Friday, August 12, 2011

How to Misquote Adam Smith

Don Arthur is a splendid example of someone who clearly understands Adam Smith’s work. He contributes (12 August) to “Club Troppo“ (HERE): an Australian e-journal, with his highly relevant set of observations on a misquotation from Smith by our own Mary Riddell in The Daily Telegraph “London riots: the underclass lashes out” (8 August) (HERE): more correctly described as the criminal disorders in England, fortunately, not (yet) in Scotland.

Don Arthur’s article in Club Troppo (a publication mentioned on Lost Legacy only last week, and several times since 2005 for its excellent writing) dissects what Adam Smith actually wrote on the manifest inequalities suffered, not by the “underclass” – of which little was expected - but what he did write about the working poor.

Their low wages from their long hours of profitable work (for their employers) were enforced by the biased decisions of the local Magistrates, who set wage rates in their districts. Local employers maintained the law by informal (not illegal) “combinations” acting collectively to prevent wages increases or to enforce reductions. During these decades the Magistrates and the employers lauded it over a passive workforce – punished for acting, or attempting act, collectively to resist their employers through their own “combinations”, which were strictly illegal under parliamentary laws (and some were transported to Australia from the 1790s for these offences).

Don Arthur undoes Riddel’s thesis that Adam Smith spoke of the “underclass” by correctly quoting what he actually wrote from his “Lectures in Jurisprudence” ([1763] 1978), and from an earlier version, Lectures on justice, police, revenue and arms ([1763] 1895) in his post: “Invasion of the quote snatchers – Adam Smith, Google and the London riots

Adam Smith recognised that a well-ordered society can never develop "when a sizeable number of its members are miserable and, as a consequence, dangerous", writes Mary Riddell in the Telegraph. She argues that "social democracy, with its safety nets, costly education and healthcare" is the only solution to the recent disorders in London."

"Those who oppose the welfare state might also quote Smith. For example, here’s something I found with Google Books:"

"… it is not so much the police that prevents the commission of crimes as the having as few persons as possible to live upon others. Nothing tends so much to corrupt mankind as dependency, while independency still increases the honesty of the people.
With tools like Google Books, it’s easier than ever to find and lift quotes from classic works by great thinkers. And with social media like Twitter, it’s never been easier to share them. But it’s just as difficult as ever to understand these quotes in context.
Riddell is drawing on a favourite quote from Smith’s Wealth of Nations: "No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable." But on its own and in context this isn’t exactly an argument for social democracy. Here’s a slightly longer version:

No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, cloath and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed and lodged

Follow the link to Club Troppo (HERE): and read Don Arthur’s piece. (My thanks to Nick Gruen for posting it to me).

He shows what a proper familiarity and understanding of Adam Smith – not a truncated and misapplied quotation as per Mary Riddell – can do to illuminate more accurately a current situation that Mary Riddell starting with her metro conclusion first and then engaging in a “quote hunt” to give her piece the spurious authority and an “historical glow” she does not earn nor deserve.



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