Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Economist Should Apologise

The Economist (20 January) carries an article on growing inequality (anonymously, as per the paper’s policy). (HERE): "Does Inequality Matter? If so, how?"

“The claim that inequality now matters more because of brands and status competition may turn out to be more robust. Such concerns could seem peripheral compared with global woes such as poverty. But inequality is local. As Adam Smith also once wrote, “if he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight; but provided he never saw them, he would snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred million of his brethren.”

Follow the link to read the article’s argument (it answers ‘yes’ to both questions).

However, the author’s part quotation from a paragraph in Adam Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments” (1759) and I am surprised to find it misquoted in this way in The Economist.

The partly quoted paragraph purports to show that Adam Smith disregarded the suffering of “his brethren” in distant China. The implication is that not much has changed today regarding inequality.

However, the rest of the paragraph (unquoted) presents, unambiguously, the opposite picture, and absolves Adam Smith:

To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it. But what makes this difference? When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble? When we are always so much more deeply affected by whatever concerns ourselves, than by whatever concerns other men; what is it which prompts the generous, upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others? It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which exerts itself upon such occasions. It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct. It is he who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others, calls to us, with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, that we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it; and that when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration. … It is not the love of our neighbour, it is not the love of mankind, which upon many occasions prompts us to the practice of those divine virtues. It is a stronger love, a more powerful affection, which generally takes place upon such occasions; the love of what is honourable and noble, of the grandeur, and dignity, and superiority of our own characters.” (TMS III.4.4: pp 137-38.

I think The Economist owes Adam Smith’s an apology.



Blogger Unknown said...

Thank You Gavin.

I have never met you, and probably never will, but this I know.

You are a man of honor and integrity.

Thank you for giving voice and representing the spirit of a Man that selfish speculators and western world capitalists have LEVERAGED to THEIR own advantage for the past three decades at least.

The Economst is THE ONLY magazine I subscribe to. It saddens me greatly that they clearly (or mistakenly) missrepresented the sentiment of or esteemed Adam Smith.


3:12 am  

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