Monday, May 14, 2012

Some Thoughts for May

I had occasion last weekend to re-read part of Dugald Stewart’s biographical eulogy to Adam Smith, that Dugald read to two meetings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1793, and which was published in 1795, and thereafter reproduced in most editions of Smith’s Wealth Of Nations published during the 19th century.
Stewart’s is a remarkable document of Smith’s life and achievements – Dugald knew Smith well and, through his father, Michael Stewart, who was at Glasgow with Smith, who knew Smith intimately, socially and intellectually from childhood to when he died in 1790. Even today, Dugald’s biographical eulogy deserves close study by Smithian scholars, though this first biography was superseded later by three other major biographies: John Rae’s ‘Life of Adam Smith’, (1895), W. R. Scott’s ‘Adam Smith as Student and Professor’ (1937), and Ian Ross’s ‘The Life of Adam Smith’ (1995, 2nd edition, 2011, Oxford University Press), the definitive biography of Smith.
Unlike his later and all recent biographers, Stewart wrote from his direct knowledge of Adam Smith. His tantalising insights bring us closer to the philosopher. However, his later biographers provide more details and contexts not reported in Stewart’s eulogy.
I offer a short quotation from Stewart’s eulogy that reveals an important, and easily missed, detail of an episode in Smith’s career while he taught at Glasgow.  Stewart quotes from Professor of Civil Laws, John Millar, of Glasgow University, an incontestable witness on what Smith taught at Glasgow, uniquely as a former student of Smith’s and later as a close friend of Smith in adult life.
Dugald Stewart obtained from John Millar an account of Smith’s lectures; Millar heard all or most of the lectures himself.  The section of of Smith's ideas that I consider to be most important in thinking about what Adam Smith had mind in his life’s work, is emphasised:
“About a year after his appointment to the Professorship of Logic, Mr Smith was elected to the chair of Moral Philosophy. His course of lectures on this subject was divided into four parts … In the third part, he treated at more length of that branch of morality which relates to justice, and which, being susceptible of precise and accurate rules, is for that reason capable of a full and particular explanation. In the last part of his lectures, he examined those political regulations which are founded, not upon the principle of justice, but that of expediency, and which are calculated to increase the riches, the power, and the prosperity of a State.  Under this view, he considered the political institutions relating to commerce, to finances, to ecclesiastical and military establishments. What he delivered on these subjects contained the substance of the work he afterwards published under the title of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.“
Two points to note; first, a student’s version of Smith’s ‘Lectures On Jurisprudence’ was found in 1895; and second, some of these notes are almost certainly from the missing third part of Smith’s Moral Philosophy courses mentioned by John Millar.
Edwin Canaan edited, annotated with useful foot notes, the hand-written manuscript which he published as: ‘Lectures on Justice, Police, Revenue and Arms’ ...  ‘delivered in the University of Glasgow by Adam Smith, reported by a student in 1763, edited with an introduction and notes by Edwin Canaan, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1896’. Professor Lothian found another version of these lectures in a house-clearance sale in Aberdeen in 1958. In 1978, Oxford University published both versions.
Stewart’s report on Smith’s lecture programme continues: "[Smith] followed the plan that seems to be suggested by Montesquieu; endeavouring to trace the gradual progress of jurisprudence, both public and private, from the rudest to the most refined ages, and to point out the effects of those arts which contribute to subsistence, and to the accumulation of property, in producing correspondent improvements or alterations in law and government. This important branch of his labours [Smith] also intended to give to the public; but this intention, which is mentioned in the conclusion of the Theory of Moral Sentiments, he did not live to fulfil".
This outline of the account is endorsed by reading the 1763 Lecture Notes [1978], which cover the ‘gradual progress of jurisprudence’ related to Smith’s ‘Four ages of Man: Hunting, Shepherding, Farming, and commerce’.  Stewart also notes that Smith intended to publish his lectures on this 3rd part but Smith “did not live to fulfil’ his promise (he ordered his draft of this unfinished book, and other manuscripts, to be burned).  We know that Smith advertised in his Moral Sentiments his intention to publish this 3rd part from 1759 and also in the last,  6th, edition (1790), in which Smith apologized for not finishing it despite his promises.  
