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Thursday, March 04, 2010

Adam Smith and the Role of Government

Gavin Kennedy continues his battle to eradicate misconceptions about Adam Smith:

What Adam Smith Actually Identified as the Appropriate Roles for 18-century Governments, by Gavin Kennedy: Andrew B. Busch writes (3 March) in the CNBC Guest Blog:

...“The father of modern economics supported a limited role for government. Mark Skousen writes in "The Making of Modern Economics", Adam Smith believed that, "Government should limit its activities to administer justice, enforcing private property rights, and defending the nation against aggression." The point is that the farther a government gets away from this limited role, the more that government strays from the ideal path... How this issue is handled will decide whether the country can more closely follow Adam Smith's prescription for growth and wealth creation or move farther away from it.”

Jacob Viner addressed the laissez-faire attribution to Adam Smith in 1928...

Here is a list of appropriate activities for government, which goes way, way beyond Mark Skousen’s extremely limited – and vague – 'ideal' government. That ... he goes on to attribute his ‘ideal’ list to Adam Smith ... is not alright.In fact, its downright deceitful, for which there is no excuse of ignorance (before attributing the limited ideal to Adam Smith we assume, as scholars must, that Skousen read Wealth Of Nations and noted what Smith actually identified as the appropriate roles of government in the mid-18th century).

But even if Skousen was in a hurry and without time to check through Smith’s two-volume tome..., he, surely, was familiar with Viner’s 1928 essay...?

No? Shame.

Here is a list extracted from Wealth Of Nations:

  • the Navigation Acts, blessed by Smith under the assertion that ‘defence, however, is of much more importance than opulence’ (WN464);
  • Sterling marks on plate and stamps on linen and woollen cloth (WN138–9);
  • enforcement of contracts by a system of justice (WN720);
  • wages to be paid in money, not goods;
  • regulations of paper money in banking (WN437);
  • obligations to build party walls to prevent the spread of fire (WN324);
  • rights of farmers to send farm produce to the best market (except ‘only in the most urgent necessity’) (WN539);
  • ‘Premiums and other encouragements to advance the linen and woollen industries’ (TMS185);
  • ‘Police’, or preservation of the ‘cleanliness of roads, streets, and to prevent the bad effects of corruption and putrifying substances’;
  • ensuring the ‘cheapness or plenty [of provisions]’ (LJ6; 331);
  • patrols by town guards and fire fighters to watch for hazardous accidents (LJ331–2);
  • erecting and maintaining certain public works and public institutions intended to facilitate commerce (roads, bridges, canals and harbours) (WN723);
  • coinage and the mint (WN478; 1724);
  • post office (WN724);
  • regulation of institutions, such as company structures (joint- stock companies, co-partneries, regulated companies and so on) (WN731–58);
  • temporary monopolies, including copyright and patents, of fixed duration (WN754);
  • education of youth (‘village schools’, curriculum design and so on) (WN758–89);
  • education of people of all ages (tythes or land tax) (WN788);
  • encouragement of ‘the frequency and gaiety of publick diversions’(WN796);
  • the prevention of ‘leprosy or any other loathsome and offensive disease’ from spreading among the population (WN787–88);
  • encouragement of martial exercises (WN786);
  • registration of mortgages for land, houses and boats over two tons (WN861, 863);
  • government restrictions on interest for borrowing (usury laws) to overcome investor ‘stupidity’ (WN356–7);
  • laws against banks issuing low-denomination promissory notes (WN324);
  • natural liberty may be breached if individuals ‘endanger the security of the whole society’ (WN324);
  • limiting ‘free exportation of corn’ only ‘in cases of the most urgent necessity’ (‘dearth’ turning into ‘famine’) (WN539); and
  • moderate export taxes on wool exports for government revenue (WN879).

"Viner concluded, unsurprisingly, that ‘Adam Smith was not a doctrinaire advocate of laissez-faire’.

That [Viner] needed to write this 150 years after Wealth of Nations to remind 20th-century readers conclusively that it contained detailed and specific evidence of advocacy of breaches of laissez-faire, popularly attributed to him, suggests that a substantial drift away from important elements of Smith’s legacy had taken place among early-20th-century economists.

How could Smith be so closely linked with laissez-faire policies when he so clearly and explicitly was not?” ...

    Posted by on Thursday, March 4, 2010 at 01:53 AM in Economics, History of Thought | Permalink  Comments (43)


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