Eugene McCarraher's Polemic Against Deidre McCloskey and Adam Smith
from Adam Smith's Lost Legacy by Gavin Kennedy
from Adam Smith's Lost Legacy by Gavin Kennedy
Smith was aware of the ‘folly’ of pursuing riches and he cited this as one of the factors that undermined feudal governance (blessed as it was at the time by Eugene McCarraher’s forbears in Christian ethics). These fractious feudal lords were ever at war with neighbours, used violence to contain their serfs (their ‘slaves’ Smith called them), and were oppressive in the extreme. However, they were tempted to acquire ‘trinkets, baubles’ and such like by diverting surplus produce from their domains to the purchase of these ‘useless’ artefacts, meanwhile keeping their peasants on subsistence incomes. But unknown to them, they were undermining the base of their own power because to acquire these products from nearby ‘towns’, which acquired them from trade with foreign parts of Europe, they had to divert more and more of their annual produce away from paying their retainers, armed force and people who worked their lands, which put paid to their ability to cause strife (and not a little rapine) in the rest of England.
Adam Smith points out that while the objects of their avarice were ‘useless’ (he had very firm ideas on frugality as opposed to prodigality), they nevertheless were the products of the employment of artisans and labourers. In fact he contrasts the dismissal of a thousand feudal retainers with the employment elsewhere of thousands of manufacturing labourers; the former representing the dénouement of feudalism, the latter the beginning of the commercial age of man.
This transformation of feudal society is summed by Eugene McCarraher as ‘a pretty clear wink at the duplicity of desire’! Is Eugene sympathetic for the feudal lords and barons? Would he prefer it to have continued? Was the Reformation a ‘bad’ event? For Adam Smith it had nothing to do with regret for an age that was passing. The purveyors of selfish avarice had no idea what they were doing (as is often the case in social evolution). But the expanding demand for the trinkets generated demand for the employment of labourers who could produce them, transport them, and distribute them to final customers. No employment meant destitution.
This consequence put poor men to work and fed their families. This was a social benefit. Just as the building of stone churches, cathedrals, and castles created work for labouring men and income for their families, and the acquisitive lust for works of arts – painting, statues, religious artefacts – created work for the artists and artisans over the centuries where there was not much work around, except backbreaking labour in the fields. All this Eugene misses in his diatribe against Deirdre McCloskey and his cheap shots at Adam Smith.
Eugene writes: 'Smith was pointing to a "philosophy of futility" as the moral economy of capitalism’. That some of the initial steps to the ‘age of commerce’ were driven by the silly avarice of a few idle landlords in no way sullies the spread of commerce as a superior creator of ‘opulence’ on a scale unknown in human history. For all the millennia that preceded the 18th century the lot of the poor labourers and their families was a monotonous repetition of unchanging per capita income at or below the level of subsistence. The hewers of the products of land did just that, their heads filled with credulous superstitious nonsense and their aspirations brutalised by the brute course of the events that afflicted their short lives.
Knowledge necessarily came from philosophers who came from within those who lived off the surplus output produced by the labouring majority. The social evolution from the hunter-gathering mode of subsistence through the ages of shepherding, farming and commerce are the themes of Adam Smith’s essay on the History of Astronomy, his Essay on Languages (1761), his Moral Sentiments (1759), his Lectures on Jurisprudence (1762-3), his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1763) and his Wealth Of Nations (1776). Adam Smith did not create commerce, or ‘capitalism’ (a 19th century phenomenon, unknown to Smith); he observed and tried to understand what was happening to ensure that for the first time in human history, per capita incomes for all of those in society, not just the rich few with the rest on subsistence only, were rising and continued to rise. How human societies have managed this process, how they used the vast surplus resources for good or ill, or how they resolve the perennial problems of human life, are not subjects that Adam Smith commented upon. He was a humble philosopher, not a partisan. When and if Eugene McCarraher reads Adam Smith’s whole legacy he may wish to reflect on how different it is from his somewhat limited idea of it as represented in his review. Smith did, however, send a message to Eugene McCarraher (don’t ask me how – perhaps it is an example that God’s works are a ‘wonder to behold?). He’ll find it in Moral Sentiments, in Book IV, chapter ii, paragraph 2.12 to 18, pages 231-34.