Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Left and Right Can Both be Wrong

Both Left and Right commentators are as wrong about Adam Smith as each other. On that they agree though they don’t know just how misled they are about the man from Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland. And the misunderstanding is not confined to the ranters; articulate, well read and literate minded contributors are often as wrong as the other kind.

This is from ‘Carl’ on the ‘Simply Left Behind’ Blog (10 January), whose post discusses the disjointed views of Herbert Spenser, the so-called populariser of the science of Charles Darwin on Natural Selection.

Spencer was, in fact, applying a rudimentary form of evolution, warped and twisted, to economics, in particular the free market system. Mind you, what he describes in his books was no different than what Adam Smith defined capitalism as (the individual self-interest ultimately creates a larger societal self-interest, altho Smith was careful to put limits on capitalists and capitalism by insisting on government oversight to avoid predation), except that he extended it to exclude governmental interference, and to state categorically that, by applying Darwin's theory, those that can do better business should survive and dominate the market, including the market of ideas.”

First, Adam Smith never ‘defined’ capitalism; when he was alive there was no such word in English; it was coined for the first time in 1854 (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) and first appeared in print in William Makespeace Thackery’s novel, The Newcomes. Then it was picked up by Karl Marx and is liberally spread through his three-volume opus: The Capital (of which he wrote Vol 1, and Vols 2 and 3 were edited by his friend, Fred Engels).

Smith did not define capitalism because he wrote about the Age of Commerce in a time when agriculture dominated British economic activity (and western Europe’s, India and China’s) and most of the rest was still in the either the Age of Shepherds or the pre-historic Age of Hunters. Capitalism appeared in the 19th century – the rest,as they say, is history) and its analysis by economists created a new discipline (they dropped political economy), which became the neoclassical consensus (eventually in the 20th century they dropped people and worked with calculus) and the Chicago version of Adam Smith was born a completely different person to his namesake who came from Kirkcaldy.

Smith was not opposed to government intervention per se; he opposed mercantile political economy which was government intervention for the benefits of the State and the elites who ran it (see Douglass C. North, John J. Wallis and Barry R. Weingasst, The Natural State: the political economy of non-development, 2005). In Wealth of Nations he had a comprehensive list of tasks for government in free societies (on this the Mise and his followers are correct: Smith was no liberatian).

The Spencerian notion of ‘red in tooth and claw’ has no place in Smithian political economy nor in the moral philosophy.

[Read Carl’s post at: (]


Blogger Barry Stocker said...

As far as I can see there is considerable difference between Mises and some of his followers, particularly Rothbard, about Smith. A brief search of Mises' texts suggests that he regarded Smith as a prophet of 'free market liberalism' and that Mises thought he was more important than the French Physiocrats. I also used Google Scholar to sample commentaries and commentators on the Austrian School generally agree that Hayek was very enthusiastic about Smith, Mises a bit less so, and Rothbard accused Smith of paving the way to Marxism. This is not my area of specialisation, but may I suggest you might have confused Mises with Rothbard? In general I'm very happy with ASLL, which is a model of well informed and careful blogging, correcting common misconceptions about Smith.

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