Wednesday, May 30, 2012

From My Notebook 1

I took with me my copy of “Turgot in Progress, Sociology and Economics”, translated and edited, with an introduction by Ronald L. Meek, Cambridge University Press, 1973. to my local coffee bar,  ‘Earthy’, an organic vegetable shop, and a 3,000 step walk there and back (as recommended to me by the Physio lady for every other day's actvity),
It is some 9 years since I purchased a second-hand copy of Turgot’s book and I read it while preparing to write my “Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). Nowadays, I take something to read for 20 or so minutes at “Earthy” before walking home, and I had selected “Turgot” from my library for the simple reason it fitted into my coat pocket. Today, I hadn’t gotten to page 6 of Ronald Meek’s excellent introduction when I noticed some faint pencil lines where I had underlined a quotation of Turgot’s critique of Montesquieu’s, The Spirit of the Laws (1748):
“More happy are the nations whose laws have not been established by such great geniuses; they are at any rate perfected, although slowly and through a thousand detours, without principles, without perspectives, without a fixed plan; chance and circumstances have often led to wiser laws than have the researches and efforts of the human mind; an abuse which had been observed would give rise to a law; the abuse of that law would give rise to a second which modified it; by passing successfully from one excess to the opposite excess, men little by little drew nearer to the happy medium”.
I had completely forgotten Turgot’s words – it was early in my background research for my 2005 Adam Smith book. At the time, Turgot’s ideas seemed of distant direct relevance. I was perhaps distracted at the time by my work at Edinburgh Business School’s for its distance MBA programme, and managing my consultancy, Negotiate limited. 
It would seem that ideas relating to the evolution by what people do rather than design by geniuses were circulating in France long before Adam Ferguson is credited with drawing attention to the “result of human action, but not the execution of any human design” (“An Essay on the History of Civil Society” 1767, Edinburgh University Press, 1966, p. 122). 
I referred some time ago on Lost Legacy to the writings of Cardinal Du Retz who mentions something of a similar expression even earlier. But Turgot’s expression of the same basic idea is interesting on its own merits.  I shall continue reading Turgot’s papers and see what else they reveal about his influence on Smith (and Ferguson).


Blogger airth10 said...

Interesting! But I am still thinking about “Das Charles Darwin Problem & The Bourgeois Virtues”.

Adams Smith did contradict himself with his two books. But then he didn't. If he set up a confusion, then he must be forgiven for he was only expounding on humankind's inherent, inexorable contradictory nature. For the most part humans are of two minds, depending often on the situation. Humans can be simultaneously selfish and giving, creative and destructive. Contradiction, like the two poles of electricity, is an engine of life.

It takes sophisticated thinkers to realize this, that the world is full of contradictions, which can live side by side and be reconciled. Smith was a sophisticated thinker. His subject, economics, is itself full of contradictory moments and movements. And for that matter, economics structures the contradictions of life probably better than any other discipline.

To paraphrase: The business of economics is to hold opposites together. (It's what makes economics, and human, whole, holding opposites together.) I interchanged the word civilization with economics. But, then, what is economics if it isn't about civilization. There would be no Civilization if it wasn't for economic activity and its organization.

2:26 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

The specific charge against Smith was that sympathy in TMS is contradicted by self-interest in TMS. I have shown that this is not the case and that those who make the case do not understand Smith on self-interet.

Your characterisation of life being about
"contradictions" and "opposites" is not the same point at all. Smith's understanding of "economics" bears little relation to economics as taught today, with its ideas of Homo economicus, perfect rationality, and marginal utility. I do not understand what you mean by your last paragraph.

9:30 pm  

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