Monday, February 12, 2007

Biographical Nonsense About Adam Smith

Apart from the ignominy of having his intellectual legacy misappropriated into a caricature of his writing, Adam Smith also suffers from much nonsense written about his personal history, the kind of man he was, anecdotal gossip of his supposed ‘other worldliness’ and his lack of social acceptance. He showed very clearly another side, in his administrative work, his studies and his ability to organise effective political campaigns, which many people failed to notice.

I came across an example of this genre today in what may be an undergraduate essay (I am judging its quality and standard of factual content, not the academic standing of its author).

In an article on the awe inspiring title of: “The Wealth of Nations, the betterment of a people: a look into the contrasting writings and the corresponding goals of Adam Smith, and of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels”, Sarah Harrison writes:

“Adam Smith’s lens was that of a Scottish social climber who, when writing The Wealth of Nations in the late 1760s and early 1770s, saw revolutionary change occurring around him. Indeed much of the world was preparing for major political and thus economic changes. Having just exited the Seven Years’ War, and on the eve of the American and then French Revolutions, the world was changing, and with that so were class structures and the traditional views on economics [Nolan 183]. With the population boom and the transition from a feudal to a mercantile and to a capitalist or free market system, came an increased freedom to choose whatever occupation you wished to persue. Previously birth and rank had predetermined one’s social standing for life, but as the capitalist Benjamin Franklin later put it, “The ‘‘commodity’’ of ‘‘high birth’’ was worth next to nothing… what mattered about a man was ‘‘What can he DO?’ ’” [Waldstreicher 268-278] With this freedom to choose what you do, and the opportunity to benefit from your skills, came the chance for social mobility, something that had never before been so readily available to the common man.

As a common man himself, a professor of moral philosophy from average means [Wikipedia]”

Adam Smith, ‘a Scottish social climber’;

‘With this freedom to choose what you do, and the opportunity to benefit from your skills, came the chance for social mobility, something that had never before been so readily available to the common man’;

‘As a common man himself, a professor of moral philosophy from average means…’ (so says Sarah Harrison; the author of these lines).

What a lot of, er, tosh!

From what to what did Smith ‘climb’, socially or otherwise? Does Sarah have any idea of what she is talking about? Obviously not.

His father was a Scottish solicitor (a Writer to the Signet, as well), serving the Scottish Secretary of State, in the crucial legal work to join the Scottish and English parliaments in the Act of Union, 1707, still a most controversial event in Scottish history in this 300th anniversary year. He also served John, second Duke of Argyle, commander of the Army in Scotland during the courts martial related to the 1715 Jacobite rebellion.

He died a few months before Smith was born in June 1723, and his mother, Margaret Douglas, was a daughter of one of Fife’s farming and landowning families, many of her brothers and uncles were also farmers and ex-army officers (not labourers). His mother owned and lived in one of the larger houses in Kirkcaldy from her husband’s legacy, which included other properties in Aberdeen.

I thing Sarah has a starry-eyed notion about the living standards and incomes of the ‘station in lif’ of the common man in 18th century Scotland. Wives of labourers had large families of children, most dying in their infancy; out of ten or more, only two normally survived to adulthood.

Smith was not of such limited vision as to aspire after the social life of the upper order of British society. It took until the end of the next century before common labourers could aspire to anything more than relief from their poverty, let alone to ‘social climbing’. This was Scotland, not America.

Smith mercilessly rubbished such social aspirations in both of his major works, and he had friends, like the social snob, The Reverend Alexander Carlyle, who were sufficiently off-putting as social climbers to keep Smith’s feet on the ground. Smith was a comfortable member of the middle orders, well educated above the norm (most children of common labourers left school between 8-10 years, and put out to work for pence a day).

He mixed with people of all classes, and had a healthy respect for the common man, born of his compassion and not memories of having suffered anything remotely like the poverty of the vast majority of his fellow citizens; a poverty he witnessed by taking the trouble to spend much time consorting with people from all walks of life, rich and poor, around him. He gave away most of his self-earned fortune in charitable acts, including to his extended family of cousins, nephews and aunts.

He was not ‘upwardly mobile’ in any modern sense. His family paid his way through Glasgow and Oxford universities, he became a university professor and ‘retired’ to write Wealth of Nations, consort with friends in the Scottish Enlightenment, and proffer private advice to MPs, Ministers of the Crown and Prime Ministers, much as his father had on a smaller scale in the early 1700s.

Sarah should read any of the major biographies of Adam Smith (Dugald Stewart’s, 1793; John Rae’s, 1895; or Ian Ross’s, 1995) instead of relying on unreliable contributors to “Wikepedia” (assuming what she quoted is representative).

[Read the rest of Sarah’s article – it's almost as inaccurate in its content as the biographical howlers quoted above at:]


Post a Comment

<< Home