Saturday, September 29, 2007

A Misleading Quotation Exposes the Ignorance of the Quoter

Game of quotation swapping to show that Adam Smith was a) conservative, or b) a socialist, are relatively harmless. Some people even write entire books on the subject, or build propaganda careers out of it.

So Shawn Fremstad writing in the Blog, Inclusion (‘independent progressive new’) today has a teasing stab at the Heritage Foundation with a series:

Things Adam Smith Said that Would Get Him Fired From the Heritage Foundation’
and gives an introduction: ‘Adam Smith, the intellectual father of free-market economics, is revered by conservatives, but he also said a lot of stuff that would get him bounced out of the Heritage Foundation or most other conservative think tanks.

His example quotation is:

"Wherever there is great property, there is great inequality. For one very rich man, there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few presupposes the indigence of the many."

I feel no need to defend the Heritage Foundation; they are big enough to defend themselves. However, I am inclined to defend Adam Smith’s legacy from misuse of his Works from what appears to be a politically motivated purpose, which, of course, is Shawn Fremstad’s right in a free society. My purpose is purely to set the record straight.

Shawn extracts a sentence from important paragraphs and he does not identify the source of his quotation, other than to write Wealth Of Nations, a two volume work of nearly 1,000 pages (depending on the edition). Readers of his Blog, not familiar with Smith’s Works, would have to rely in his interpretation, and in doing so may get the wrong idea. It may also be the case that Shawn does not have Wealth Of Nations to hand an is relying on a thrid-hand quote.

For those interested, the reference is: WN V.i.b.2: pp 709-10.

In Book V, Smith discusses the origins of civil government and the duties of the ‘sovereign’ or the government in a constitutional monarchy (as Britain was in his day – and still is). I shall quote the reference in full because it illustrates what Adam Smith was writing about, which puts a different slant on what Shawn makes him imply:

Among nations of hunters, as there is scarce any property, or at least none that exceeds the value of two or three days labour; so there is seldom any established magistrate or any regular administration of justice. Men who have no property can injure one another only in their persons or reputations. But when one man kills, wounds, beats, or defames another, though he to whom the injury is done suffers, he who does it receives no benefit. It is otherwise with the injuries to property. The benefit of the person who does the injury is often equal to the loss of him who suffers it. Envy, malice, or resentment, are the only passions which can prompt one man to injure another in his person or reputation. But the greater part of men are not very frequently under the influence of those passions; and the very worst of men are so only occasionally. As their gratification too, how agreeable soever it may be to certain characters, is not attended with any real or permanent advantage, it is in the greater part of men commonly restrained by prudential considerations. Men may live together in society with some tolerable degree of security, though there is no civil magistrate to protect them from the injustice of those passions. But avarice and ambition in the rich, in the poor the hatred of labour and the love of present ease and enjoyment, are the passions which prompt to invade property, passions much more steady in their operation, and much more universal in their influence. Wherever there is great property there is great inequality. For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many. The affluence of the rich excites the indignation of the poor, who are often both driven by want, and prompted by envy, to invade his possessions. It is only under the shelter of the civil magistrate that the owner of that valuable property, which is acquired by the labour of many years, or perhaps of many successive generations, can sleep a single night in security. He is at all times surrounded by unknown enemies, whom, though he never provoked, he can never appease, and from whose injustice he can be protected only by the powerful arm of the civil magistrate continually held up to chastise it. The acquisition of valuable and extensive property, therefore, necessarily requires the establishment of civil government. Where there is no property, or at least none that exceeds the value of two or three days' labour, civil government is not so necessary.” [WN V.i.b.2: pp 709-10]

· The whole of Wealth Of Nations may be read on-line at the Adam Smith Institute web site:

I have restored some elementary punctuation to Smith’s original from the Glasgow Edition of The Wealth Of Nations, Oxford University Press. You can purchase astonishingly low-priced editions of all of Adam Smith’s Works from Liberty Fund, Indianna, via Amazon.

Smith is discussing the origin of civil government from hunter-gatherer societies (what Adam Smith called the ‘first age of mankind’, Lectures On Jurisprudence, 1762-63, pp 14-16). He was not discussing 21st century (or even post-18th century North America). He found the origins of justice in the invention of property and reported it as a moral philosopher, not a political commentator.

If Shawn has a different theory of the origins of justice – to protect the individuals natural rights against depredations on his person, rights and reputation and on his acquired rights in property – or if he imagines that the Heritage Society has a different theory of their origins – I would be interested in considering them.

Those hunting societies in Europe and the Near East 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, after the last ice-age, that formed small settled societies, developed civil governments among which problems they faced was who lived where in the settlements. This required the invention of the role of private property. Without such a concept they could never have developed shepherding (Adam Smith’s second age of mankind) to solve the elementary problem of who owned which deer, sheep, pigs or cattle, and they would never have gone on to develop agriculture (Adam Smith’s third age of mankind), from which, as they say, the rest is history.

Now there may be some (I’ve certainly met a few) who regret the long run consequences of that fateful decision of individuals to abandon relying on hunting towards the end of the ice-age and starting mankind, unknowingly and unintentionally, to create the recent history of mankind as we know it. There are even some still surviving who would welcome the end of property, though they wish to retain all the appurtenances of civilisation at the same time. I admire their self-sacrifice of the lives of billions of humans, including themselves, who would never have been born if the ragged survivors of the last ice-age had reverted to hunting as many did in the rest of the world and were found in the same state they were in when the descendants of the pastoral and farming tribes found them from the 15th to the 18th century.

I cannot speak with authority about what the hiring principles are of the Heritage Foundation (though I worry about the hiring principles of ‘Inclusion’ if Shawn Fremstad thinks it OK to fire people for the ideas they hold) but I am fairly sure that they are more familiar with Adam Smith’s Works than he credits them. The difference is that they have read the whole of the Work and not just selected quotations and that they understand the role of context in what an idea means.


Blogger Unknown said...

Great information and a very nice article. Got your new regular visitor. Thanks jealousy quotes

11:30 am  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Thank your for your appreciative comment from 2007.

However, I wonder if you are aware that my Lost Legacy Blog is still in print in 2015 and going strong? I get a regular few comments at our old address, which we changed in some Google re-organisationcica 2009: It now functions at:
Looking forward to your comments.
Gavin Kennedy
(Founder and editor and contributor)

9:52 am  
Blogger The Gaffer said...

A thoughtful and informative article, thankyou. However, leaving aside the Heritage Foundation and its employment policies, does the context change the meaning of the quotation? I think not.

11:15 am  

Post a Comment

<< Home