Saturday, June 24, 2017


The Guardian posts (23 June) an obituary of Donald Winch, the celebrated and much appreciated intelllectual economist and historian in HERE
Donald Winch obituary
Historian of economics keen to examine theories in their original contexts
In his book, Adam Smith’s Politics, Donald Winch showed that the Scottish political economist was far from being an advocate of unrestricted laissez-faire.
The market fundamentalism that has swept the Anglo-American world in recent decades likes to claim the 18th-century Scottish political economist, Adam Smith, as its intellectual godfather. But as Donald Winch, who has died aged 82, demonstrated, in his 1978 book Adam Smith’s Politics and in subsequent writings, this appropriation of Smith’s name misrepresents his purposes and his achievement.
As Winch showed, far from recommending unrestricted laissez-faire, Smith’s book The Wealth of Nations analysed the potentially damaging effects of market relations on civic virtue, emphasising the “mental mutilation” that factory labour can inflict, and even musing on the politically educative effects of a citizen militia. Smith was not endorsing an unrestrained individualism: rather, he was, along with figures such as his close friend and fellow philosopher David Hume, exploring the character of “commercial society” as part of a wider inquiry into the nature of law and government in modern states.
Winch’s account of Smith’s larger intellectual project was typical of the scrupulous scholarship that made him one of the world’s leading historians of political economy. Having been educated as an economist, Winch never lost his mastery of even the most technical aspects of economic theory. But he combined this with a subtle form of intellectual history that returned such theories to the thick texture of assumption and debate in which they were originally formed.
In respect for The Guardian’s copyrights and its request for others not to reproduce its material, therefore, I shall not copy its obituary in full. It is well worth your while to read it by following the link above.
Donald Winch had an extraordinary degree of influence on scholars for his writings on Adam Smith, notably, his Adam Smith’s Politics,  (1978) which I read after I read Wealth of Nations for the first time. I also heard him speak many years later at a History of Economics seminar and had a short conversation with him. 
Donald Winch had a quiet way of speaking. Of particular note, he did not endorse the modern habit of asserting that Adam Smith advocated laissez-faire. I entirely agreed with Donald Winch on that subject - I regularly mention on Lost Legacy (yesterday, in fact!) my disappointment at how some (most?) modern economists and sloppy journalists continue to insist on laissez-faire being associated with Adam Smith’s political economy.
There is a disconnect between the original source that advocated laissez-fare for themselves - market traders - in the late 17th century and their heirs and successors as large factory employers of labour in the 19th century. They also cried ‘laissez-faire’ against regulations requiring safety measures for high-speed machinery to protect employees (mainly women and very young children). The employers and their paid spokes-people demanded laissez-faire for themselves.

Sadly, Donald Winch is now gone. As we say in Scotland: Will we ever see his like again?


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