Thursday, May 31, 2012

Adam Smith as an "Apologist"?

[APOLOGIES: the lay out of this post is somewhat crazy. Attempts to edit it to read as normal all failed by messing it up even more.  New Google lay out not helpful.0

Jeremy Jennings, Director of the Centre for the study of the History of Political Thought at Queen Mary, University of London reviews Jonathan Israel’s, “Democratic Enlightenment: philosophy, revolution, and human rights”, Oxford University Press, 20121, in the Times Literary Supplement, 25 May, 2012, pp 3-4.

“[David] Hume, to Israel’s obvious disapproval, was ‘ready to accept the inconsistencies inherent in human life’.    The same defect was evident in Adam Smith.  ‘Rarely given sufficient emphasis’, in Israel’s opinion, is the fact that Smith was an ‘apologist’ for empire, aristocracy, ecclesiastical power as well as the social and racial hierarchy of the ancien regime.  With their misplaced faith in the beneficial effects of commerce, like the majority of their complacent British contemporaries, both men incorrectly imagined that, with England’s balanced constitution in place, the revolution was over,”
Even making allowances for the possibility that Professor Jennings is simply quoting Jonathan Israel’s view, rather than his own, these remarks are extraordinary which ever one of them is their author.  Professor Jennings or Jonathan Israel attributes the statements to Adam Smith.  I do not know on what basis he makes a statement thatis at variance of what Adam Smith wrote either in Moral Sentiments, 1759, or Wealth Of Nations, 1776, taking in all the editions of both books in Smith’s lifetime.
Taking the first one:  Smith an “apologist” for “empire”?  Smith wrote pointedly with disdain about the history of empires, especially the British Empire to 1776, on the eve of the rebellion by the British colonies in North America, even mocking Britain’s pretensions to empire.  Much of Book IV is a polemic against the distortions inflicted on the commerce of Britain by the monopoly interests flowing from the colonies in North America:
To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers,
however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a
nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers. Such statesmen and such
statesmen only are capable of fancying that they will find some advantage in
employing the blood and treasure of their fellow citizens to found and maintain
such an empire.” (WN IV.vii.c: 613)
Also, he warns readers, in the last paragraph of Wealth Of Nations, of the need to avoid adventures into empires in future with words relevant in the two centuries after the end of British rule in the former American colonies:
  (WN V.iii.92: 947)
If any of the provinces of the British empire cannot be made to contribute towards the support of the whole empire,it is surely time that Great Britain should free herself from the expense of defending those provinces in time of war and of supporting any part of the civil or military establishments in time of peace, and endeavour to accommodate her future views and designs to the real mediocrity of her circumstances.(WN V.iii.92: 947)

Smith was an historian with a pragmatic outlook about the realities in the affairs of nations:
“No nation ever voluntarily gave up the dominion of any province, how troublesome
soever it might be to govern it, and how small soever the revenue which it afforded
might be in proportion to the expence which it occasioned. Such sacrifices, though
they might frequently be agreeable to the interest, are always mortifying to the pride
of every nation, and what is perhaps of still greater consequence, they are always
contrary to the private interest of the governing part of it, who would thereby be
deprived of the disposal of many places of trust and profit, of many opportunities of
acquiring wealth and distinction, which the possession of the most turbulent, and, to
the great body of the people, the most unprofitable province seldom fails to afford.
The most visionary enthusiast would scarce be capable of proposing such a measure,
with any serious hopes at least of its ever being adopted. If it was adopted, however,
Great Britain would not only be immediately freed from the whole annual expence of
the peace establishment of the colonies, but might settle with them such a treaty of
commerce as would effectually secure to her a free trade, more advantageous to the
great body of the people, though less so to the merchants, than the monopoly which
she at present enjoys. By thus parting good friends, the natural affection of the
colonies to the mother country, which, perhaps, our late dissentions have well nigh
extinguished, would quickly revive. It might dispose them not only to respect, for
whole centuries together, that treaty of commerce which they had concluded with us
at parting, but to favour us in war as well as in trade, and, instead of turbulent and
factious subjects, to become our most faithful, affectionate, and generous allies; and
the same sort of parental affection on the one side, and filial respect on the other,
might revive between Great Britain and her colonies, which used to subsist between
those of ancient Greece and the mother city from which they descended.WN IV.vii.c.66: 616-17
Or take another: “ecclesiastical power” on which Smith spent a long sub-section of Book V: “Of the Expense of the Institutions for the Instruction of People of all Ages’ which critically analyses the established Church of England, demonstrating his disdain, not an “apology”, for its institutional forms (governance by Archbishops, Bishops, and clergy) and their proclivity  in common with the former dominance enjoyed by the Church of Rome until the protestant reformation:
Such a clergy, upon such an in an emergency, have commonly no other resource than to call upon the civil magistrate to persecute, destroy, or drive out their adversaries, as disturbers of the public peace. It was thus that the Roman catholic clergy called upon the civil magistrate to persecute the protestants; and the church of England, to persecute the dissenters; and that in general every religious sect, when it has once enjoyed for a century or two the security of a legal establishment, has found itself incapable of making any vigorous defence against any new sect which chose to attack its doctrine or discipline. Upon such occasions the advantage in point of learning and good writing may sometimes be on the side of the established church. But the arts of popularity, all the arts of gaining proselytes, are constantly on the side of its adversaries. In England those arts have been long neglected by the well–endowed clergy of the established church, and are at present chiefly cultivated by the dissenters and by the methodists.” (WN V/i.g.789)
Smith it should be remembered went to Oxford University in 1740 to prepare to be ordained into the Church Of England, but left in 1744 without joining the Church, full of distaste for the low quality of its exponents, their censorious views and general incompetence as university teachers.
Space prohibits dealing with the absurd characterisation of Smith as an “apologist” for the “social hierarchy” of the day.  In fact, I am surprised that the author, Jonathan Israel, makes such comments and that the reviewer, Professor Jeremy Jennings, repeats them without correction. 


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