Friday, January 26, 2007

Kettles, Pots and Ironies (and a bit of Scottish history)

ALEX ROBERTS, a Halifax-based freelance writer and educational speaker, writes a lively piece, “A renaissance in the dismal science”, for The Halifax Nova Scotia 26 Jan. A paragraph in it caught my eye:

“In May, the Bank of England announced a redesigned £20 banknote featuring the image of the famous 18th-century Scottish economist Adam Smith. The irony of a notable Scottish-born economist on a Bank of England banknote notwithstanding, the nation-wide circulation of the currency will certainly give economists and economics a higher profile with both numismatists and the British public alike.”

The double irony is that Alex Roberts, residing and working in a province called ‘New Scotland’ (Nova Scotia), doesn’t know that the Bank of England was founded by a Scotsman, William Paterson (born in Dumfries), a merchant. The Bank prospered, but Paterson’s next project, to join in the commercial work for the ‘Darien Company’ (the Scottish Company for Africa and India’) managed to nearly bankrupt Scotland in its failure.

The Bank of England is the central bank of the United Kingdom now and holds a monopoly on issuing currency, with residual exceptions for the remaining Scottish Banks that are permitted, in legislation going back to the Treaty of Union in 1707, to issue their own notes (mainly as marketing gimmicks because for each note they print under their own designs they must deposit a sterling equivalent note from the Bank of England in their reserves).

Adam Smith is a perfectly respectable image to appear on the new £20 notes this year. His reputation goes well beyond Scotland and the British Isles too.
Perhaps the third irony is that Alex Roberts quotes the cliché about economics being the ‘dismal science’, a, 1849 quip by Thomas Carlyle (another Scotsman) in regard to the views expressed by John Stuart Mill (whose father was Scottish), who published ‘Principles of Political Economy in 1848. Mill defended the emancipation of slaves in the West Indies and called them human beings; Carlyle railed against this notion, using perfectly disgusting language, and said economics was the dismal science’ if it considered Negroes (he used choicer language) as human beings, and argued for reintroducing slavery.

His quip had nothing to do with Adam Smith’s, Thomas Malthus’s, or David Ricardo’s styles of discourse, though many commentators, who use the quip for cheap headlines in the press, often associate it with these other economists and appear ignorant of its origins in the racialist ranting of Thomas Carlyle.


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