Friday, January 26, 2007

A Book From One of the Good Guys: read and enjoy

The History of Economics is not yet dead as a subject, despite years of neglect, the slow disappearance of chairs dedicated to the sub-subject in many economics departments, and the absence, except among near-retirees and recent past retirees, who came from traditions that found the history of their subject both taught and understood with colleagues because it was considered to be important in any economist's training.

Books published recently suggest that publishers think they can sell a few thousand copies of titles in the area, so there must be a market for such books if there are customers willing to buy them. Among recent publications there was the effort by Duncan K. Foley on ‘Adams Fallacy: a guide to economic theology’ (Harvard Press), of which I have commented several times, and Peter J. O’Rourke’sOn the Wealth of Nations’, Atlantic Monthly Press, which I noted at the time.

O’Rourke’s book intentionally plays for a laugh, and with this amusing author you get what you paid for; Foley’s was a laugh (in good Smithian fashion: unintentionally) and that means you are short-changed. If many students read 0’Rourke’s book they might be inspired to read Smith’s original works for themselves; if students read Foley’s fallacies about Smith they may be disoriented because of its central flaw: Adam Smith is not guilty to the charges made against him by Foley (though neoclassical economists may well be complicit in creating Foley’s false image of Smith).

Today I came across a review of Thomas Sowell’s new book, ‘Of History and Economics’, Yale University Press, on the Sophistipundit Blog, written by Adam Gurri (http://sophistpundit.blogspot.com/2007/01/of-history-and-economics.html).

Sowell’s name is known to me from his short booklet, ‘Classical Economics Reconsidered’, Princeton University Press, 1974, which I have among my Smith library because of its enduring excellence.

Adam Gurri Reviews: ‘Thomas Sowell On Classical Economics’,
Yale University Press, 2006, and writes (from which I extracted this gem):

Also fascinating is his intellectual account of Karl Marx, who he spends a great deal of time dispelling the ideas that have been associated with him because of "an interpretive literature driven to the desperate expedient of quoting numerous post-Marxian writers and ignoring Marx himself." He believes that Marx had many ideas that were as respectable as his intellectual predecessors, whom he named as David Ricardo and Sismondi among others. He argues that many of the ideas that have become known as "Marxism" were openly rejected by Marx himself.”

Comment
Now I know that this is not directly about Adam Smith but it could as easily apply to him. You could re-cast the paragraph to read (apologies to both Sowell and Gurri):

Also fascinating is his intellectual account of [Adam Smith], who he spends a great deal of time dispelling the ideas that have been associated with him because of "an interpretive literature driven to the desperate expedient of quoting numerous post-[Smithian] writers and ignoring [Smith] himself." He believes that [Smith] had many ideas that were as respectable as his intellectual [successors], whom he named as David Ricardo and Sismondi among others. He argues that many of the ideas that have become known as "Smithian" were openly rejected by [Smith] himself.”

That is precisely what happened to Smith’s legacy since he died in 1790. His modern reputation is based almost entirely on ‘an interpretive literature’ and that many of ideas attributed to him (e.g., laissez-faire, ‘invisible hand’ theories; High-Priest of capitalism; apologist for capitalist multi-nationals; ‘night watchman states’; theory of selfishness and greed; indifference to ‘externalities’; adulation of ‘prices’, not ‘values’; absolute free trade; indifference to poverty; colonialism; ‘neo-conservatism’; ‘neo-socialism’; and Homo-economicus), are without foundation in what he actually wrote in Wealth of Nations and Moral Sentiments.

Hence, I have ordered a copy today of Thomas Sowell’s new book, ‘On Classical Economics’, Yale University Press, from Amazon. I wonder how much of what he re-considered in the 1970s has changed or been confirmed thirty years later?

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