Thursday, December 02, 2004

Adam Smith: Lying Socialist Weasel

I just stumbled upon an Internet ad for an "Adam Smith" tie; I knew they were popular in the eighties, but I had no idea people were still selling them (let alone claiming that they're desirable because Dick Armey wears one). And yet:

Conservative leaders like House Majority Leader Dick Armey, former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese, Nobel laureate Milton Friedman and National Right to Work Committee president Reed Larson regularly wear Adam Smith ties. It's the club tie of the conservative movement.

This idea that Smith is the prophet of modern economic conservatism would be funny if it hadn't been getting people killed for decades, and if it hadn't been debunked time and again. The modern conservative's approach to Smith is similar to the average 1970s socialist's approach to Marx: don't bother reading him, just listen to someone else describe what he said. But at least in the case of socialists, they had some idea of where Marx's sympathies actually were. For self-serving and vicious perversity, the conservative movement's misreading of Smith is second only to the Religious Right's misreading of the Gospels.

Here are a few highly pertinent quotes of his; see if you can imagine anyone in the Bush White House reading them, or hearing them read aloud, without a Cheneyesque sneer of contempt:
All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.

That has a nice ring to it, eh? I think it would look good on a t-shirt, right under a drawing of Smith. Can someone get right on that, please?

Here's Smith on regulating workers and their masters:
When the regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters.

If that's not wild-eyed pinko claptrap, what on earth is? Is there a conservative alive who would be surprised to see that sentiment attributed to Karl Marx?

Here's Smith on the evils of income inequality:
Our merchants and master manufacturers complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price, and thereby lessening the sale of their goods both at home and abroad. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.

Here's Smith engaging in class warfare, like the sniveling socialist demogogue he was:
Wherever there is great property there is great inequality. For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many.

Here's Smith on government's obligation to fund public institutions and public works for the good of all:
The third and last duty of the sovereign or commonwealth is that of erecting and maintaining those public institutions and those public works, which, though they may be in the highest degree advantageous to a great society, are, however, of such a nature that the profit could never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals, and which it therefore cannot be expected that any individual or small number of individuals should erect or maintain.

Here's Smith on the fleeting and contingent nature of power, and its tendency to destroy those who devote their lives to gaining and keeping it:
Power and riches appear then to be, what they are, enormous and operose machines contrived to produce a few trifling conveniencies to the body, consisting of springs the most nice and delicate, which must be kept in order with the most anxious attention, and which in spite of all our care are ready every moment to burst into pieces, and to crush in their ruins their unfortunate possessor.

And last, here's Smith on altruism, that ultimate rationality which views all people as equals obligated to one another by common humanity:
[W]hat is it which prompts the generous, upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others?....It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct. It is he who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others, calls to us, with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, that we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it; and that when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration.

That's fairly stern stuff, I'd say. And I think we can all agree that were Adam Smith to lurch forth from his grave - his dessicated cortex suddenly flickering with coruscations of sentience, his spavined limbs tingling under the influence of some modern-day Frankenstein's galvanic rays - and say things like these on some cable news show, he'd receive tens of thousands of death threats, and William Safire and Bob Novak would laboriously take him to task in several consecutive columns, and Ann Coulter would call him a traitor, and the FReepers would hound him so mercilessly and illiterately that his only wish would be to know again the cold comfort of the grave.


Anonymous said...

Damn, Phila. I'd hoped to put off slogging through Adam Smith, because, well, I tend to fall asleep reading econ books. Must be a flashback to that Econ 101 course back in college, which I tended to use as a crash site after a wild night of partying, rather than paying attention to the certifiable Reagan-worshipping professor (who had this habit of teaching us one lecture, and testing us on the lecture he intended to give two weeks later).

Your Smith postings remind me of the time I got tired of "hearing" what the Communist Manifesto said and actually sat down and read it. I was about 20 (c. 1982), and said, "What's so radical about this? It's pretty close to what America is, right now!" Nobody would believe me when I told them that's what the book said. Because nobody had actually read the damned thing, like I had. Same point you're making here about Smith. So I actually need to read the old coot before blowing him off just because I know the freepi revere him.

Still, it would make sense for Smith to have most of these views, considering the whirlwind of ideas taking place then. If only we could have thinking of that level, married to all this wonderful technology...


Phila said...

He's definitely worth reading. I have a couple of problems with him, God knows, but anyone who calls him an apologist for self-interest is crazy or dishonest. They're confusing him with Mandeville, whose "Grumbling Hive" predated Smith and who explicitly argued that because morality doesn't pay, a great nation can't be an honest one. Mandeville also argued that schools caused a reduction in available labor; every hour a poor person spends learning is money lost to society. Sounds kind of familiar, huh?

It's known that Mandeville influenced Smith; it's less often pointed out that a good deal of that influence was negative. Smith specifically said that Mandeville's ideas were "wholly pernicious" and "in almost every respect erroneous." And as regards schooling, he was in favor of government-sponsored public education. On the one hand, I think he'd be horrified by the excesses justified in his name; on the other hand, he could've made a better distinction between an economic system that regulates evil, and a "licentious" one like Mandeville's, that promotes it.

Anonymous said...


I don't doubt that they prefer Adam Smith. First, it's easier for them to pronounce. They ain't too much on figuring out the OED pronunciation key. Second, Adam Smith, as a name, is half-biblical, half whitebread for them. Mandeville--why, that sounds positively FRENCH! ;)

Ioannes Augustus said...

One of your premises seems to be that conservativism is a paean to selfishness; this suggests that your conception of a conservative does not extend much farther than the caricatured businessman, Gordon Gekko--or perhaps Ayn Rand.

Whereas in fact the conservative economist Thomas Sowell cites Smith with approval when he asserts that businessmen rarely combine politically except to secure an unfair political advantage (economics is about profit and loss, Sowell explains, and businessmen are only really concerned with one half of the equation.)

Or perhaps you have not read your Friedman, and do not realize that, in Capitalism and Freedom, he openly asserts, as Smith does, that the government has a duty to provide for public goods when there are neighborhood effects.