Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Reading Adam Smith: Pondering the Slow Descent Into Ignorance and Fear

I'm finally getting around to reading the unabridged Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. It's understandable why P.J. O'Rourke felt it necessary to write a Cliff's Notes version of the book, since the first 200 pages or so read like a dated economics textbook. (Still, it's hardly as dry as so many complain. You want dry, I'll give you Sartre or Kant or Bertrand Russell. Smith is moist by comparison.)

Once Smith gets into discussing a history of feudalism following the collapse of the Roman Empire, however, the writing becomes very engaging, giving the reader a good insight into the historical elements that led to the slow formation of Italian city-states and the Hanseatic League. I was really interested to see what Smith thought of the immediate post-empire period in Western Europe, since a couple critical books have been published lately, updating and revising what Edward Gibbon had to say about the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The common message of Guy de la Bedoyare's Roman Britain and Peter Heather's Fall of the Roman Empire is that there was much more of a concerted effort by Goths, Alans, Franks, and Saxons to eliminate remnants of Roman culture, particularly in Britain and Gaul. Cities were depopulated by design, and the literate society leaders were rounded up and eliminated in 439-440 in Britain, and in an undetermined pre-Clovis era in Gaul.

It led me to fantasize on what it must have been like to live as a literate Roman citizen in Western Europe during the end of empire, hiding from barbarian death squads and watching the slow descent of the population into ignorance and fear. Were the de-urbanization drives as sudden as a Khmer Rouge purge, or was it a much slower process? What kind of legends did families develop about the emptied Roman cities? Did the spread of Christianity and the rise of free cities work in tandem to diminish the power of feudalism, or was it much more random than that? These questions aren't merely an effort to fill historical blanks in the Dark Ages. I have this funny feeling that literacy and organized culture will experience a new "slow descent" in the 21st century, maybe within my lifetime. Hope I'm wrong.


Brian said...

Interesting. Does Smith venture a guess why there's recurring historical hostility to knowledge (and the people who hold it)?

Loring Wirbel said...

So far, he doesn't say so explicitly, but the overall tone of the "invisible hand" rant mixes a tiny bit of Ayn Rand with a lot of social caring: if we leave people to pursue personal-best strategies, results will normalize to serve the greater good. And there are a lot of holders of bureaucratic power who feel threatened by personal-best strategies. Unlike Rand, Smith doesn't believe there's anything wrong with being overtly altruistic. He just says that those who try to enforce fealty to the king, to the sovereign nation, to the monopoly corporation, are those who end up doing everyone harm. Of course, one exception he makes to tariffs and excise taxes is the exception of "national security," using the example of the British Navy (substitute U.S. power projection in the 21st century). The obvious response is to look at the difference between protecting the borders and creating an empire: is anyone served by creating special conditions for 18th century British maritime interests or 21st century U.S. military contractors?

Brian said...


I haven't read Smith, but I'm trying to learn more, and as I do, it only reinforces my impression that Smith has a philosophical blind spot. Competition is only as good as the competitors.

I had the privilege to speak to Bob Noyce once, for only ten minutes. I called at the height of the mid-'80s Japanese-taking-over-the-electronics -industry scare. One manifestation of which, you'll recall was Sematech, hence my call to Noyce. I think I may have been buying into the panic, and he said something simple and obvious, but unexpected. I don't recall the exact quote, but it was something like: as long as the pie is big enough, who cares how many people are eating?"

The problem is that there are those who define winning as "everyone else losing." It's not that big of a deal, maybe, if an NFL quarterback has that attitude, but it's toxic in a salesman, a banker, a developer, or a politician. It's just too prevalent an attitude.

So IMO, anyone, whether Smithian or Randy, who trusts that people, as economic actors, when given the freedom to do largely whatever they want, that that will somehow lead to positive results, is being fatally naive -- the fatality being social cohesion all along the scale.

The prevailing attitude on competition ramifies for how power is used or misused. I think it's no coincidence that those Americans most adamant about empire are also the ones constantly nattering about "winning" things, even those things that are by definition unwinnable, like, frinstance, an occupation.

Loring Wirbel said...

Absolutely. I appreciate Smith, but I'll never be a Libertarian, because I believe that many if not most folks, left to their own devices, are devious shmucks. Then we go back to Original Sin. I guess.

John G said...

You know of a better book about economics for someone who doesn't know much about it?

Loring Wirbel said...

There's supposed to be a brand-new book coming out called "A Farewell to Alms: An Economic History of the World" that got high praise from The Economist. There's lots of good newsy-oriented radical critique books on S&Ls, Enron, etc., like Inside Job, Dirty Money, A Full-Service Bank, Barbarians at the Gates, etc., but I'm not sure of a nice good funny textbook - I bet the Dummies series has some decent ones.

Bill said...

I sat thru PJ O'Rourke's book-selling pitch at the Commonwealth Club about 6 months ago. His Liberaterian streak was strongly on display, and he pitch Smith very much as a Liberaterian. The concept that a market only exists if there are rules (like currencies, etc), and that governments play a role in creating and stablizing markets, is beyond such people.

I'll look forward to reading more of this "series". I sure didn't buy O'Rourke's book.

wrt a good book on economics.... The topic is broad. I've tried to peel off pieces to better understand them, but as these comments point out, the literature is generally tinged with the bias of the author.

One author that may be of interest is Krugman, w/ the NYT. I understand he has a new book, but I've not read it yet. Even he is wrong, 3 years ago after listening to him (Commonwealth club again), I moved to a 30 year mortgage. Then rates fell 1/2 point, before going crazy. Never confuse observations about long term trends w/ financial advice.

Greeley's Ghost said...

I haven't finished "Empire Express" yet and now you have me hankering to dive into Mr. Smith. Good stuff, Loring.

John G said...

As a left winger it's easy to say "no more bombs please", but it's harder to say "please raise the minimum wage" just because there is whole lot behind it that I don't know. Maybe I'll check out the Krugman, I enjoy him when he isn't being too full of himself.

Ruth said...

Haha, I'm already deep in ignorance about Adam Smith, but I just have to tell you that I didn't notice how much he looks like my picture of Robert Herrick. I think they might compete in the nose category.