Sunday, February 24, 2008

Professor Marian Bowley Understood Adam Smith

Palgrave's copy-editor’s queries from the file proofs of 'Adam Smith: a moral philosopher and his political economy' arrived the other day while I was in hospital and I am now working through them. This requires the checking of numerous bibliographical titles, publishers, and dates.

Whilst checking my book cases, I came across a book at the back that I had forgotten I had bought a couple of years ago, which I intended to read for my then intended volume on who among the economics professionals were responsible for the misuses of Adam Smith’s legacy since he died in 1790 (I have mentioned this postponed project several times here).

The book is by Marian Bowley Studies in the History of Economic Theory before 1870, Macmillan, 1973. Marian Bowley (1911 - 2002), was Professor in Political Economy in the University of London.

Late last night I took Bowley’s book to bed for a read, and continued early this morning. It was with mounting trepidation that I began reading her analysis of Richard Cantillon’s work (1734) and compared it with Adam Smith’s Wealth Of Nations (1776).

Of particular interest to me was her chapter on exchange value (‘The price Mechanism in the Eighteenth Century') and, as she began to explore Adam Smith on the ‘labour theory of value’, I became apprehensive that she would expose the analysis of my Adam Smith's version to anything I had missed or upon which I was seriously mistaken.

It is remarkable that I found we agreed completely that Adam Smith does not deserve the reputation given to him as an advocate of a ‘Labour Theory of Value’. For this I am especially grateful, because since I wrote the first draft of that chapter of my book (2006) I felt somewhat isolated among economists for concluding that a close reading of Wealth Of Nations shows that the attribution made about his views on value is completely misleading. He did not articulate a labour theory of value for other than a hunter society (the first age of mankind).

Murray Rothbard, for one, owed Adam Smith an apology for the uncompromising critique of Smith’s views that he made and for lumbering him with the slur that in those chapters dealing with value Smith was instrumental in misleading Ricardo and, in ultimo extremis, was responsible for the nonsense written by Marx on 'surplus value'.

Marian Bowley came to this conclusion via different route to mine as she worked through the relevant chapters of Wealth Of Nations (she pointed out correctly that Smith said next to nothing about labour value in his Lectures On Jurisprudence) and was with great pleasure to find that she was one of the few (if any!) economists whom I can now quote as not falling for the Labour Value fallacy attributed to Adam Smith.

Paul Douglas, for instance, wrote of Adam Smith's theory of value that 'it might seem to be the path of wisdom to pass these topics by in discreet silence', a most patronising dismissal imaginable, and utterly unnecessary, as well as being untrue.

I salute therefore the memory of Professor Marian Bowley who stands out from the mass ranks of modern econmomists because she read carefully what Adam Smith actually wrote, which can hardly be said of so many others, including several Nobel Prize winnners.

Postscript: All the files of my book have arrived and they want them back by 28 Feb, so blogging may be a little sparse in the next few days. I cannot sit for hours on end if I am to recover properly. Apologies.


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