Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Misuse of a Metaphor

Emma Tom writes a punchy column in The Australian: “Bring on the nanny state and dig Doug out of squalorHERE:

Adam Smith's invisible hand was supposed to look after the underclass even though quite often it seemed to be raising an invisible middle finger and sneering "nerny nerny ner ner". The indulgent and economically delinquent concept of social justice was for girls.”


I have no quarrel with Emma’s focus in her column on the desperate abandoned plight of a down-and-out called ‘Doug’ in Canberra, Australia. It truly is a shocking account.

But why, oh, why must she bring into it a totally irrelevant and absolutely untrue link to anything that Adam Smith from Kirkcaldy had to say about it?

Maybe, the ‘Adam Smith’ from Chicago is culpable, but I don’t suppose Emma knows that. She takes a metaphor of an ‘invisible hand’, of restricted use – Smith only mentions it once in Wealth of Nations, once in Moral Sentiments and once in his History of Astronomy essay, which was not published until 1795, after he had died in 1790, and in each case, he was not talking about anything remotely connected with anything mysteriously benign nor related to the situation that ‘Doug’ is in.

Emma is taking the Chicago misuse of the metaphor at its word and makes out that somehow Adam Smith was horribly wrong about the desperate poverty of the likes of Doug and of which there were more than enough examples around Edinburgh in the late 18th century.

Her remarks more appropriately should be linked to Chicago economists, Nobel ‘Prize winners’ too, and she should berate them, not the Adam Smith born in Kirkcaldy, a long time incidentally before Chicago existed to host a group of epigones who stole Adam Smith’s legacy.

How does an invisible (i.e., imaginary’) finger manage to ‘sneer’ and vocalise about the plight of Doug? Smith respected the unemployed and the unemployable; he was quite contemptuous of the ‘great’, the celebrity admired, and the self-concerned ‘wives of Aldermen’ (we all know what he meant by that; probably even know some modern-day examples of that species, no doubt in Canberra itself).

You should follow the link to Emma’s article to read about ‘Doug’.



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