Thursday, February 28, 2008

Doug Jones and Credulous Reading of Adam Smith, Part 2

Doug Jones (Part 2) writes on Blog called Scribblative Agincourting (here)and his post on 27 February is entitled: ‘Adam Smith’s Wacky Mythology’. It could do with the sub-title: ‘where a little knowledge can be dangerous’:

“… Adam Smith even attributed the distribution of land to providence rather than to social forces. But even so, the invisible hand would come to the aid of the poor:
‘….The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity…they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life….When Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition. These last too enjoy their share of all that it produces. In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, they are in no respect inferior to those who would be so much above them. In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for’ (Theory of Moral Sentiments).

Smith uses the invisible hand to produce a truly Panglossian vision of society, an attitude that carries over in today’s standard economics….Needless to say, the consequences of this for modern economic policy are staggering.” — Erik Reinert, How Rich Countries Got Rich…And Why Poor Countries Stay Poor (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2007), 52,53.

Gasp. Why didn’t Christ or the Old Testament prophets figure out this astronomical solution to poverty? They needn’t have wasted all that breath. Just let the planets do their economic thing. The odd story about how a large segment of the modern Church absorbed Smith’s wackiness has yet to be written, but it has to do with simplicity, Proverbs 1:22 style

Doug Jones’s interpretation of Adam Smith slides into ‘pious’ verbiage. Spare a thought for the context. First, Adam Smith was well aware of how land was divided among people. He was under no illusions that it was divided by ‘Providence’ – it was divided by men not ‘Providence’, who were often violent, or gaiend it from inheritance or marriage.

In his Lectures On Jurisprudence he wrote about how the ‘barbarian invasions’ of Western Europe destroyed the Roman Empire, which was a significant event in Smith’s version of the history of the world, and his account of the allodial land ownership that followed (owned by those strong enough to take and hold it) and its transformation over centuries into feudal titles awarded by a king (the most violent head honcho among ‘softer’ honchos), was not assisted by anything invisible – it as the all-too-visible brute strength of violent retribution on those who resisted the existing settlement of land ownership and in heritance.

How then did ‘Providence’ get into Smith’s account in Moral Sentiments? Look at the sentence: ‘When Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters’ and consider the power structure he lived in. First, set aside any views you may have that the right to freedom of speech or expression was protected by law in 18th century Britain (or anywhere else in 1759). Statements likely to incite the ‘inferior orders’ to discord, rebellion, and disrespect for their masters risked retribution by ruin, jail, transportation or capital punishment.

If Adam Smith had written something like ‘When lordly masters divided the earth among themselves…’, he would have collided with the existing power structure and suffered whatever consequences their impatience would bestow upon him. He may not have found a publisher, nor a wide readership, many of whom were among the ‘lordly masters’ of his day.

As it was, in 1793 (he died in 1790) his writings were studied closely and his close friends (Professor Dugald Stewart) were interviewed for what he did write, heavily sanitised as it was, for signs that his books could incite the ‘inferior orders’ to disorder.

When you realise that 1793 was the opening years of the French Terror and the British establishment panicked at the slightest sign of unrest, hanged some and transported many more to Australia, the threat was real (see Emma Rothschild’s, Economics Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet and the Enlightenment – Harvard, 2002), and Smith, a ‘man of the world’ had acted with great caution never to provoke the men in power (many of whom he knew well).

Those who read Moral Sentiments carefully notice how studied are his references to the role of the Church and items of theology. In Scotland, its ‘Taliban’ wing of zealots patrolled everywhere, looking for apostasy, blasphemy, and atheism, and showed their willingness to prosecute anybody considered by them to show disrespect tp the Church.

Even Adam Smith’s tutor, Professor Frances Hutcheson, an ordained Minister in the Ulster protestant church, then, and still, not a body given to liberal interpretations of the Bible, was prosecuted by them (Smith was a student of his at them time). David Hume, Britain’s, perhaps Europe’s, foremost philosopher, was denied a professorship (twice) for his careful, though considered outspoken, scepticism about religion.

I think Doug Jones reads too much into Smith's use of ‘Providence’ in the passage he quotes. The mystery of the rest of the sentence: ‘Providence’ [or even the violent lords who] ‘neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition’ is no mystery at all; not even miraculous, and certainly not requiring ‘an invisible hand’ to those who realised what was going on.

The Lords could not do all the work of their farms and flock alone; they had no choice but to hire, enforce, or make slaves of the labourers who would do their work for them. And, having arranged it that way, they had to feed their retainers, servants, soldiers, and serfs at least to the level of sufficient subsistence to ensure they were fit enough to work, could feed their families and allow their children to survive into adulthood if their descendants were to survive to the next harvest, never mind the next generation.

How is it that Doug Jones – and all the others who rush over this paragraph in Moral Sentiments – relapses to the literal interpretation of Adam Smith’s use of the common metaphor of an ‘invisible hand’, well known to Smith’s readers in the 18th century?

If the great landlords did not distribute the product of their vast estates, net of their own prodigious consumption, to those who served them in their castles, fought their battles when required, and who worked their estates, how were they to survive as Lords? Now, Smith was too careful to pose it so starkly, so he used the metaphor on ‘an invisible hand’ to give the actions of the great landlords a ‘nicer’ air. How socially reassuring Smith’s literary language would read among those looking for trouble-stirring scribblers.

If there was more to Providence, Smith would have placed the ridiculous notion of an actual ‘invisible hand’ at work at the centre of this moral philosophy (Book IV of Moral Sentiments)and at the front of his Wealth Of Nations (Book IV too!) and not in single throw-away lines near the end of both books.
Hence, that is why I suggest that for some people (credulous may be too strong a word; oh, I don’t know) a ‘little knowledge is dangerous’…


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