservative minded opinion, claiming a conservative icon as a supporter to New Labour, without any serious claim to reality, and he is enjoying the discomfort of, among others, the Adam Smith Institute, who should know enough about Adam Smith (and do!) not to take these shallow claims seriously. He is also giving his future policies a ‘socialist’ glean to make them palatable to his leftwing cohorts.

Smith cannot be fitted into a modern political spectrum – it is extremely difficult to fit him into the 18th century spectrum (see Donald Winch’s “Adam Smith’s Politics”) – because he was apolitical. His perspective, looking backwards over two millennia and seeing what governments had managed to do to hold back the natural progress to opulence by their interventions, myths, beliefs and policies, gave him, I think a wholly estranged view of the possibilities likely from politics. He saw his task was to observe and understand the impediments to the creation of wealth, to present this to his readers and listeners and leave it to them what they made of it. He had no doubts that his comprehensive, detailed (exhaustively so!) and historically sound analysis covered the keys to enhancing what was naturally a slow and gradual progress towards opulence in conditions of perfect liberty (not laissez faire!).

He did not believe that everything could be left to the so-called metaphor of the invisible hand, and certainly not a visible one. He well understood that self-interest could well be malign as well as benign (he discusses more of the former examples to the single instance he gave of the latter). His examples of government-funded infrastructure were accompanied by a very vague 'solution' to the perennial problem of whether they should be managed by state or private commissioners; neither ‘solution’ appears to be clear-cut. He preferred to try both and then decide.

That is the stuff of politics. Parties, and leaders within them, have pre-set answers to every problem, and as governments, or leaders change, alternative solutions are tried. The high costs of this trial, fail, try again, and fail again, are the price paid for our system of government. What works once, also fails in due course and must be replaced, and the cycle begins over. Smith stood aside from all this; he advised governments and ministers in them, privately. He never went public on what they said in reply, or what they did with his suggestions.

Hence, Gordon Brown can claim what he likes about Smith – in general, only, of course – and he can read what he likes into his texts. Smithian scholars know better than to get to excited about his, or any other politician’s claims. Like Smith they observe and analyse, make suggestions and give advice if asked.


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