Sunday, November 20, 2011

Adam Smith No Ideologue

Steven Shaviro writes in the Pinocchio Theory Blog HERE

Several important conclusions emerge from Graeber’s meticulous work of comparison and reconstruction. One (not surprisingly for me) is to expose the ridiculous parochialism of the notions of Homo oeconomicus, of self-interested “rational choice,” etc., which have dominated Western social thought since Adam Smith. ...

... (Graeber makes quite explicit what other anthropologists have known for a long time — that Smith’s claim for a basic human propensity to “truck, barter, and exchange” is ridiculous and incredibly parochial

David Graeber’s appreciation of Adam Smith’s Work is not high. His understanding of it is also weakened by the influence of some modern economists on his misunderstanding of the authentic Adam Smith. David Graeber is an anthropologist who immodestly asserts the primacy of his own thinking over everybody else’s, including Adam Smith’s much different analysis compared to the ideas he attributes to him, mainly from the unreliable inventions of modern economists.

Home economicus’ was not put forward by Adam Smith and certainly was not advanced by him. It originated in the 1870s (Smith died in 1790) from the new school of marginal utility theories to become the philosophical foundation of what we know today as neo-classical economics.

Smith did not suggest a single-dimensional economic man beholden to “self-interested rational choice”. His assertions about economic behaviour were based on a far more complex, because nuanced, theory of the self-interest of humans in society who were not rational-bound humans reacting to pure economic stimuli. (See: Smith’s remarks contrasting those who treat humans as if they were wooden chess pieces, Moral Sentiments, Book VI, p 234).

The litmus test of misunderstanding what Smith was about is captured in the widespread misreading of Smith’s paragraph about the ‘butcher, brewer, and baker’, which is often used to transmute ‘self-interest’ into ‘selfishness’, the very opposite of Smith’s point that to obtain what we want from others in voluntary exchange, each party mediates their self-interests by "addressing" the "self-love" of the other party by persuasion and accommodating to the self-interests of others, and that this propensity emerged from the ‘faculties of reason and speech’ long ago in pre-history. Early exchange behaviours took its later forms in ‘truck, barter, and exchange’. It was from exchange behaviour early language emerged among consenting parties (Adam Smith, 1761, ‘Considerations Concerning the First Formation of Languages and the Different Genius of Original and Compounder Languages’). Similarly, Smith analysed the exchange behaviours that prompted the emergence of moral sentiments, long before Revealed Religion had emerged from the associated and widespread superstitions about invisible gods (Smith: The Principles which lead and direct Philosophical Enquiries illustrated by the History of Astronomy [1744-c.50] 1795, posthumous), and, of course, his “Moral Sentiments”, 1759.

David Graeber, like modern economists, confines ‘truck, barter, and trade’ to market economies (some like Karl Polanyi, restrict this behaviour historically to the capitalist decades, ignoring the vast reciprocation and quasi-bargaining experience of humans throughout prehistory). To describe this phenomena as “ridiculous and incredibly parochial” is typical of the arrogant refusal to consider differing viewpoints that endear David Graeber to his disciples, but which when allied to self-proclaimed political certainties is the ante-chamber of tyranny.

Now, nothing above asserts that David Graeber has nothing useful to say; he has lots of interesting – sometimes insightful – things to say in his book, “Debt: The First Five Thousand Years”, which is going to be around for sometime to come and you should become familiar with his thesis. I merely think that David has a warped image of Adam Smith in some important respects, mainly because he is overly influenced by Smith’s image from modern economists, and, worse, because Smith is totally misunderstood by the exponents of modern corporate capitalism (the real source of 'greed is good' and rationality among what the Occupiers refer to as the ‘1%”.



Blogger Unknown said...

Why do people feel entitled to tell the world what's not in a book they obviously haven't taken the bother to even read?

And then they accuse others of arrogance!

Needless to say informal barter-like exchange is indeed covered in the book.

Sorry guy. I never accused Adam Smith of being an ideologue but I said he'd been adopted by ideologues and you do seem to be one - and this sort of behavior, dismissing others' arguments without even taking the trouble to find out what they actually are, is a typical ideological move. Anyone who does read my book will see that I'm not an ideologue in that or any other sense at all.

7:38 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...


Thank you for expressing your views. There is no suppression of other views and criticism on Lost Legacy. Moderation is applied only to pornographers (of which Lost Legacy sustained an attack from China for several years), and the occasional toll.

I gave references to Smith's texts explicitly rejecting what you described as 'parochial', compared to the myths created by modern economists about Adam Smith, which you seem to repeat, including the myths of the 'rational Homo economicus', much preached by neo-classical economics and spokespeople for corporate capitalism.

Smith has certainly been 'adopted by ideologues' of which you accuse me of being too, a charge I most vehemently deny, and my Blog (and my books, Adam Smith's Lost Legacy, 2005; Adam Smith: a moral philosopher and his political economy, 2008, 2nd ed. 2010) demonstrate quite clearly.

Your book is on order, prompted by your lengthy articles and reviews of your work in the media. I also gave tour book a reference in the post for readers and said that it contained some interesting and worthwhile ideas), except on 'exchange', of which Adam Smith had a far greater appreciation in the pre-history and history of human society than you appear to give him credit.

If you would wish to send in a shortish post on your ideas for readers, I would be pleased to post it (without censorship, of course). I will review your book too on Lost Legacy in due course.


9:57 pm  

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