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More nonsense about Adam Smith

David Friedman, the academic, libertarian and enthusiast for things such as Medieval cooking, has a nice post up about the way in which parts of the left try to claim that Adam Smith said things that support their ideas, such as progressive tax. Friedman shows what a misleading thing this is to say. I suppose it can be seen as a sort of backhanded compliment that socialists, or Big Government types generally, should feel a need to try and claim that Smith was “one of them”, despite his being renowned for support for free trade and limited government.

Here is something I wrote by way of a critique of an article on Smith in the American Conservative; here is also something I wrote a while back on some books on the great man, such as by James Buchan and PJ O’Rourke.

6 comments to More nonsense about Adam Smith

  • Every person who writes will be largely influenced by the times they know, and sometimes too by the times past of which they have heard and read. This surely applies to Adam Smith as much as any.

    Here is a plot of UK total government expenditure around the times seen by Adam Smith, namely from 1700 to 1800 (he lived from 1723 to 1790).

    You will see that the typical proportion of GDP that was government expenditure (national and local) was somewhere between 10% and 12.5%, with peaks up to 25% (which I assume are mostly down to wars).

    I doubt that Adam Smith would have thought well of our current levels of government expenditure at between 40% and 50% – perhaps even more now.

    Looking to the future, one must surely worry whether this increase will stop before we reach 100%, when this progressive increasing will stop, and also what are the issues that determine what is that most appropriate rate.

    On this latter point, the issues, it strikes me as most important to obtain the views of those who think the current rate is too low: what rate is their target and why do they think that their target rate is the right one?

    Best regards

  • Sam Duncan

    It’s not that socialists feel a need to claim Smith as one of them; it’s that they want to destroy their opponents’ legitimacy: people who cite Smith’s writings in support of free markets haven’t understood him properly, they say.

    Or, put another way, they want to claim everything as their own: everything supports socialism and bigger government, and anyone who argues against it is a fool who just doesn’t understand (is incapable of understanding, even). It’s the same phenomenon as their hijacking of the word “liberal” and Soros’s “market fundamentalists” with its implications of unthinking fanaticism.

    Either way, I don’t see it as a compliment to Smith, backhanded or otherwise. He’s just another non-socialist who must be assimilated and neutralized.

  • Dom

    Here’s a site all of you might find interesting.


    Some things I learned there:

    1. The phrase “invisible hand” is almost always used in a way that Smith did not intend, and its modern meaning is a recent vintage.

    2. “Dismal Science” was tagged to economics because free-marketers believed slavery was wrong.

    And, of course, a whole lot more.

  • PeterT

    My dad came out with the immortal phrase “I don’t wan’t to be moved by some invisible hand”, as if he were a piece on a chess board.

    Jefferson is another thinker that the left regularly tries to claim was not after all, a free marketeer. I have to say though, I don’t know whether this is warranted at all. I would be interested in hearing your views.

  • Oh its not just Adam Smith. Our good ol’ friend – Matty Woodchuck (Matt Yglesias) even claimed that Hayek was more socialist than the modern Left!

  • Paul Marks

    Leftists are liars – they lie in the most extreme way, and without shame (which is why they are so good at lying). They will say anything that serves their cause (the cause of evil) and they will say it with seeming total conviction.

    “Hayek more socialist than modern leftists” is a typical example of this. I have no doubt that the person who said it looked people in the eyes and said this with a calm voice full of conviction. But I also have no doubt that he was lying – not making an intellectual mistake, lying.

    The above paragraphs explains why it is a waste of time to spend one’s life listenting and reading the output of leftists.

    As for Adam Smith and Scotland…..

    The best attack on Adam Smith is to be found in Murry Rothbard’s history of economics. But even Rothbard does not say that Smith was a big government collectivist, rather than Smith made serious mistakes in economic theory (even against his own early work) and sometimes gave seriously bad economic policy advice (these two things are not the same of course – someone can give good policy advice even if they make mistakes in economic theory).

    As for Scotland in the time of Adam Smith.

    Well the horrors of the post 45 rising (the terrible legislation banning the possession of arms in the highlands and other persecution) aside, this was the golden age of Scots law.

    The Scots Parliament (with its many bad ideas) had been swept away in 1707 and the London Paliament had not yet covered Scotland in its own Statutes.

    Although the taxes of England had come north of the border – including the tax on whiskey, but also many other things. And these taxes caused much hardship for the poor.

    On the other hand there was free trade with England – and the Scots Parliament was not around to create any more mad schemes such as the D. colony that had bankrupted Scotland.

    The Poor Law rates (almost universal in England) covered only a small part of Scotland – indeed most of Scotland had no Poor Law rate till the Act of 1845.

    And the much praised “national”, “compulsory” and “free” education system was in fact…..

    Under local (church) control, was free only for the very poor (again locally financed) and was not really “compulsory” at all.

    All this remained true up to the Act of 1872.

    As for big “public works” projects.

    Well there were the military projects (forts and military roads) – but no one pretended these were a great economic benefit (they were, of course, nothing of the kind).

    However, there was a fit of massive public works projects in Scotland shortly after the death of Adam Smith.

    Roads, ports, bridges (you name it) were built in the Highlands – and well built (by Thomas Telford) fianced by a “public private partnership” (very Gordon Brown) of the taxpayer and local landowners.

    And the economic effect?

    A total cluster f…..

    Building ports and so on did not create any boom in the Highlands (with its this soil and short growing season – an area of this island which looks pretty, but the whole place is not worth a decent sized farm in Suffolk, at least not for farming). What it do was bankrupt the landowners.

    In desperate straits they took desperate measures.

    The Highland Clearances.

    The Highlanders were disarmed (it was many years after the 45 before the Clearances really got under way) and not even their defenders can really claim they owned the land – because they did not.

    And they were too poor to really pay rent – so…………

    Perhaps the Clearances even saved lots of lives – if the peasant plots had still been there in the 1840s the Highlanders would have died in heaps (as the Irish did) with the blight.

    However, they did not save the landowners – sheep do better in Northamptonshire (and so on) than they do freezeing to death (or sinking in bogs in the summer) in the Highlands of Scotland.

    The landlords were even outcompted by some of their own tenants – sending in wool (and so on) from as far away as New Zealand.