Transformation of Smith and his message

“Adam Smith, the father of modern economics”, pleaded for leaving all economic activities to be regulated by market forces without any restraint from state or any other organized group. He believed, “the invisible hand” would coordinate them and run them without any violent ups and downs.”

This paragraph or one along the same lines is leveled at those who question wisdom and efficiency of so-called free markets associated with the name of Adam Smith, father of modern economics, who originally propounded the idea in his Wealth of Nation. However, many proponents of the theory seem to have either very scarce idea of the original context and intended message of Smith’s work or a specific aim to befit it to an agenda fitting their narrow socio-political and economic aspirations. Below (with few additional links) is an elaboration on misconceptions arising from a paragraph above.


1 “Adam Smith, the father of modern economics” – a cliché of lazy economists who have not read Smith’s works and confuse quotations attributed to him with modern economics – a sub-branch of applied mathematics – that ignores people and reduces complex behaviours to only one (so-called self interest), it being easier to manipulate mathematical functions, and erects an entirely false image of Smith (the ‘Chicago’ Smith) in contrast to the real Smith (the ‘Kirkcaldy’ Smith). Smith’s legacy, with few exceptions, is at variance with what is said in his name.

2 “…pleaded for leaving all economic activities to be regulated by market forces without any restraint from state or any other organized group.”

It was not in Smith’s style to ‘plead’ for or against any particular policy. The Wealth of Nations was a report of his 12-year ‘inquiry in the nature and causes of the wealth of nations’. It was not a manifesto in support of a change in the way society was run. He pointed out the consequences of running it the way governments tended to legislate.

He was not an anarchist or libertarian, as any number of modern libertarians will tell you (see Murray Rothbard for a particularly bad tempered denunciation of Adam Smith for his manifest failings to descend to the temper of a fanatic about how society works). He accepted certain stabilising aspects of ‘modern’ 18th century society. He did not believe it was practical to change everything before you could change anything. He dealt with the world as it was by contrasting it with the way it could be; change the causes and you changed the consequences, but nothing would change if everything had to change simultaneously. The fanatic – ‘the man of system’, he called him – was ‘very wise in his own conceit’, which describes Rothbard’s polemical style accurately.

Smith was not against state intervention. Justice was administered by the judiciary, an arm of the state, and was essential to individual freedom. Defence was the ‘first duty of government’. Markets were a preferred choice where they worked; he was not against state-funded activities and he left the decision on whether they were administered by state commissioners or private contractors to a pragmatic test: which worked most efficiently, not to an ideological test for or against the decision.

Smith was not a laissez-faire philosopher; he never used the word, yet was familiar with its concepts and with its exponents among the Physiocrats. He did not believe that ‘merchants and manufacturers’ could be free of ‘all restraints’ on their behaviours – most rapidly turned into ‘monopolists’ when left alone. That did not mean he favoured state intervention, unrestrained by laws of justice.

4 “He believed, “the invisible hand” would coordinate them [‘market forces’] and run them without any violent ups and downs.”

…The so-called invisible hand was a lone metaphor he used once in Wealth of Nations (and once in Moral Sentiments), and in neither case was he talking about markets. That is a conflation from Chicago trained economists. He was talking of the unintended consequences of individual motivations. He also wrote of many counter examples where the outcomes of individual actions had malign, not benign, consequences.

The power of Smithian markets is not based on something outside them (visible or invisible) ‘co-ordinating’ them. That is precisely his point about the relationship between ‘natural’ and ‘market’ prices – markets are self-regulating and their workings are well understood. Nobody designed markets, nor ordered them into existence, nor foresaw their utility. They evolved socially over many millennia from the ‘necessary consequence of the faculties of reason and speech’ (long before markets took monetary forms). What Mishra means by ‘violent ups and downs’ is not clear, but markets can move ‘violently’ on occasion dues to external events – Smith’s example is of the dramatic rise in the price of black cloth when there is a general mourning in the UK (presumably white cloth in some countries).

Furtheron, Paul Volcker, the former Fed chairman, recently admitted that while re-reading the “Wealth of Nations” he “had just come across a curious section in the text. Smith was discussing the threat that large Scottish banks posed to the public; given how intertwined they were with the rest of the economy, the shock waves from the failure of any large bank would be devastating. His solution? Have a lot of smaller banks, so one bank’s failure could never bring down the entire economy.” He contrasted this idea with the ongoing policy in America whereby smaller banks (including Wall Street ones) are/were bought by bigger ones (Merrill Lynch acquired by Bank of America, for example) in order to to secure their survival, sustain financial markets and restore confidence in the banking sector.

One has to wonder whether the long-term benefits of having few big banks instead of numerous middle and small will not have a reverse course as predicted by Adam Smith and as witnessed during the recent financial crisis.

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