Monday, April 25, 2011

Interesting ejournal About Adam Smith

Professor Daniel Klein of George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, has something to do with a most interesting service called Journal Talk (HERE): that discusses, among other topics, articles in academic journals on Adam Smith, normally read only by academic economists,

Here are literate and serious comments on Andrew Skinner (the leading UK academic authority on Adam Smith) on a topic, separately discussed earlier this year on Lost Legacy:

Brandon Holmes:

“Adam Smith and the role of the state: education as a public service”

Skinner points out that people who support a more interventionist government policy would cite Smith for his mention of the government’s involvement in social diversions. It is important to note that Smith says nothing about the state creating institutions or subsidizing in his discussion of pubic diversions. His suggestion that the government should encourage diversions by giving entire liberty to the people means that those people should be free to do what they want, within the confines of their liberty. The state does not encourage exercising liberty by granting subsidies; it encourages exercising liberty by not putting up barriers to its existence. 
The problem with a government body effectively “stepping into” the market in order to correct an efficiency problem is that efficiency is not a static concept. In its application towards education, government policy needs to set up certain standards that will show how close a school, teacher or university is to a given level of efficiency. The level of efficiency is arbitrarily set by experts who will weigh in on where students should be in their educational path, based on gender, age, nationality, family income, and a myriad of other variables. When Smith suggested that the government needed to ensure efficiency, it meant that the government needed to make sure that the opportunity for education was available to each person who desired it, not that the government necessarily had to intervene in the curriculum.

Throughout the chapter Andrew Skinner grossly overstates the scope of Adam Smith’s support for state action. Skinner repeats Jacob Viner’s assertion that Smith “saw a wide and elastic range of activity for government, and was prepared to extend it further.” Viner’s view guides Skinner, but Skinner provides poor support for his notion of Smith the statist. He misinterprets the following direct quotation from the Wealth of Nations in a key part of his argument about education:
“The expence of the institutions for education and religious instruction is likewise, no doubt, beneficial to the whole society, and may, therefore, without injustice, be defrayed by the general contribution of the whole society. This expence, however, might perhaps with equal propriety, and even with some advantage, be defrayed altogether by those who receive the immediate benefit of such education and instruction, or by the voluntary contribution of those who think they have occasion for either the one or the other.” (V.i.i.5)
Skinner claims the passage makes it seem “likely that Smith would have supported the arrangements he envisaged for elementary education, where there is a combination of modest private, and a more significant public, contribution.” Reading the Smith quote, and going back to the entire section of the Wealth of Nations that Skinner refers to, Smith mentions nothing about any significant public contribution to education at any level. Indeed, not only above, but throughout his discussion of education Smith stresses that the cost should be primarily – if not entirely – borne by the beneficiary of the service. 
It is true that Adam Smith did support some government activity; any careful reading of his works shows the scope of that activity to be far more limited than Skinner implies.

Here is another:

Steven Kunath on Adam Smith’s Theory of Inquiry

Undoubtedly Adam Smith is one of the most influential thinkers of the modern Western Tradition. As a result many philosophers engage in critical reflection of Smith’s numerous contributions. A tension, however, arises when examining Smith’s entire corpus. The divide for many philosophers becomes apparent when comparing The Wealth of Nations to The Theory of Moral Sentiments. What did Smith see as the connection, if any, between these works? Lindgren’s piece provides an important first-step in connecting Wealth of Nations with The Theory of Moral Sentiments by investigating how Adam Smith understood the role of inquiry. While Lindgren does not attempt to unite his conclusions on inquiry with Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments, it provides sufficient ground for further reflection on the matter.
Non-specialists might wonder why starting how the notion of inquiry can serve as a suitable place for beginning philosophical reflection. Starting with inquiry provides a framework to see how Smith literally sees the world. Is Smith an adherent to a philosophically realistic view of the world or does he follow the nominalism and skepticism of others like Hume? For Lindgren the answer is clear. Smith’s epistemology does not fit into the metaphysical realist position and is more in line with the skeptical views of Hume. Breaking from the earlier tradition of metaphysical realism Smith’s model of inquiry will not focus on determining some type of abstract form of a thing, instead he will understand the world as somewhat incomprehensible to the individual. For Smith the individual is not capable of aligning his knowledge of the world with things that actually exist in the world as would be the case for metaphysicians. A consequence of this is that Lindgren sees Smith’s philosophy of language as the basis for his model of inquiry. While Lindgren provides a sound argument that language served as Smith’s model of inquiry he does not challenge and further test Smith’s notion. 
Fundamentally the question that Lindgren avoids asking is what is the relationship between convention and nature in a grammar and its application to human inquiry. Lindgren seems to disregard many of the contributions of modern linguistics by simply affirming Smith’s view that grammatical rules “are dependent upon the aesthetic temperament of the community.” Certainly there is some truth to that, but modern linguistics and cognitive science would make the claim that grammar has a part that exists by convention—especially prescriptive grammars dictating forms of written communication—but it would also point out that the actual wiring of the human brains creates limits on the types of grammar possible. Limiting the type of grammars possible in the hardware of the brain in turn creates limits on the type of socially possible grammars. So does knowing that grammars have inherent and theoretically universal limits sufficient to undermine parts of Smith’s model of language? Starting here and saying there are some types of universal constraints that emerge in the human brain seems to seriously impact the analysis of Lindgren and in turn the applicability of Smith’s application of language to inquiry. If constraints naturally emerge on the structure of language then there could be a tendency for languages to form in a particular way. If languages form in a particular way then is Smith’s understanding of the experience of learning a language correct? Lindgren needs to provide a tougher critique of Smith’s model and see if it is still applicable. This author believes that Smith’s view of language could best be described as quaint, but not able to sustain rigorous scrutiny.

These are serious commentaries on the article entitled as shown. I have not managed to track down the original articles yet, but they are at the link shown above.

I recommend that you bookmark the link.

My thanks to Daniel Klein for the site who seems to be behind a great deal of research work on Adam Smith - not that we see eye-to-eye on everything (the meaning and significance of Smith’s use of the IH metaphor, for instance) but we share a passion for Smith’s works.



Blogger Brandon said...

Thank you for re-posting my comment from Journal Talk regarding Andrew Skinner's assessment of Smith's views about education; though I believe you have the bylines mixed up. The first post, which you ascribe to Ariel Nerbovig, was actually written by myself. The second post is from this thread and was authored by Steve Kunath.

Brandon Holmes

1:01 am  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...


Many apologies for the mix up. I plead guilty with mitigation. I found the layout confusing, despite looking at it several times.

I hope this does not detract from my positive comments about the ejournal product. I found it most interesting and a good idea, and I am pleased to see Daniel involved in it (despite, of course, my academic, not personal, differences with him on the interpretation of the IH metaphor).

Gavin Kennedy

9:46 am  

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