Friday, June 22, 2007

A Question of Smithian Values

A flurry in the Scottish media about a Georgian Mansion in Dumfries being put on the market with its contents intact that was designed by Scotland’s foremost 18th century architects, the Adam family firm (please, no jokes).

Duncan Macmillan, a Scottish journalist writes: “Are we willing to save our heritage?” in The Scotsman (21 June) and I quote a representative paragraph:

Finally, if Scotland deserves a place in the modern world, it is above all because of what our ancestors in the Enlightenment did to shape it. Robert Adam and the Adam firm were part of that. The family was from Kirkcaldy, as was Adam Smith. Their use of the division of labour may have inspired his work in The Wealth of Nations. Before that however, Smith's first major book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, was published the year Dumfries House was started. In the book, Smith presents the central values of the Enlightenment - above all, the importance of sociability and the belief that civilised society is built on the gifts of human nature, imagination and sympathy. Because Dumfries House and its contents are intact, we can still see they stand for those same things. They make them visible.

At a time when the values of the Enlightenment by which we have tried to live since that time are under savage attack, the Executive must stand by them. If it backs away from this, it will be judged wanting. It will be seen to have failed to understand what Scotland has given to the world. Not a good start for a nationalist administration.”

The asking price is £22 million, most of it for the furniture, curtains and paintings, most of original vintage.

Duncan Macmillan manages to hit all targets in his plea (sign of a good persuader):

Scotland in the modern world because of the Enlightenment; Robert Adam and family, major architectural influencers in Scotland and England associated with magnificent Georgian public buildings, many still in daily use; Adam Smith and his two books, Moral Sentiments (1759) and Wealth Of Nations (1776); the house and its contents as visible representations of the Enlightenment; its ‘values’ are ‘under savage(?) attack’ (it ‘twas ever thus’); the new Scottish Executive will be ‘judged wanting’ unless it ‘stands by’ these values; it will have ‘failed to understand’ Scotland’s many gifts ‘to the world’; and it would be a poor start for the ‘nationalist administration’.

Excuse me, but I defer to nobody for examples of commitment to Scotland’s heritage and defence of the values of the Scottish Enlightenment, but pressing a series of buttons does not a case make for £22 million on a building and contents that have rested safely in Dumfries House since 1759.

How does Duncan know that a new owner would simply disperse the contents, ‘knock’ the building down, or whatever? What exactly would be lost if the new owner did just that (assuming the planning laws let them)? The artefacts would be spread round the world and would be equally safe as when they rested in Dumfries. Is it our role to preserve Scotland in aspic forever?

The social work department, presumably for the benefit of people living today in Edinburgh, uses Adam Smith’s house, which he rented in Edinburgh in Panmure Close, off the High Street, and which today is owned by the City Council. I am sure he would have approved of such a venture; I am not sure that he would have approved if it had become a sort of shrine. What sort of Enlightenment value would that portray?

The statue of Adam Smith, about to be erected in Edinburgh High Street by private subscription (organised by the Adam Smith Institute, London), not public money, is close to the boundary of his modest sense of frugal taste.

He criticised his friend, David Hume, for arranging for, in Smith's opinion, an overly ornate Mausoleum over his grave on Carlton Hill, and he arranged a far simpler, frugal and modest one for himself. That was his style. Whether he would have approved of £22 million of public money, raised by taxation and not by productive activity, for an Adam House and its contents, is quite another matter.


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