A Post-Modernist Book about Adam Smith, Reviewed by Sean Gabb

From Free Life, Issue 23, August 1995
ISSN: 0260 5112

Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: New Interdisciplinary Essays
Stephen Copley and Kathryn Sutherland (eds)
Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1995, 228pp., £12.99 (pbk)
(ISBN 0 7190 3943 6)

Whoever commissioned this book has a wicked sense of humour. Find eight left-wing academics; make each of them read The Wealth of Nations; then publish their reflections on it. The result is very like a chimpanzees’ tea party. All the forms of scholarship are present. But of scholarship itself there is an utter and hilarious lack.

Take, for example, Heinz Lubasz, who lectures in History at the University of Essex, a place I once thought of attending. He deplores how the libertarian movement has claimed “Smith as a sort of logo for the ‘free market'”. The Wealth of Nations was written more than two centuries ago, and what it says cannot be applied to

the substantially different world we now live in. Consider a single though absolutely central example: the nature and role of technology. A man like Smith, for whom the term ‘machine’ meant such things as the plough, the water mill and the simplest sort of steam engine…, could reasonably believe that in order to produce as much as possible one had to employ as many workers as possible. By contrast, given today’s advanced technology, every with-it employer aims to have as many labour-saving devices as he or she can afford, and to employ as few workers as possible: besides costing less in the long run, machines don’t ask for a rise in wages and don’t go on strike. [“Adam Smith and the ‘free market'”, p.46]

Let us read no further. This man is an economic illiterate. The text he claims to have read is hardly less closed to him than an inscription in Linear A. If only for the welfare of his students, made to endure three years of this nonsense, I may send him a copy of Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson. Certainly, I am glad I avoided Essex.

Again, take Kathryn Sutherland, a Professor of Modern English Literature. Sadly, a long study of English prose has failed to impart the elements of how to write it; and her chapter is both dreary and obscure. Its general drift, though, is plain from the first sentence:

There are various concealed and apparent gender positions inherent in the Smithian economic model. [“Adam Smith’s master narrative: women and the Wealth of Nations“, p.97]

It seems Adam Smith approved of – and was in some way responsible for – the past two centuries of phallocratic oppression. There are some claims that do not need refuting; and this, I think, is one of them. Reading the “Notes on Contributors”, I see that Professor Sutherland has edited an abridgement of The Wealth of Nations for Oxford University Press. How very postmodern!

But enough of the contributors. Let us turn to the common theme of these chapters – that the libertarians read too much into the works of Adam Smith, and of all the other classical economists.

Now, with slight variations of thoroughness, we do believe in an unconstrained free market. We denounce state ownership and state regulation. We at least doubt that external costs are inevitable, and suspect that only an imperfect regard for life, liberty and property prevents their being internalised. Adam Smith was far less insistent on these points. He thought retaliatory tariffs a good idea, and that the government should control interest rates; and he argued for public works to correct market failure. And if we turn to his followers in the next century, they too were often less ardent than we are in the defence of laissez-faire. But this does not strip the right from any of us to wear Adam Smith ties and Adam Smith sweatshirts. That the authors of this book can seriously claim or imply that it does [eg, Lubasz, p.45 et passim] only shows the nature of their intellectual tradition.

For them, it may be that every new departure must begin with the quarrying of some master, whose utterances cannot be questioned, but only garbled into another sense. For us, there are no unquestionable masters – no Paul, no Mohammed, no Marx. There is instead a loose tradition of thought about liberty. Adam Smith is one of the greatest thinkers who stood in this tradition. Considering the large areas of darkness that he first illuminated, the jumble of theories that he first systematised, he deserves our astonished admiration. It was he who took the central insight of the British Enlightenment – that society is a spontaneous, self-ordering organism – and made of it the nearest thing we have to a “social science”.

But admiration is not worship. No matter how brilliant, his writings contain only a first approximation, not a body of revealed truth. We do not anathematise the free bankers because Adam Smith was not among them, or the Austrians because he many times endorsed the labour theory of value. We can still learn a lot from him. But after two centuries, he would find there was a lot to be learned from us.

Indeed, I go further. I say that if we could, by some miracle, bring him back to life, he would share our dogmatic belief in free markets – even before acquiring the more sophisticated analysis that we have inherited. For in our attitude to state intervention, we differ from most of the classical economists far less in points of theory than of plain experience. They lived in what was on the whole a free society, with few interventions. Unlike us, they had not the example continually before them, of how one deviation from a principle establishes a new principle, by which still further deviations can be justified, and so on all the way to our present wretched state and beyond. They were like a generally abstemious man, who replies to the temperance fanatics that a little social drinking does no real harm, and can actually make a good time better. We are like that same man, but after a long slide into alcoholism. We know that the only permanent way out of the gutter is a strict avoidance of what put us there. It may be that a little drinking is fine for others, but not for ourselves. It may be that in some future civilisation, there will be a government that, for century after century, never does worse than subsidising opera houses, or fussing about pollution on the Moon. But that has not been the case with our own civilisation, or any others that I have studied. If unhampered freedom means occasional market failures, that is for me a price evidently worth paying.

To conclude, this is not a very profound book. It says nothing valuable about Adam Smith or his achievement. It fails even as description. It is, even so, gloriously funny: nothing can take that away. And it may be still funnier than a tea party at the zoo. The chimpanzees are probably joining in the fun – and their fun may be at our expense. But these eight left-wing academics, resplendent in their tenures and committee posts, really are in earnest. Where we can see only wild screeches and an emptying of teapots, they see eight first-class minds, united in the quest for truth.

Who does commission books at Manchester University Press? I thinks we should be told.

Marian Halcombe (Sean Gabb)

© 1995 – 2017, seangabb.

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