Sunday, July 10, 2011

Watch the Use of Careless Thinking

B.P. Terpstra, writes (10 July) on Weekend Libertarian (HERE):

‘Too Posh To Push? Adam Smith On Marriage Politics’

‘Adam Smith (a Christian-sounding deist) frequently cited the Bible (“Abraham weighs to Ephron the four hundred shekels of silver which he had agreed to pay for the field of Machpelah” –p. 19) and unashamedly talked of “savage nations” (I have one foot-binding Middle Kingdom in mind -p. 5).

He’d be shunned today by multicultural libertarians and socialists alike for talking about social values because they have nothing to do with economics, according to our modern politically-correct elitists. But of course they do. By way of example, Smith wrote “Marriage is encouraged in China, not by profitableness of children, but by the liberty of destroying them. In all great towns, several are every night exposed in the street, or drowned like puppies in the water. The performance of this horrid office is even said to be the avowed business by which some people earn their subsistence” (pp. 45-46).

Horrid, indeed. Like Jesus, Smith wasn’t afraid to make statements linking wealth to morality. Even rich European ladies who were too posh to push are mentioned in The Wealth of Nations. As an example, consider this view (p. 50): “Poverty, though it no doubt discourages, does not always prevent, marriage. It seems even to be favourable to generation. A half-starved Highland woman frequently bears more than twenty children, while a pampered fine lady is often incapable of bearing any, and is generally exhausted after two or three. Barrenness, so frequent among women of fashion, is very rare among those of inferior station. Luxury, in the fair sex, while it inflames, perhaps, the passion for enjoyment, seems also to weaken, and frequently to destroy altogether, the powers of generation.”

… Smith’s magnum opus reminds us to always think about economic and social matters together. Surely the family is the foundation for all economic thought and can’t be ignored.

Adam Smith was born (1723) and brought up in a Calvinist home by his religious mother, whom he adored. As a sickly child she nursed him from birth until he was 14, when he left home in Kirkcaldy and matriculated at Glasgow University (1737). He left home again in 1740 and went to Balliol College, Oxford for six years. He did not return to Kirkcaldy until 1746 (which was too far in those days to ride to Kirkcaldy and back in his two weeks annual vacations).

This long break coincided with his own philosophical studies (including David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, 1739-40) and his drift away from the Christianity of his youth. His unpublished Essay on the History of Astronomy (1744-50), published posthumously in 1795, shows his suspicions of all religious beliefs in ‘supercilious superstition’. The last, 6th (1789) edition, of his ‘Theory of Mortal Sentiments’ shows clear evidence of his lost beliefs in Christianity in all its forms, compared to the 1st edition (1759).

In it he made numerous amendments to the religious certainties that he was obliged to state in its earlier editions because of the domination of Scottish social life by the zealots of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland in those years. These changes amount to a substantial dilution in only one direction – to repudiate the Christian doctrine of ‘revealed religion’. Neither did they replace these ideas with either Christian Deism or Christian Providence (the latter when mentioned refer directly to pagan ideas, not his own). [See my paper, ‘The Hidden Adam Smith in his Alleged Theology’, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, September 2011].

Of course he ‘frequently cited the Bible’. In the 18th century most of his readers were familiar with the Bible and using Biblical references did not signify agreement with ‘revealed religion’, any more than references to Shakespeare infer close familiarity with all of his works. In particular, Abraham dealings with Ephron for ‘four hundred shekels of silver’ illustrates the ancestry of money dealings in ancient commerce (he also quotes from the Bible, interest rates of ‘48%’ in Cyprus).

Be wary of jumping to conclusions when reading 18th-century authors. Smith taught young boys (14-17) at Glasgow University, (1751-64) from which lectures he wrote ‘Moral Sentiments’. All his students came from Christian homes in Scotland, England, and Ireland, and undoubtedly knew their Bibles. If I quote references to the News of the World, it does not follow that I am in agreement with it!

Of course, Smith ‘unashamedly talked of “savage nations”’. His discourse reflected the world he lived in, not the world over 250 years later. I attended University in the 1960s when brave women were defying the racial discrimination in the USA enforcing where they could sit on buses.

The title of this piece is quite insensitive: ‘Too Posh To Push’ and is too close to recent events here in Edinburgh. My daughter last week had to go though a caesarian operation to save her baby (and herself), from otherwise certain death. It had nothing to do with being ‘too proud’ (or ‘too posh’). Fortunately, the baby (3¼ lbs) has survived so far and the mother is recovering. Watch the use of those too cute political headlines. Thank goodness, in the UK we have a Nation Health Service that does not discriminate on lack on ‘poshness’, nor on income – its services are free to users, and paid for from our taxation.

Yes, ‘Smith’s magnum opus reminds us to always think about economic and social matters together’, and we should watch how we address sensitive issues. And yes, ‘the family is the foundation for all economic thought and can’t be ignored’, and I am glad that by my daughter by taking urgent action, I have a new member in it who might not be here otherwise.



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