Saturday, December 27, 2008

Adam Smith on Competition Among Religous Sects

Catherine Rampell writes in the New York Times, 26 December, on “Hanukkah EconomicsHERE:

What Would Adam Smith Say About Today’s Hanukkah?

A Slate piece, by the Columbia Business School professor Ray Fisman, talks about Adam Smith’s argument for why religious competition was a good thing, and whether it stands up to the fact that “a minor holiday largely unrelated to Judaism’s core values has earned outsize importance, primarily so parents can bribe their kids into keeping the faith

Hanukkah is a Jewish religious festival, which “commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem”, on the ‘25th day of Kislev’ and is celebrated for eight days in November or December. It pre-dates the Christian ‘Christmas' by 200 years, though the coincidence of dates may be fortuitous.

However, Ray Fisman, may (I have not read his article) be misreading Adam Smith on religious competition. This had little to do with economic competition; it related to the power of an Established Church.

In England the Church of England was (and remains) the official church, headed by the sovereign (who, by law, still enforced, cannot marry a Roman Catholic; I take it marrying a Jew or a Moslem is out of the question).

In Scotland it was, and is, the Church of Scotland, detached from government and in many senses superior to the weak governments at the time. Scotland ‘lost’ its parliament when the two countries formed a parliament of the United Kingdom – the crowns had unified a century earlier when James VI of Scotland became James I of the United Kingdom (North American friends and antipodeans, please note that there is no such title extant as the ‘Queen of England’).

Smith’s concern was with ecclesiastical establishments that were aligned with political interests. In becoming Established, such churches became embroiled in ‘violent religious controversy’ and ‘violent faction’ (Wealth Of Nations, V.i.g: pp 788-814; Canaan, 1937. pp 740-66) Before my Islamic friends smirk at the Christian capacity for ‘violent controversy’ over holy doctrines, please contemplate the murderous contentions between today’s Sunni and Shia adherents.

Zeal and religious enthusiasm go together, and Adam Smith and others had personal, almost daily, experience of zealot-led disturbances in Scottish life in the 18th century, especially on Sundays when named individuals were treated abominably for whatever ‘sins’, real and imaginary, had come to the attention of zealot-minded busy bodies.

The last person hanged for blasphemy was a student, Thomas Aikenead, on 8 January 1697; the last witch burned to death was Janet Horne in 1727 (when Smith was just 4 years old); ‘the never to be forgotten’ Francis Hutcheson, a minister of the Ulster Church, experienced the ire of ignorant zealots in a petty incident when they accused him of apostasy (Smith was his student at Glasgow University, 1737-40).

Smith favoured that ‘every man [be allowed] to chuse his own priest and his own religion as he thought proper’ because this would dilute religious ‘zeal’ and make it ‘altogether innocent when society is divided into two or three hundred, or perhaps into as many thousand small sects, of which no one could be considerable enough to disturb the publick tranquillity” (p 793; p 745).

This was his main concern; to allow freedom of religious belief as an antidote to the excesses of the Established Churches when interfering in the daily lives of people.

To this wish, he added two more: education in science, because science was the ‘great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition’, and ‘the frequency and gaiety of public diversions”:

The state, by encouraging, that is by giving entire liberty to all those who for their own interest would attempt without scandal or indecency, to amuse and divert the people by painting, poetry, music, dancing; by all sorts of dramatic representations and exhibitions, would easily dissipate, in the greater part of them, that melancholy and gloomy humour which is almost always the nurse of popular superstition and enthusiasm. Public diversions have always been the objects of dread and hatred to all the fanatical promoters of those popular frenzies. The gaiety and good humour which those diversions inspire were altogether inconsistent with that temper of mind which was fittest for their purpose, or which they could best work upon. Dramatic representations, besides, frequently exposing their artifices to public ridicule, and sometimes even to public execration, were upon that account, more than all other diversions, the objects of their peculiar abhorrence.” (WN V.i.g: p 796; Canaan, 1937 ed. p 748)

I recommend readers to cast their minds over what is probably the most neglected chapter in Wealth Of Nations and which deals with what he considered to be an obstacle to the spread of opulence among all the members of a society, and, as it stood in Britain, a cause of much needless unhappiness (how many economists writing on measuring ‘happiness’ today have read it, I wonder?).

Catherine Rampell would certainly benefit from understanding why Adam Smith advocated widespread religious tolerance, manifested in a society allowing all forms of religion to compete for the attention of potential adherents, and for open competition among the numerous sects was one element of his policy of avoiding a dominant religion emerging to gain political power and influence.

That was, after all, the brilliant insight of the Founding Fathers in their legislative separation of religion from the State in the US constitution.



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