Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Fraser Nelson on Liberty and the Scottish Enlightenment

Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator UK, writes a lovely piece on Adam Smith HERE which I have had to cut (not that it is long – far from it – but I have no wish to trespass on the editor’s sense of copyright, though I have murdered its lovely flow in consequence.

Please follow the link for Fraser Nelson’s full, short, article – it’s well worth it.

“Why we must remember the lessons of the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment”

“…Edinburgh is, with Prague and Stockholm, among the most beautiful cities in Europe; itself a monument to the Enlightenment. And how tragic that students – even Scottish ones – are taught about the E word only in the context of the French Enlightenment. The likes of Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot wrote of grandiose ambitions and recasting society using state power. Smith, Hume, Ferguson etc were far more modest – advocates of letting go of power. These two competing intellectual traditions have, for me, marked the difference between left and right…
On Bastille Day 2004, I wrote a piece for The Scotsman saying how the French have the best parties. But the Anglo-Scottish revolution ('Anglo,' as I would throw in Locke) has delivered the best results. The French Revolution was a disaster, leading to mass murder and the restoration of the monarchy – quite why it is so enthusiastically celebrated, I don't know. Except I do: it is the glorious intentions of the revolution that stir the heart. Liberty, Fraternity, Equality. Here was the classic leftist paradox: noble intentions, disastrous results.
The French Enlightenment has soaked up so much attention because involves grand, charismatic figures such as Voltaire, Rousseau and the priapic Diderot. .... It is now taken to mean the overthrow of aristocracy, and radical plans for equality. It was, fundamentally, about kicking ass. The Scots were more dull. Smith, Adam Ferguson and Francis Hutcheson were academics primarily concerned with economic growth who preached tolerance and moderation…

… Crucially, many figures in the French Enlightenment had little faith in the masses. They feared that humans pursuing their self-interest become corrupt - and that, left alone, selfish instincts would prevail. It followed that strong government was vital for a strong country. The only question was who should hold power. That so many people still believe this to be true (government virtuous, masses selfish) is testimony to the allure of the French Enlightenment. It is been the basis for socialist governments worldwide. 
The Scots, by contrast, took a radically dramatic world view. They believed that people, if left alone, are essentially virtuous - and, if given the tools, would slowly work out what is best for themselves and their families. This would happen by evolution, not revolution. … The best way to improve a country is for government to uphold a few laws, then get out of the way and let the people do the rest. The Scottish position is, effectively, a faith in mankind.
The Scottish model flourished in the United States. But in post-war Europe, it flopped, as elites and planned economies sprang up everywhere… Britain … has ended up lumbered with the French solution. Quite simply, it doesn't fit. … the French have the best slogans: Liberty, Fraternity, Equality. But it's the principles of the Scottish Enlightenment that make them real.”

One quibble. Liberty of the individual is at the heart of Smith’s thinking. Not in the distorted frame of laissez-faire (which was the cry of the French shopkeepers, 19th-century British mill and mine owners and today’s giant corporations).

Natural Liberty was the standard by which Smith judged all forms of government and all degrees of competition. His jurisprudence was based on it, but, as ever, he was also the great realist.

Perfect liberty didn’t exist in practice and such progress as was made in moves towards opulence had been made in the past, and likely in the future, despite the absence of perfect liberty (as he reminded Dr Quesnay, a leader of the Physiocrats in France, who regarded perfect liberty as a pre-condition for opulence, Wealth Of Nations [IV.ix.29: 674)]), and as I would remind Daniel Klein, who sees liberty running through Smith’s so-called ‘invisible hand principle, which was a metaphor not a principle.

Fraser Nelson was speaking at a recent meeting in London of the Adam Smith Institute (of which I am a fellow). He offers an original thought and I think it worthy of your attention (follow the link).

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