Sunday, February 03, 2008

Marginal Revolution Blog Discusses Tim Harford's New Book

Marginal Revolution is hosting a discussion on Tim Harford’s book, The Logic of Life (here)

I made comments on Tim’s book last week in connection with the wrong assertion by Tim Harford that Adam Smith never visited a pin factory, despite his clear statement in Wealth Of Nations that he done so.

on Saturday, I added a comment to this effect on Marginal Revolution , which I append below for information.

One point I should make about this chapter is Tim Harford’s casual comment on p 79 that ‘despite his travels, Adam Smith never actually visited a pin factory’.
This is in stark contrast to what Smith writes in Wealth Of Nations in the paragraph introducing the division of labour in the pin factory: “I have seen a small manufactory of this kind in where ten men only were employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations.’
(WN I.i.3. p 15)

Following exchanges with Tim Harford he stated that he took the assertion of Adam Smith not visiting a pin factory from the usually reliable David Warsh in his ‘Knowledge and the Wealth Of Nations’ 2006: ‘Much stress has been laid over the years on the significance of the description of the pin factory. In fact Smith never visited one.’ (p 40)

David Warsh has since published his account of the background to his unintentional his error: ‘Did He or Didn’t He? (He Did!’): and concludes: ‘Whether my error is serious or trivial depends on the business you are in. It is, I suppose, a calumny on Smith to say that he never saw to a pin factory, even if in the same breath I gave him credit for getting out and around. Certainly I deeply regret the error.’

That Smith took the details of an 18-man pin factory from Diderot’s Enclyopaedia (1755) is not in dispute but, unless he was lying, he did visit one, of which there were many scores of them in Britain, including Scotland, at the time he was teaching in Glasgow (1751-63).

The lesson I suggest we take from this episode is that when we quote from Adam Smith we should at least take the necessary precaution of checking Wealth Of Nations first and we should avoid relying only on secondary sources.”


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