April 15, 2003

Adam Smith on "political speculators"

"The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different pieces of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces on a chessboard. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. It those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder."

-- Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, VI.ii.2.17

Many conservatives like to claim Adam Smith as a founding father and intellectual predecessor. I suspect many of them have not read much beyond the famous "BBB" passage ("It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest," An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, I.2). Perhaps they should delve a little more deeply.

And I don't mean this in some silly and snooty intellectually snobbish kind of way (you may only invoke or comment on a text if you've devoted your life to its explication). It's just that, with all this talk of regime change, and remaking and reordering the world, and drawing up constitutions from scratch, and free people having the freedom to commit crime, and so on, I'm beginning to wonder what exactly conservatives now mean when they call themselves conservatives?

(Btw, and just for the record: within the context of his own times, Adam Smith was most emphatically not a conservative).

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at April 15, 2003 11:52 PM

I found this in "The Wealth of Nations", Bk. V, Ch. 1, Article II--Of the Expense of the Institutions for the Education of

"The discipline of colleges and universities is in general contrived, not for the benefit of the students, but for the interest, or more properly speaking, for the ease of the masters.
Its object is, in all cases, to maintain the authority of the master, and whether he neglects or performs his duty, to oblige the students in all cases to behave to him, as if he performed it
with the greatest diligence and ability. It seems to presume perfect wisdom and virtue in the one order, and the greatest weakness and folly in the other."

Posted by: David at April 16, 2003 04:37 PM

Smith went to Oxford and hated it (after attending Glasgow U and studying under Francis Hutcheson, whom he loved). His discussion of education is full of jabs at Oxford, which for him represented ecclesiastical/aristocratic ease and privilege and indifference.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 17, 2003 01:23 PM

Tangential to the actual topic of the post, I find that I read people for the page numbers of their citations. All too often, I encounter "scholars" who quote or reference from the first chapter of a work but no later. I can then only conclude that they have not actually read the whole damn book - and I probably shouldn't waste any more time reading them.

Posted by: Martial at April 21, 2003 02:08 PM