Willfully wrong

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The very first sentence of George Will's latest column at ClownHall criticized Democrats for not reading a book (Adam Smith's An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations) that Will himself either hasn't read or didn't comprehend:

"Evidence that a Democrat has read Smith's great treatise against meddlesome government is as gratifying as it is startling."

The two fallacies in this sentence are (1) that Smith's work was written "against meddlesome government," and (2) that Democrats who have read it are rare enough to be "startling." (I'll leave aside Will's posturing that he is in a position to be gratified by someone else's erudition.)

Adam Smith did argue against much government "meddling" in the economy--such as tariffs--and even thought that "the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together" (Book I, Chapter 10) in cartels, but he was more complex an economist elsewhere. Although Smith recognized the importance of the division of labor for greater productive efficiency, he lamented "the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it" (Book V, Chapter 1). That is clearly an endorsement of governmental "meddling," as is his later argument for progressive taxation:

The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state. [...] It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion." (Book V, Chapter 2)

The Modern Library edition of The Wealth of Nations begins with an introduction from Robert Reich, Clinton's Secretary of Labor; this undercuts Will's second fallacy. I daresay that Reich has a greater familiarity with and understanding of Smith than does Will and the other free-market fundamentalists currently infesting our op-ed pages.

For another counterexample to Will's thesis, check out Glenn Greenwald from a few days ago. Greenwald mentioned that Smith decried warring governments that are "unwilling and unable to increase their revenue in proportion to the increase of their expense" for war-making, noting that "They are commonly dissatisfied with the return of peace, which puts an end to their amusement, and to a thousand visionary hopes of conquest and national glory from a longer continuance of the war" (Book V, Chapter 3).

To quote from Reich again, "Smith's mind ranged over issues as fresh and topical today as they were in the late eighteenth century--jobs, wages, politics, government, trade, education, business, and ethics." Democrats may not cite Smith as frequently as conservatives do, but it is apparent that they actually read him when they do so.

Liberals need not avoid Adam Smith: He is not the petty plutocrat that his self-appointed spokespeople on the Right would lead us to believe. Many of our "great books" are similarly in need of rescuing from misrepresentation and misuse at the hands of shallow propagandists such as George Will.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on October 7, 2007 5:06 PM.

Iranian typography was the previous entry in this blog.

more Christian persecution complex is the next entry in this blog.

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