My own view on his failure to publish a polished version of the 'Jurisprudence' lectures as promised was that such a Work would have to deal with the successful rebellion of the former British colonies and this meant he would have to make public his private stance by ‘taking sides’, which probably meant his criticising King George and the British government, at least by implication in his accepting a republican alternative to monarchy in the former British colonies, or as difficult, dismissing the former colonists by defending monarchy.  The repercussions of either step, from whichever he chose,  Smith was not willing to entertain on scholarly grounds, and, by the time he might have been willing to take such a bold step, he was too frail and ill to do so.  The other circumstance of his intense work as a Commissioner of Customs, four days a week from 1778-1790, with rare short periods of leave for revising his two published books or consultations with the London govenrment, as shown in the daily minutes and correspondence, most of which he signed, made it physically impossible for him to prepare 'Jurisprudence' for publication.  If nothing else his 'alibi' for not finishing his promised book was credible publicly.
Buried in the last sentence of John Millar’s summary of the course there is a revealing insight to how Smith saw the 18th-century governments in the minds and outlook of the policies followed for centuries by European monarchies. Smith, reports John Millar, “examined those political regulations which are founded, not upon the principle of justice, but that of expediency, and which are calculated to increase the riches, the power, and the prosperity of a State". Under this view, he considered "the political institutions relating to commerce, to finances, to ecclesiastical and military establishments”.
This strikes me as a revealing insight into Smith’s mind on the nature of European governments, which with the exception of Switzerland and what eventually became The Netherlands, all European countries were monarchies.  In all of them, the role of state structures was “to increase the riches, the power, and the prosperity of a State”.   In short, the appropriate policies, as understood by Kings and their advisors in variations of 'mercantile political economy', were subordinate to those objectives.   The 18th century was characterized by expensive European, even trans-Atlantic, warfare and piracy, and Kings levied taxes and duties, and borrowed, to establish and maintain large, expensive armies and navies for wars with neighbours.   Commerce through mercantile political economy was subordinate to wasteful and seemingly endless wars, and preparation for wars, which never satisfied ambitions for dynastic security, despite their 'collateral damage' to the "prosperity" of the states they were supposed to enrich.
It is in this historical context that political economy, as it developed, began to experience the rivalry between those who saw and see the economy as a means to serve the ends of state power, and those who see state power as subordinate to the ends of the market economy (for general opulence).  Today, this rivalry polarises exponents of appropriate policies between those who would reduce, minimise, even abolish, state structures and those who would extend the role of the state to a greater role in the economy for social-democratic, welfare objectives and, in the process prefer to curb markets altogether.  
These modern debates embroil competing attributed versions of Adam Smith’s thinking to one side or the other.  In the process, myths about Smith’s views are created, embellished and quoted endlessly.   Smith, on one side’s view, was a sort of egalitarian social-democrat; to the other side, he was a firm advocate of ‘laissez-faire’ and the ‘night watchman state’ (after a mocking piece of rhetoric from Ferdinand Lasselle, a 19th-century firebrand socialist, directed at fellow socialists with less than ambitious aspirations for larger state powers and a bourgeoisie who wanted, apparently, to curb or dismantle existing state through laissez-faire).
In truth, Adam Smith understood the nature of the monarchial states.  What he would make today of modern controversies on the appropriate role for states in freer market economies, sans colonies, sans large military establishments for foreign wars and matching foreign policies, sans ‘jealousies of trade’, and sans toleration of curbs to individual freedoms, is beyond estimation.  His policy suggestions for his own times (including the concluding paragraph of Wealth Of Nations on states adjusting their ambitions to the "mediocrity" of their circumstances) were ignored and those that followed in the 222 years since he died, so far, show little understanding of Smith's historical approach.   It is from observing the past and how we got to where we are, that Smith expected understanding.  There’s a long ways still to go before that understanding is likely.  


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